March 2012

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Boltzmann's Tomb: Travels in Search of Science by Bill Green

In Boltzmann's Tomb Bill Green has written one of those delightful science history titles that welcome the general reader while offering numerous insights into topics that most of us failed to learn in school. Green, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Miami University, has areas of interest that range from Antarctica's lakes (he's been there nearly a dozen times on field research) to the philosophies of Camus to (in his youth) the launching of model rockets. He has spent his life asking questions, seeking answers, and finding his way through the discoveries of those who inspire him. In his essays he relates all he has learned along the way and can't hide the joy that learning has brought him.

The tomb of the title refers to Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, whom Green discovered in a transformative college lecture. With his gravesite in Vienna as a goal, Green reminisces about the places and experiences that brought him there. He writes about a childhood interest in Scott Crossfield and Ray Bradbury and Popular Mechanics, which led to those model rocket experiments (they did not end well), as well as a meandering academic career that saw him venture in and out of colleges and majors until, crazily enough, he ended up doing chemistry research at McMurdo Station. No one, least of all Green, would have seen that coming, but in 1968 he headed south, and in the decades that followed continues to go back, culminating in a trip with his own college-age daughter recounted in the book's opening chapter.

Boltzmann's Tomb includes many Antarctica anecdotes, as well as stories found in cities and towns across the U.S. and Europe. Green namedrops numerous great men as he leads readers through his life, writing about Tycho Brae, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. But surprisingly for a science title there is also Camus and Saul Bellow, Alexander Pope, Italo Calvino, Henry Miller, and many other historians, authors, poets, and philosophers. His enthusiasm for all of them is impossible to resist as he leaps from physics to poetry in an instant and carries the readers along on these connections, making clear that science and literature live side by side. The reader is left dazzled and also wishing that both subjects could be taught this way much more often. 

In the midst of all the great ideas and discoveries, it is unexpected to come across the book's most stirring passages, which concern Green's childhood in Pittsburgh. With evocative descriptions he brings the reader to an American city that has radically changed but once was our burning heart. He writes, "In Pittsburgh, fire was all around us. You had to drive only a few miles to the nearest mill, which lay just sought of the city on the river. At night, the mills made their own sky, filled with smoke clouds and redness, and the long slag heaps to the west cast a flickering glow on the horizon. At times, you might have been standing on the plains of Mars."

As the best lecturers do, Green shares stories that weave in and out of a central narrative and manage to impart an enormous amount of wisdom. Boltzmann's Tomb is a title that stirs curiosity, prompts original thinking, and suggests, through the author's own inquisitive nature, that there is so much more to know about the world we live in. Elegant, erudite, and supremely satisfying, it is the sort of book that gets all too easily lost in the shuffle but deserves a lot more readerly attention.

Boltzmann's Tomb: Travels in Search of Science by Bill Green
Bellevue Literary Press
ISBN 978-1934137352
288 pages