Cover of Understanding Physics, Volume One
Book 72 Physics 1966
The Roman Republic Understanding Physics, Volume Two
3 spaceships-and-suns
Asimov fan
3 spaceships-and-suns
Target reader




These are but three of the many seminal figures who loom large in this volume. The drama of their discoveries, and the far-reaching ramifications of those epochal breakthroughs, are placed in focus by a writer unexcelled in rendering science intelligible to the nonexpert. In Motion, Sound, and Heat, Isaac Asimov charts the vital link between the scientific past and the scientific present, and opens the path to understanding a branch of knowledge supremely important in today’s world.

The two companion volumes to Isaac Asimov’s Motion, Sound, and HeatLight, Magnetism, and Electricity and The Electron, Proton, and Neutron—are also available in Signet Science editions. Each book can be enjoyed independently. Together they form a major contribution by an author acclaimed by the Saturday Review as “one of the few scientists who has the gift of being able to simplify the complext,” and by the Los Angeles Times as “the type of writer needed in our time.…[His books] bridge the gap between scientists and non-scientists.”

This book with its companion volumes, Understanding Physics, volume 2, and Understanding Physics, volume 3, really form three parts of a single opus (and, indeed, they were published together in a slightly revised form in the 1980’s as A History of Physics). As with Inside the atom (3d ed.) and The Genetic Effects of Radiation, however, Asimov counted books in a creative way in order to get a record-breaking total of 12 books published in the course of 1966.

(In particular, as related in Opus 100, Asimov asked his publisher if they thought of Understanding Physics as one book or three when they published it. They knew, of course, why he asked and so gently responded, “Why, three books, Isaac. Of course.”)

The three parts of Understanding Physics, however, are one of the seminal works in Asimov’s non-fiction. Together with titles like The Human Body, Life and Energy and The Universe, they are a thorough, definitive introduction to the topic at hand and definitely not books to do without. (And, indeed, Understanding Physics remained in print for over 30 years after its initial publication.)

It happens that physics is a topic frequently covered by Asimov in his writings, but Understanding Physics stands out for a number of reasons. The first is the relatively high mathematical content of the volumes, with page after page spotted with equations. (Indeed, I have often used Understanding Physics as a quick-and-dirty reference on key physics equations.)

More important, however, is the fact that virtually all of Asimov’s writings on physics are on nuclear physics or relativity. There is comparatively little dealing with some of the more “mundane” branches such as is done, particularly, in volume 1 of Understanding Physics. This volume is subtitled in the paperback edition Motion, Sound, and Heat, and that pretty much covers it. Many aspects of these topics are items which Asimov simply did not write about elsewhere, and so one is especially pleased with the high quality of the treatment they receive here.

In particular, there are the treatments of angular momentum and simple harmonic motion, fluids (liquids and gases), and sound. Each of these gets thoroughly covered in a clear fashion in the course of this volume.

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