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Who Says Physics Can’t Be Fun?

By BETH HARPAZ

Updating a science book after a decade is a challenge, especially in an era of technological change and when our understanding of everything from climate change to cosmology is growing. But that was the task Professor Charles Liu (The Graduate Center, College of Staten Island) took on in writing the third edition of The Handy Physics Answer Book.

Liu never worked with the author of the previous edition, the late Paul Zitzewitz, a distinguished physics researcher and educator. But he decided to preserve the book’s accessible question-and-answer format while adding hundreds of entries and revising hundreds of others. A new entry in applied physics, for example, explains 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G wireless networks, while the sections on fundamental physics now includes these questions: What are quarks? How was the Higgs boson discovered? What happens when two black holes collide?

In one section, you’ll learn the story of how the term “Eureka!” (ancient Greek for “I have found it!”) came to mark the moment of scientific discovery. In another, you’ll learn about new fields like nanotechnology.

The book also offers important updates, like these recent statistics on energy used in the U.S: 33% percent from natural gas, 24% oil, 16% coal, 9% nuclear, 6% natural gas liquids, and 12% renewable (wind, water, solar, geothermal and biomass). In an interesting aside, the book notes that there are now more people employed in the solar power industry in the United States than in the coal industry—but logistical and technological challenges remain before green energy can be reliably, cheaply and efficiently expanded.

Liu’s overall goal, besides “straightforward updating,” was “to tell the story of physics in a fun and celebratory way.” Toward that end, he interwove “the typical topics of a physics book—like motion, energy, waves, light, electricity, and quantum mechanics … with cool, fun, useful, and mind-blowing things like 3D movies, skyscrapers, surfing, supersonic planes, smart phones, and string theory, brought to life with the stories of the flesh-and-blood people who moved physics forward with their research and discoveries.”