The New World of Mr. Tompkins

Posted by barb on Jan 1, 2004 in Books |

by George Gamow and Russell Stannard

In the 1940s Gamow wrote a series of stories about a bank worker, Mr. Tompkins, and his attempts to understand relativity and quantum theories. While attending public lectures at a local university, Mr. Tompkins falls asleep and finds himself in relativity land where the cosmic speed limit is not the speed of light, but a measly 20 mph — slow enough for the effects of relativity to be viewed in everyday life. During another lecture, he finds himself in a quantum jungle where a buzzing fly is dispersed into a probability cloud, as electrons are due to the uncertainty principle.

This volume is an update of Gamow’s original stories. Stannard has updated facts to match the current state of research, and has added a few new chapters to Mr. Tompkins’ adventures to introduce readers to new developments (such as “atom smashers”).

It was fun to read, though I wonder if a lay person would really understand the stories, especially the chapters containing the professor’s lectures. I had to dig deep, back to undergrad physics, to understand everything. The illustrations, though, may serve to fill the gap for some readers, and perhaps full understanding is not necessary, but more important is the feel for relativity and quantum theories that is presented.

I’d like to look up an original volume someday.

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