Titles are important, and naming things is important, as much as I don’t always like to admit the value of a strong opening compared to the quality of the rest of a text. While it is true that this book could have been titled something more descriptive, like An Introduction to Thermodynamics via its History from the Industrial Age to the Present, that would have significantly shrunken its readership and appeal. Although it is worth noting that there is absolutely no discussion of the contents of Einstein’s refrigerator, so if you pick up this book looking for deep insights into Einstein’s psyche based on what he kept in his kitchen, I’m afraid that you’ll be disappointed. Otherwise, I think you’ll be anything but disappointed with Einstein’s Fridge.
If I had to take a guess, I would say that there are a lot of people who could tell you something about thermodynamics, and that there are probably a fair handful of people who could tell you about the various historical figures who contributed to the discipline, but there probably are very few people who can effectively do both. That’s one of the main reasons that I so thoroughly enjoyed this book. It clearly elucidated thermodynamics concepts, which might have been otherwise dull to me (I’ve already studied the topic), while putting them into their historical and biographical context. This is as much a history book as it is a science book, so it strongly appealed to my polymath tendencies (I should really write a post about the polymath/Renaissance Man concept). In fact, if I were going to teach an introductory course on thermodynamics, or wanted to introduce someone to the topic, I would highly recommend this book, rather than using a more traditional textbook.
Most of the book is organized in a roughly chronological fashion, with each chapter focused upon an individual who made particularly notable contributions to the field of thermodynamics, beginning with Sadi Carnot, of the eponymous Carnot Cycle (it does reference Bernoulli, which takes it as far back as the 1730s, but does not reserve a full biographical treatment of the writing of Hydrodynamica). The chapters weave the scientific discoveries and inquiries into the biographical context of the individual, and perhaps most interestingly discuss how the ideas were received, understood, and debated at the time, a context that I found especially fascinating. It is easy to look at the past, and especially the history of science, as an inevitable march towards our present understanding, but conclusions and theories that seem obvious now were once new, fledgling ideas with little evidence or support.
Einstein’s Fridge stumbles a little as it gets into more recent developments that have been linked to thermodynamics, like information theory and Hawking radiation. This is partially because there is less known about these topics, as many of them are still mostly or entirely theoretical, or at least have not been supported by significant bodies of experimental evidence, and because they are still developing fields of thought. There’s also the fact that many of these topics are simply a challenge to explain in approachable terms; visualizations and intuition tend to break down when confronted with the bizarreness of something like quantum field theory or singularities. Despite that, Sen gives one of the most concise and helpful explanations of the relationship between energy and information that I have ever read.
One of the ways to know how much you’re enjoying a book is to examine how you feel about the approach of the end. If, as you’re getting past the halfway point, you’re eager to see the pages go by and get to the end, it might not be as good of a book as if you start to feel that while you don’t want to slow down, you don’t want the book’s journey to end. I was getting just past halfway through Einstein’s Fridge, thinking how much I was enjoying it and how glad I was that I still had almost half a book to go, even though it seemed chronologically like it must be approaching its conclusions, when…it ended. So while I try to find a next book as worthwhile and well-written as this one was, I highly encourage you to find a copy of Einstein’s Fridge.