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

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Energy, Entropy, Atoms, and Quantum Mechanics form the very foundation of our universe. But how do they govern the world we live in? What was the difficult path to their discovery? Who were the key players that struggled to shape our current understanding?

The Cosmic Machine​ takes you from the earliest scientific inquiries in human history on an exciting journey in search of the answers to these questions. In telling this fascinating story of science, the reader is masterfully guided through the wonderment of how scientific discoveries (and the key players of those discoveries) shaped the world as we know it today.

With its unique blend of science, history, and biographies, The Cosmic Machine​ provides an easily accessible account without sacrificing the actual science itself. Not only will this book engage, enlighten, and entertain you, it will inspire your passion and curiosity for the world around us.

358 pages, Paperback

First published August 15, 2017

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About the author

Scott Bembenek

2 books84 followers
Scott has a PhD in theoretical chemical physics, was a National Research Council Fellow, and works as a computational chemist doing drug discovery research. He has made substantial contributions to the areas of statistical mechanics, kinetic theory, glass theory, liquid dynamics, and computational drug discovery, with his work appearing in several scientific journals. He has also written popular science, science education, and science communication articles for The Huffington Post, Forbes, Scientific American, Discover, and Salon. He resides in San Diego, California, with his family.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 47 reviews
Profile Image for Max.
347 reviews335 followers
March 21, 2017
This review is based on an advance reader copy provided by the author.

Bembenek’s goal is to make learning physics interesting for the non-scientist. In this he largely succeeds with a proviso. This is not a light read. It is for the lay reader with a deep interest in physics. The difficulty is not the included equations. These are straightforward, well explained and help clarify the text. Rather it is that complex concepts are not glossed over. They are presented in detail that goes beyond many popular books. Bembenek does not try to make something simpler than it is. Many times I realized my understanding was exactly that.

Given books with similar sounding titles, some might think this is a book about cosmology or astrophysics. It’s not. We don’t learn about the beginning or end of the universe, the multiverse or string theory. Bembenek reviews basic concepts in energy, entropy, atoms and quantum mechanics covering considerable ground in 300 pages. For this reader the level of detail was very welcome. Already familiar with simpler explanations of these topics, The Cosmic Machine hit my sweet spot. The material was often presented in ways I had not seen in other books.

We also get a history of physics thought and discoveries. We are introduced to a myriad of scientists. And while there are biographical sketches, more than people we are following their ideas. If you want to trace the concept of the atom through history from Democritus to Einstein, The Cosmic Machine is an excellent way to do it. When Bembenek explains classical mechanics he painstakingly takes us through Galileo’s experiments. We learn by seeing how great scientists frame problems to find solutions. The human interest factor helps you maintain attention.

The four sections (energy, entropy, the atom, and quantum mechanics) are presented in that order. It is beneficial to read them in the order presented. Energy as depicted in classical mechanics and thermodynamics is critical to understanding entropy and in turn concepts and tools used to define entropy such as an ideal gas and statistical mechanics are important to Planck’s, Einstein’s and Schrodinger’s exploration of the of the atom. Bembenek connects the dots showing how modern concepts developed. The following four paragraphs outline the discussions in each topic.

ENERGY: In the early seventeenth century Galileo experiments with pendulums and inclined planes demonstrating kinetic and potential energy and its relationship to work. Later that century Descartes, Huygens, Leibniz and Newton further define the relationships of force and matter. Newton establishes the conservation of momentum. Next we come to heat. In the late eighteenth century Laplace and Lavoisier believe heat is a fluid called caloric followed by Count Rumford who sees heat as motion. Nineteenth century experiments by Joule show heat can produce work winning a belated but vigorous endorsement by William Thomson. In 1847 Helmholtz holds that heat is a form of energy and establishes “the conservation of energy”, the first law of thermodynamics.

ENTROPY: In the early nineteenth century Carnot visualizes an ideal reversible heat engine from which he builds a theory of heat efficiency opening the door for thermodynamics. In 1852 Thomson builds on Joule’s work with his Law of Dissipation, essentially the second law of thermodynamics. Clausius then formulates the second law mathematically and later in 1865 coins the term entropy which he viewed as “heat over temperature”. In 1860 Maxwell pioneers statistical mechanics with his kinetic energy distribution of an ideal gas. In 1868 Boltzmann then defines a total energy distribution which presumes the existence of atoms, a concept not commonly accepted at the time.

THE ATOM: We begin reviewing ancient concepts of matter including Democritus prescient concept of the atom. However it wasn’t until the late seventeenth century that the chemist Boyle recognizes individual elements. In the late eighteenth century John Dalton recognizes compounds formed in definite proportions leading him to postulate atoms, atomic weights and molecules. Gay-Lussac and Avogadro refine Dalton’s theories and then Cannizzaro establishes a reliable system for determining atomic weights in 1858. Finally Einstein proves that atoms really do exist in his 1905 paper on Brownian motion.

QUANTUM MECHANICS: Kirchhoff in 1859 shows that an object both emits and absorbs thermal radiation at the same frequencies indicating a single process is involved. Kirchhoff searches for the spectrum of an idealized object that would emit and absorb all frequencies, a blackbody. In 1900 Max Planck describes that spectrum and establishes that an exchange of energy is quantized. In 1905 Einstein explains the photoelectric effect holding that light is a quantum particle, a photon. In 1909 he realizes that light’s momentum also possesses the properties of a wave, a duality. In 1913 Bohr finds that changes to energy states of electrons in atoms equal Einstein’s light quanta. In 1923 de Broglie holds that matter also has wave characteristics. In 1925 inspired by de Broglie and applying the statistical techniques of Bose to an ideal gas, Einstein again shows the duality of light. That year Schrodinger builds on de Broglie’s work to develop a wave equation and wave function for matter suggesting the motion of quantum particles is subject to a new quantum probability. That same year Heisenberg shows the more we knew about a particle’s positon the less we knew about its momentum and vice versa.

If these topics interest you and you are a physics buff ready to step beyond the typical pop science book, The Cosmic Machine may be your cup of tea. Bembenek’s combination of history and theory make difficult concepts more accessible. Showing how each scientist’s findings were used by the next gives you the background to better understand their work. The equations become clearer because you see the logic that went into constructing them. Thus what they represent has more meaning. Based on what I got out of The Cosmic Machine I give it five stars. I came away with a better understanding of many challenging concepts. I think other physics fans could as well.
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 30 books14k followers
May 6, 2018
Oct 23, 2017

Dear Sean,

Apologies for the slow reply. I have just come back from a conference in Paris, and there's been a lot of departmental politics going on. Anyway, I have finally had time to take a quick look at The Cosmic Machine. I'm afraid I can't say I'm very impressed. The author is not affiliated to any history of science department, and the book is obviously self-published. At risk of stating the obvious, what is the point of having an academic peer review process, if not to exclude people like this from serious consideration?


A. Jurkov
Professor, Ivilig University

Jan 18, 2018

Dear Sean,

Apologies again. I have just come back from a conference in Venice, and we have another funding crisis. In response to your questions, I have with some reluctance gone back to Dr Bembenek's book. You admittedly have a point about the production values comparing favorably with those of Oxford University Press, but I think this says more about OUP than anything else. They should not have outsourced their copyediting to India, it was a disastrous mistake. And yes, you are, I suppose, correct in saying that the author has a strong practical knowledge of quantum chemistry, has published a few reputable papers on the subject, and appears to have read widely in the scientific literature from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But I would like to remind you that a good understanding of science and a decent acquaintance with the primary sources does not make you a historian of science. If that was all you needed, why would universities have history of science departments?


A. Jurkov
Professor, Ivilig University

May 4, 2018

Dear Sean,

I am sorry, but this is the last reply you will receive on this subject. I have just come back from a conference on Hawaii, and we have a tedious sexual harassment suit going on that is consuming all my time. In case you do not realize, I am very busy. But to spell it out, no one will want to read Dr Bembenek's book. Historians will think it contains far too much physics, and in particular far too many equations. Scientists will not want to read about the ancient history of their subject. No scientist I know is interested in what happened more than, at most, fifty years ago. They need to keep up with new advances in their field, not waste their time on outmoded ideas which could have no conceivable relevance to what they are doing.

A person who found The Cosmic Machine worthwhile would need to have a good understanding of physics and a strong curiosity concerning the origins of modern science. If such people existed, I suppose you may conceivably be right in saying that they could be interested by Dr Bembenek's arguments concerning the evolution of the concept of entropy over the second half of the nineteenth century, and its influence on the early development of quantum theory. But I am glad to say that the modern university system has pretty much stamped out this deplorable dilettantism. Academics today are content to stay within their own narrow specialities, and the world is a better place for it.

Last but not least, I most definitely did not appreciate your remark about Bembenek's book outselling mine on Amazon. There is no doubt some trivial glitch in their ranking algorithm. At risk of repeating myself, it is clear that no one could possibly want to read The Cosmic Machine.


A. Jurkov
Professor, Ivilig University
Profile Image for Elisabet Norris.
Author 6 books22 followers
January 24, 2018
An enjoyable and educational read of the history of physics.

Scott takes you through the history by telling the story with great detail, involving both the historical characters and their scientific brilliance. This is written with a scientifically evolving pattern, so as you read on, you can see how later concepts were often advanced copies of previous discoveries, whether it was through recognizing the failures and making improvements, or recognizing the success and continuing the process further.

This book is a great way to better understand and appreciate the importance of physics in the world and the men who brought this world to us.
Profile Image for Becky.
95 reviews22 followers
March 12, 2017
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This is a well written overview of several fundamental chemistry and physics topics, conveniently organized into bite sized chunks within four major categories: energy, entropy, atoms, and quantum mechanics.

At first, I found myself wondering who the target audience was, since the subjects felt a bit basic for someone with a strong science background, but at times felt a bit abstract for the general layman. To that extent, I think the book could benefit a great deal from some additional well placed diagrams or illustrations. That said, this is absolutely one of the better descriptions of quantum mechanics (particularly Schrodinger's wave function) that I've read, especially with most of the math removed and what is left made very accessible in context.

The book truly comes into its own, though, when it integrates the science with the history of discovery that accompanied it. This is particularly the case in the latter half of the book. Dr. Bembenek has done an exceptional job of portraying the back and forth nature of scientific discovery, as different researchers confirm, expand, or try to refute​ the works of others in their field. Overall an enjoyable read for afficianados of science and the history of science.
Profile Image for Mbogo J.
406 reviews28 followers
March 11, 2017
I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This presents a challenge in writing the review, you do not want to be that sycophant who gives a false glowing review neither do you want to be that jerk who thinks that a negative review is more 'honest.' That aside, a good book pleads its own cause and this is a good book. It is one of the best popular science 'starter' books I have ever come across.
Scott chose four pillars which in his opinion are the key to understanding science; energy, entropy, atoms and quantum mechanics (I still think fields should have made the list) He then proceeds to give what I thought was a worthy treatment on the topics. The equations might seem a bit daunting but the more I thought of it, the more I realized they were crucial to the explanation and getting rid of them might add 100 pages more of explanations to get across what an equation could do in a quarter page.
What I enjoyed most about the book, is the rich history it presented. I don't know whether Scott is that passionate or it was good research, whatever the reason, the historical material was a lulu. It made the story more alive and put the faces to the ideas. If you happen to be fazed quantum mechanics and its classical cousins at the very least you will get a good history lesson. I would recommend this to everyone.
Profile Image for Deepak Pitaliya.
78 reviews6 followers
March 12, 2017
4.5 stars actually.
First of all my thanks to Scott for sharing the review copy with me. A very good book for all popular science book lovers. There are not many books which deal with energy,entropy and thermodynamics written for ordinary public. Book is written in a very simple language but subject matter sometimes is not as easy to understand specially towards end when Schrodinger's wave function appears. History part of progress made in science is most absorbing and one can see how much research author has done. Overall not only I enjoyed the book but also learned some interesting things, for example, I was surprised to find that concept of atoms and molecules existing physically was not accepted by so many scientists till as late as early 20th century.
Profile Image for Sam.
3,228 reviews234 followers
March 24, 2017
The author kindly sent me a preview copy of this and I am so glad to have had the chance to read it. Having done A level physics and been constantly intrigued by the discoveries of the subject but frequently confused by the whole thing I was hoping that this would bring a bit of sense to it all. And it did just that. By focusing on four main areas and passing the information across as a story of discovery Bembenek makes the confusing and complicated understandable. He takes you through the first theories and experiements for each subject area, showing the process followed and logic trail that each physicist went down. This breaks the whole lot down into smaller parts which makes the principles so much easier to follow and understand. There were still bits that I had to re-read a couple of times but that could well just be me as on the whole the writing kept things simple and explained everything it needed to. I think this would be enjoyable for anyone with an interest in the subject regardless of what level of background knowledge you have. And it still has all the formula, diagrams and indices that you would expect from a physics book, they're just referenced in a less scary manner.
Profile Image for Eric Wurm.
143 reviews11 followers
April 28, 2017
In attempting to make science available to everyone the chemical physicist Scott Bembenek thoroughly covers the history of physics for the lay person. While many physics books can be loaded with jargon and beyond the grasp of the non-physicist, "The Cosmic Machine" adeptly and deftly explains the methods behind the development of physics.

Much like the show "Cosmos", this book covers many famous names and their work, such as Galileo, Christian Huygens, LaPlace, Bohr, Rutherford, Copernicus, James Clerk Maxwell, Democritus, Aristotle, Boltzmann, Leibniz, Avagadro, Newton, Einstein, Planck, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, et al. It's a veritable "Who's who" of chemistry and physics. Not only do we meet the game-changers in the evolution of the empirical sciences, but the book explains concepts in an accessible way. Topics covered include energy, conservation, force, matter, heat, atomic theory, philosophy of nature, Newtonian and quantum mechanics, and entropy. If you liked "Cosmos" but want to go a little more in depth, then this book is for you.

For readers that have perused a diverse array of physics books, much of this may be a refreshing of topics you have covered before. For the physics reader that typically covers more modern material who wishes to know the history of the subject, this would be something to pick up. This is an excellent choice for the lay person with an interest in science who wishes to begin their education in physics.

Since I've covered what the book is, I should also say what this book is not. It is not an ultra-modern reader in advanced topics. If you're looking for the latest particle physics from the Large Hadron Collider, a breakdown of string theory, an explanation of multiverse theory, or an argument about whether the passage of time is a real property of the universe, etc. then you'll want to look elsewhere.

Even though this is Bembenek's first attempt as a science writer, he accomplishes his mission of making his work accessible to all with an interest. The book is well-written and organized into categories. It's not only something to read, but something you'll want to keep on the shelf as a reference. The table of contents is clear and concise, making it easy to go directly to a topic that one might wish to review or revisit. If one considers the goal of the author and the quality of the writing, then this work merits a high rating.

Disclaimer: An electronic copy of this book was provided directly by the fine author free of charge for the purpose of advance review. Since this is an advance review copy, the material may have changed by the time it is released.

Further disclaimer: Any author who provides me with a quality book free of charge will be referred to as a "fine author".
50 reviews
June 17, 2017
Thoroughly engaging. I particularly enjoyed the section on entropy; he did a great job making accessible a very difficult concept. And it's refreshing to learn some of the real stories behind these real people.
Profile Image for Jose Moa.
519 reviews68 followers
September 4, 2018
This is a honest, rather original popular science book.

It is honest in the sense that it is not a fancy phisics book,all physics here is widely tested and widely accepted,it dont claims to have the ultimate source of the physical laws,for now it belongs to the realm of metaphysics.

It is original because it exposes the thesis that in the creation of the physical reality almost nothing has happened and the physical laws are based in almost nothing.

The absolute nothingness is absolutely homogeneus,isotropic and invariant, but the universe and the fundamental physical laws also have the same basic properties,are invariants under translations,rotations,time shifts or more generally under Lorentz transformations,by mean of Noether theorem this invariances cause conserved quantities as linear and angular momentum and energy,the local invariance generates the gauge invariance(gauge field theory ) and conserved quantities as for example the electric charge.

But in words of the author, not only almost nothing has happened in the creation if not that, aside the universe is lazy ,has the property of laziness,this property is clearly seen in the minimunaction principles as for example the minimal action principle or the Fermats principle,from this principles one can build the quantum mechanics (Feynmann path integral formulation) or the geometrical optics.

Being the author a physical chemist he is strong on thermodynamics and the book is also a excelent introduction to the origins and explanation of thermodynamics laws,for example clearly explains that yet being the laws of mechanics time reversibles ,when many particles are involved naturally appears irreversibility and the concept of entropy.

The book also makes a disgression on the meaning of the fundamental physical constants,in textual words:

"To my mind there are two classes of physical constants:those that dont exist and those that do.The former are essentially a consecuence of mankind making(for instance lenght in meters ,time in seconds).The latter,the constants that really do exist in a fundamental way,and thus which are truly fundamental constants,are coupling constants that sumarize the strenght of the interaction between entities such as the strenghtof the interaction between electric charges."

The former constants are c,h,k that with a suitable choice of units can take all the 1 value and dissapear of the equations.

The last chapter of the book is for me some controversial,he in some way takes the idea of the possibility that the universe has a matemathical deep structure given the unreasonable effectiviness of mathematics(lecture of Eugene Wigner in 1959).
He put two facts :
The numbers,and from the numbers one can build the mathematics edifice as have said Leopold Kronecker,can be build from the nothingness,the empty set,by a series of nestings.

Second :Textual:"once you have got arithmetic you have got a lot of stuff,because there is a celebrated theorem due to the german Leopold Lowenheim and the norwegian Thoralf Skolem which implies that any axiomatic system is equivalent to arithmetic.So for instance, if you have a theory encompassing all the laws of nature that is based on a set of assertions (axioms),thenit is logically equivalent to arithmetic,and any statements about arithmetic apply too.A wild speculation might therefore be that logical relations akin to those proposed in Peanos Axioms of arithmetic were stumbled into and gave stability to the entity that emerged from nothing and which we call the universe."

Of course the book deepens in all this and in my opinion is a very recomendable, original contribution to all people interested in the foundations of the physical reality.

As a bonus the book has a excelent rather technical appendix where between other things it makes a simple but riguros demostration of the Noethers theorem.

Peter Atkins also has a book "The laws of Thermodynamics" in the Oxfords very Short Introductions.

Profile Image for György.
121 reviews6 followers
November 13, 2017
"Each new generation is reared by its predecessor; the latter must therefore improve in order to improve its successor. The movement is circular."
"A mind that questions everything, unless strong enough to bear the weight of its ignorance, risks questioning itself and being engulfed in doubt".
Emile Durkheim

Luckily, physics, specially the two universal laws, and the part known as quantum, are my favorites, so had plenty of time trying to grasp the essence of this book from some other aspect as well - like for example, epistemological and let's call it from aspect of sociology of knowledge. One of the reasons I didn't choose to quote Einstein, or Bohr, or Boltzmann, or Schrödinger or not to name others.
I took freedom to quote the father of Sociology of knowledge, with intent to remind us how complex is, how difficult is for us to unveil the secrets of Universe and to acquire knowledge. Despite these imperfections of human life, (we're mortals with finite lifetime, we're driven by our inner traits, we do err, we got to deal with life challenges..etc) when it comes to the discovering what is this world and life all about, humans do rise over those imperfections and limits Nature posed, (like the distance and speed) and as one big brain can operate and cooperate. That's how we built our body of knowledge over the centuries.
Of course, I did really enjoying the choice the author made related to the physics. It's true that every time you go through the Universal laws and quantum, you get some new view. It's like you have a big picture (old knowledge) and then by passing through the same subject you improve that picture with higher pixels - the picture becomes more clearer, more awesome. The knowledge improves!
Easy to read, very enjoyable writing.
Profile Image for Sergey Batusov.
5 reviews29 followers
March 10, 2017
I got a review copy of this book directly from the author. Although I’m more or less familiar with most physical concepts covered in this book, it was very interesting to read a consistent and almost mathematics-free explanation of the most fundamental conceptions that form the basis the modern physics was evolved from. Even more I was interested to read about actual scientists that developed these theories, how they influenced each other, how one discovery became a starting point for another, leading to the better understanding of the nature of matter.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the main concepts of the modern physics and the history of science. Don’t be afraid, there is no much math in this book, used formulae aren’t complicated and are well explained.

I really enjoyed this book. Many thanks to the author for the great book and for the chance to read it even before an official release.
Profile Image for Dan Graser.
Author 4 books105 followers
March 12, 2019
In this, the author's first major book for the layman, Scott Bembenek mostly succeeds in what he set out to do, that being to explain the stories behind the basic elements of physics (and chemistry) that are responsible for much of what we experience in the physical world.

Dividing the book into four main sections covering the fundamental building blocks of the universe: Energy, Entropy, Atoms, Quantum Mechanics; Bembenek structures this work mainly as an historical narrative as opposed to theoretical discussing. Beginning with the very earliest notions in each of these areas, you are then taken through all of the familiar, and many unfamiliar, names behind the discoveries, advances, and theories surrounding their modern understanding. The progression and occasional divergence of understanding makes for very interesting reading and one which will likely help many of these concepts stick much better than the more dry textbook style we are all used to from grade school.

What emerges is a very readable and graspable account for the layman about several notions frequently forgotten since your last physics or chemistry course. While there is not a huge amount of depth of the very latest theories in these areas, this will serve as an effective primer for further study in any of these areas. At least for me, his strongest section was on Entropy which is such an important concept and one that far too many people only know on a surface level. However, if you are looking to get back into scientific writing but are worried about having forgotten much of what you learned earlier, this is an excellent contemporary catch-up book that will likely spur further investigation.
Profile Image for Padmé.
2 reviews
December 25, 2016
1st ebook excerpt: PART IV - Uncertainty: Quantum Mechanics - Chapter 15, The Quantum Atom: Revisiting the Atom// THE COSMIC MACHINE: The Science That Runs Our Universe and the Story Behind It
by Scott Bembenek (Goodreads Author)
Paperback, First, 350 pages
Expected publication: June 2017 by Zoari Press

Dr. Bembenek, I just finished reading the above excerpt of your (nothing short of a) masterpiece. Literally, to say the least, am waiting eagerly to read the entire book. THE COSMIC MACHINE very much accomplishes its mission: spark an interest in science via a captivating story as it relates to physics and chemistry. When I was lecturing @ uni (& subsequently in required academic counselor modes for students "randomly" assigned to me), I would have enthusiastically recommended THE COSMIC MACHINE to all students who were undecided in what studies to pursue. For that matter, to all students, in general. Although I'm already quite familiar with most of the topics described in this book, I was enthralled by the engaging presentation style and weave of the story. Hurry June, 2017!!!
You cannot be thanked enough for all those years you labored with TLC (& OCD) on this book. Well, done, Dr. Bembenek!!
Profile Image for Andreas Laurencius.
Author 1 book28 followers
August 12, 2019
The cosmic machine, the title says it all. I was curious about what a chemist's take on the world would be like and I was pleased with its delivery. It is different from other popular science books that I've read. The book itself is much fun; I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in science, along with Dr. Hawking and Dr. Greene's books!

However, even though the history of science part was very enjoyable to read, it could've been made shorter, in my opinion. More science stuff! I hope this book is only a prelude to what Bembenek is prepared to tell us next.

We want more!
Profile Image for Hugo.
13 reviews19 followers
January 17, 2018
Although it was sometimes very difficult to follow (especially with quantum mechanics and all the equations and stuff) I really enjoyed this book. It deals with some of the most interesting topics in physics (energy, entropy, atoms and quantum mechanics) and the story behind them.
Did I understand all of it? Hell no ¿Did it arouse my curiosity on the subject? Of course it did. So, if you want to know at least a little bit more about how the universe works, I would say that this is a good book to start with.
Profile Image for Bita.
1 review
March 23, 2017
For anyone who has a love for science and history, this book is a must read. It introduces readers to abstract topics in science and successfully discusses them in a simplified and captivating manner. The history that spans the book keeps the reader continuously intrigued even as the topics being discussed can be quite complex. Dr. Bembenek, however, does a phenomenal job of not only simplifying these complex topics but keeping the reader engaged at all times during this journey across time.
Profile Image for Shane Phillips.
340 reviews19 followers
November 27, 2017
I enjoyed the book. While it may have more math in it than other similar books, the math is straight forward an explained very well. Thank you to the author for sharing a review copy.
1 review
June 3, 2023
The Cosmic Machine focuses on four scientific topics: Energy, Entropy, Atoms, and Quantum Mechanics. Each topic has a section dedicated to it describing the origins of the specific areas and a base understanding of the topics. This makes it easier for those who don’t have a large base of knowledge in the specific scientific area to fully understand the topics.

The first section, Energy, goes into detail about what people thought energy was and how it worked before important concepts were discovered (which slowly happen over many centuries). A big part of not only this section but the entire book is the idea that energy (and other topics in the book) can not be destroyed or created, merely changed and conserved. Bembenek focuses on inclined planes and pendulums a lot throughout this section. These simple machines make it easier to comprehend the rules that have control over all forms of energy. One major part of energy that is discussed is velocity. A lot of time is spent going into detail about how velocity affects the way these simple machines function. Heat is another topic discussed in this section, going into depth about the discovery of what it is.

The second section we read about is Entropy. Bembenek starts off by introducing readers to heat engines, explaining how heat engines are supposed to work. These engines are designed (figuratively since they cannot be created in reality) to be reversible and continue in this reverse form just as efficiently as the forward form. After introducing this machine and explaining exactly how it functions, it is revealed to the audience that this engine is (so far) impossible because no processes in nature (except for those in equilibrium) are reversible. This section also goes into detail about the origins of the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution and how it works.

The third section is Atoms. To start off we are taken through the history of what scientists and philosophers believed everything was made up of. While many of them are far from the truth it still helps to understand the journey it took to get to this realization. We then go into a deep dive into Aristotle and his contributions before switching back to our broad overview of multiple scientists. Our fourth and final topic is Quantum Mechanics. We start off with thermal radiation and spectroscopy then go into what scientists over the years have believed these discoveries mean and exactly represent. But one of the huge parts of this section is the lights purpose in all of this (specifically the photoelectric effect and the theories of Planck)

Now on to what I enjoyed about this book. I really liked how not only the history of the specific scientific topics is discussed but also the history of the scientists involved. Bembenek goes into detail about the experiences of the scientists and their opinions of each other (personally and scientifically). On the other hand, while I enjoyed this I think it distracted from the scientific parts of the book. A lot of time that was spent on the lives of the scientists could have been used to explain the topics more fully and in more depth.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for James F.
1,435 reviews95 followers
October 6, 2018
I read a lot of science popularizations, and this book was quite different from most. While most of the popular books I have read, even the better ones, skim quickly over classical physics and atoms (if they cover this territory at all) to get to the "trendier" subjects of elementary particles, the big bang, and speculations about string theory and multiverses, Bembenek takes just the opposite approach. He is a chemist, and while most of the book could be loosely categorized as "physics", it is physics the way a chemist thinks of it -- most of the book is taken up with classical thermodynamics, the structure of the atom, and the beginnings of quantum theory. Einstein is important here -- for the photoelectric effect, his comparison of light to an ideal gas, and his other contributions to quantum theory; relativity, special or general, is hardly mentioned, and there is no cosmology, no quarks, and no strings. This is not by any means a criticism; the book is a good complement to the others and I learned more than I have from most. The treatment is largely historical.

The one real fault is that the book shifts gears; the first few chapters on basic physics are very simple and I was already composing a review in my head recommending the book as a low-level popularization for beginners and middle-school to high-school students, but once he gets to thermodynamics it becomes a mid- to high-level popularization, which would I think be difficult for anyone without at least a high-school course in physics or chemistry to follow, especially the footnotes. As someone whose major interest in college was the Presocratics, I found his treatment of Greek science a little too traditional; judging from the bibliography, that part of the book was researched mainly in encyclopedias of philosophy. The book could also have benefitted from some rigorous copy-editing as the author is occasionally rather loose with formal grammar; at times it almost gives the impression of having been based on a course or oral lecture. Nevertheless, I would highly recommend the book and although I read it on my Kindle for free I will be buying the print edition for the library where I work.
Profile Image for Zac.
13 reviews2 followers
January 21, 2019
I haven't had a science class in... well... it's been awhile. I don't have a science background or a math background, and don't take too kindly to a lot of technical detail. I found The Cosmic Machine to be an approachable book on the history of science, ideal for those who, like me, are intellectually curious, but have some gaps in their understanding which they would like to fill. It reminded me of a few things I long forgot, but it taught me many more things I never knew. I think it would also serve as a great gift to high school students who want more science than they are getting at school, or college students who want to know about the stories behind the science that they are learning.

I said that this was a history of science book. What do I mean by that? Well, this book is not about the cutting edge of science. Rather, it is about the fundamental discoveries in science– from the scientific revolution up to Schrodinger – that make the current breakthroughs possible. While many of these discoveries might seem boring and simple, it took flashes of genius to make them. Reading about the experimental designs that went into making such discovers really blew my mind. Watching the march of science with 50/50 hindsight – seeing how one result leads to another – really helps one appreciate the remarkable things that humanity has accomplished.

While this is a book about scientific progress, particularly in the areas of physics and chemistry, it is also a book about the people who have made these discoveries. Bembenek has a knack for getting in the heads of the scientists, giving the reader a sense of the curiosity that drove them, and the peculiarities (and often egos) that make them interesting people.

While readers of this book may not come away understanding physics the way a physicist does, I do think they will come away with a better understanding of the world around them. It might even encourage some to take a class on physics or chemistry, even if just at their local community college. But perhaps most importantly, they will have fun reading it, for Scott Bembenek writes in an engaging manner, with a light touch.
Profile Image for Krista Banks.
1 review
December 25, 2017
I received an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

I'm the kind of person who, throughout my whole life, thought “I wonder who discovered this?” or even, “How did they discover this?” In reading The Cosmic Machine, I was supplied with a plethora of answers to these very questions, or at least those related to the field of physics. While my experience is primarily in the biological field, there has always been an underlying curiosity about physics and chemistry, and this book satisfied a lot of that curiosity. When studying these topics, students are often subjected to learning a series of formulas and facts with little to no context, making the learning experience dry and far more challenging (and scarier) than it needs to be. Scott Bembenek has incorporated the more interesting aspects of these topics and explained them in such a way that it leaves the reader wanting to know more.

All of the familiar names in Physics and Philosophy are addressed, with a summary of how one may have built on the work of another (or of several others), but this book introduces a lot of potentially new names in the field – or at least new to the layman/non-physicist. I particularly liked how appropriate credit was assigned to contributing scientists who frequently get little to no mention otherwise.

What I also found impressive were the little windows into the lives of so many early physicists – there are a lot of details that help the reader see these geniuses of history as regular human beings, and it is still astonishing to imagine how these scientists of the past managed to “see” the concepts they came up with without having access to the equipment to prove their theories.

I must confess, there is much in this book that I did not absorb completely, but that I must attribute to my own limitations. Nevertheless, this book is one I plan to keep within reach in order to read again and again, with the expectation that in each subsequent reading I will pick up something I missed previously. Bravo! Highly recommended for the curious mind.

1 review
July 31, 2017
Dr. Bembenek’s The Cosmic Machine takes the reader on a fascinating journey that follows the evolution of our understanding of the universe in which we live. From early philosophers authoritatively declaring the nature of nature, to the first controlled experiments examining the most basic of physical phenomena. The struggle to define energy and how its conserved, and the enigma of entropy are all part of a narrative which eventually leads the reader to the smallest gears of the universal machine; the bizarre and counterintuitive world of quantum mechanics.

In addition to describing the progression of the physical sciences, Dr. Bembenek adds historic context to the discoveries as well as perspective regarding the general intellectual biases of the time. Additionally, the author included numerous footnotes that contribute to the flavor and depth of our understanding of the time periods and key scientific personalities described in, or peripheral to, the body of the text.

As told, the story of the physical sciences is rife with cautionary messages concerning intellectual authoritarianism, unreasonable attachment to ideas, and being wrong. Throughout history, philosophers and scientists conceived and developed concepts that were ultimately unsupported by data. The tenacity with which many have clung to their intellectual creations, and in some cases actively sabotaged or buried the work of rivals, is a testament to the difficulty humans experience in being wrong, and that even the brightest of minds aren’t immune to vanity and insecurity. Such behavior has repeatedly been an impediment to scientific progression. Hopefully, budding scientists reading this work will absorb this message and learn to carefully evaluate data based on its quality, and not dogma or their biases.

In all, The Cosmic Machine is a gripping and thought-provoking read for science enthusiasts. I look forward to future works by Dr. Bembenek.
1 review1 follower
July 1, 2017
This review is based on an advanced copy provided by the author.

Writing a science book pitched at the general audience is often a difficult task. The author, Scott Bembenek, of “The Cosmic Machine” does a wonderful job of drawing the reader in by telling the story of the major concepts in physics through its historical figures. From Democritus to Galileo and Newton to Schrodinger the story of “interesting ideas” in science emerges in front of your eyes as he weaves together a comprehensive, accessible narrative for the reader. There is something here for everyone interested in the science of our universe. You do not have to be a science major to appreciate these everyday concepts and ideas. As Isaac Newton is attributed to saying, “We stand on the shoulders of giants” and this book will help you understand the historical puzzle of how these overlapping concepts were pieced together by scientists over time. If you are a science major, or happen to teach science it is through the lens of history these physics topics will take on a new textured meaning given the reader a new “frame of reference” to appreciate the universe in which we live.
The Cosmic Machine: The Science That Runs Our Universe and the Story Behind It
Profile Image for Jon.
636 reviews5 followers
August 9, 2017
After being somewhat suspicious of yet another 'Intro to Physics' popular science book I was won over. The topics chosen are less sexy than the usual pop-sci books namely thermodynamics, entropy and basic quantum mechanics, but they are therefore rather fresher than relativity and string theory to the jaded reader.

The other nice thing is the historical approach. Each idea is traced from its early origins, each step contextualised in terms of developments of previous ideas and rivalries between ideas. The result is rather more engaging than just explanation. You get to watch the 'facts' emerging from postulates, data and good old-fashioned head scratching. It makes you part of, as well as party to, the discoveries in a way which is rather more fun than expected.

I would recommend to anyone who wanted a more detailed physics-only version of Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything.

P.S. The author is not afraid to use equations. Bold move Bembenek.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy for taking part in a survey about the cover art. The opinions are still mine, free books don't sway me – see my review of The Dark Knight Returns: Master Race for proof of that.
January 25, 2019
Although limited by only a curiosry interest in science & physics, I remain an on-going student of history. Thus I read Scott's book as one of a Historian 1st and was delighted with my advancement of the works of those who have preceded us.
While not an easy read for me initially, reading it again allowed an expanded grasp and improved appreciation for the depth of the research in compling producing a quality textbook on the subjects history.
Presented as it is written has not only enlightened me with the subjet, but has brought an increased appreciation for the subject and its author.
Were I to be charged with having to teach on this subject I would, as a former college instructor, reguire this as the course text book.
And as a compliment to the author and without taking anything away from Mr. Bembenek's extensive research, I would suggest a title change to: The Science That Runs Our Universe and the HISTORY behind it. Semantic's yes. But this might bring attention to other disciplines and extend its reader audience.
Profile Image for Pam Shelton-Anderson.
1,686 reviews39 followers
November 27, 2019
My original college major was physics and astronomy and I have a masters in biophysics, but it has been a long time since I have had classes in one of my favorite subjects. This book is written in a very pleasant manner but is also able to impart the information clearly and in a way that will interest most readers. I really liked the stories of the evolution of the concepts of physics from BCE era onward and how our understanding of it builds. It was a chance to revisit some old friends. I have had a lot of people who think that physics is dull with most everything "discovered" but that is so wrong. We are constantly in the midst of new information and a realization of how much there is to discover (e.g. Higgs boson, the recently postulated X17 fifth force). This author does a great job being able to relay his passion for physics and making the reader feel the same.
678 reviews7 followers
October 11, 2017
"Because the stories are as important as the discoveries themselves." This is the author's inscription on my advanced reader's copy. He goes on to demonstrate his point throughout the book. In the age before readily available timepieces, Galileo used his own pulse to time his experiments. Einstein's undemanding job in a patent office left him plenty of time to think, and to publish ground breaking papers. The stories create a history explaining the background of much of the physics that I studied so many years ago. As a former physics major, this book interested me. But it's not clear who the intended audience might be. Without some prior depth of knowledge, the physics in the book could be overwhelming.
1 review
August 2, 2017
I read the Author's advance copy.

As an old engineer, it's been a while since I read about basic science discoveries and quantum physics. I've benefited from these great discoveries in my work without knowing the back story of the human spirit to search for answers and creative solutions.

This book was well written and easy to ready. A lot of the topics still eludes me in science (quantum theory to name one), but the style of writing and personal stories of the scientists were fun to read about. There was a lot of research and references that went into writing the book to weave a very cohesive story. I enjoyed it.
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