The Cosmic Machine — The Science That Runs Our Universe and the Story Behind It

With The Cosmic Machine — The Science That Runs Our Universe and the Story Behind It, Bembenek has attempted to write about science in a manner that excites the reader without intimidation. To that end he has focused on the history not the theory, the story not the solutions. He notes that equations can be daunting, and he has attempted to omit them entirely. While he has not been totally successful in this mission, he freely allows the reader to simply ignore the few equations he does use. As such he has written a very detailed anthology of literally the science of the Universe, in a manner that is interesting and understandable to the lay reader. For a teacher of chemistry in general, and thermodynamics in particular, this is an excellent reference. While not attempting to teach the science, Bembenek provides the colour and the background to bring the content to life.

Bembenek has divided the Cosmic Machine into four parts and each part includes four chapters. The parts are intimately linked and are cleverly chosen to allow the reader to grow with the scientific advancement. The first part is Energy. Next comes Entropy followed by Atoms and finally Quantum Mechanics. This is all "heady" stuff but, as presented by Bembenek, it flows easily and understandably as he explores the people, their discoveries and their impact on the development of thermodynamics, chemistry and physics. The text is embellished with numerous footnotes, over 200 in all, that serve to amplify and extend the text.

The first part on Energy focuses on the fact that nothing is free. Machines make life easier, but at a price. Bembenek follows the discoveries of Galileo and Newton with pendulums, falling objects and those rolling down ramps. By the end of the section he discusses heat as the missing link in the energy conundrum. The work of Ben Thomson, James Joule and Lord Kelvin is elaborated and, almost seamlessly, the concept of entropy is suggested to understand the wasting of energy whenever it is used for work.

Entropy can be a challenge to understand and to teach, and Bembenek uses many everyday concepts to help explain the thinking at the time. The entropy concept began with Carnot and Clausius and was expanded and established by Maxwell and Boltzmann, both brilliant mathematicians and theorists, whose work was so ground-breaking that it was a stepping stone to subsequent theories.

The part on atoms is one that will be familiar to those who teach chemistry in (Ontario) grades 11 and 12. Bembenek begins with the Greek philosophers, and moves to Boyle, Lavoisier, Proust and finally Dalton. Ultimately, the work of Gay-Lussac and Avogadro cemented the atomic concept. What is particularly interesting is just how resistant scientists at the time were to this atomic concept.

The final section, on quantum mechanics, brings the reader into modern times and Bembenek has provided a primer on its development without the mathematics and without the theory. Beginning with Planck's blackbody explanation and introduction of the quantum, we follow the brilliant work of Einstein as he shows light to be both a wave and a particle. The discovery of the electron, the nucleus, energy levels, the work of Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg and de Broglie among others brings us to the present model of the atom.

One cannot help but marvel at the sheer brilliance of all the scientists who pioneered new ideas, especially those who moved thinking away from classical physics into the new quantum realm. And kudos to Bembenek for taking an entirely mathematical concept and making it readable, comprehensible and interesting. The life and times of these amazing people, their work, their disagreements and their failings make these scientists all the more human.

The Cosmic Machine is an excellent resource, one that should find a home on a teacher's reference shelf. Regardless of your background, knowing the players, where they fit in the continuum of history, and what they contributed to the evolution of our scientific knowledge will assist you in explaining these ideas to your students. For those of us whose background is not quantum mechanics, The Cosmic Machine is all the more necessary to help understand the concepts and how they originated.

Many will have heard the quotation "God does not play dice with the universe". The beauty of The Cosmic Machine is that you will not only discover who said it but will understand why.

the cosmic machine book cover