It was a book about physics. Or math. No, physics. It had elephants.
April 15, 2018 12:18 AM   Subscribe

I read this between 1980 and 1986, but it may well have been 40 years old. It was a fiction book about a physicist attending a conference; at night he either had dreams or was transported to another world wherein the topic of the day shaped the rules of physics in the world he visited. (So, in one dream/visit, quantum states were bigger, and billiards balls would eventually just appear outside of their rack because, instead of atoms shifting by tiny amounts, entire objects shifted around by a lot.) Short; fewer than 200 pages; possibly fewer than 100 pages.

As is standard for these things, my memories may not be accurate. I'll try to provide extra details even if they're wrong.

It was a small hardcover book (6"x9"/B5 or so) with short chapters, alternating between "a day at the conference," discussing some principle of physics, and "a night of magic" (it was most definitely not called magic or anything like that), in which the laws of physics were altered to match some aspect of what had been discussed that day.

One day, discussing the Uncertainty Principle, the dream/visit involved an elephant hunter. It looked like there were near-infinite elephants, and Our Hero The Protagonist asked the hunter how he was going to figure out which one was the "real" elephant. The hunter was not dismayed; he shot what looked like an infinite number of bullets, and hit the elephant(s), which collapsed into a single elephant.

I believe it was written by a physicist. (Or mathematician. Or both. I keep thinking there's some reason it's stuck in my head as "a book about math," but that could just be that I was told "physics, math, all kinda the same thing" so often that this attached to both categories.) It was obviously intended to be educational: first a dry description of a concept of physics, than an entertaining story about how that concept applies to our world (by showing us one where it didn't).

It had drawings; line-art sketches, possibly one per "dream" chapter. (I remember the wall of elephants.) The book reminded me of The Little Prince, possibly just because it involved multiple "worlds" visited for a short time each. I think I tracked it down at some point and it was written in the 50s or 60s, but if I knew for sure, I'd be able to track it down again.
posted by ErisLordFreedom to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
These are the Mr. Tompkins books by George Gamov.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:12 AM on April 15, 2018 [12 favorites]

Einstein’s Dreams?
posted by advil at 7:38 AM on April 15, 2018

It is the Mr. Tompkins books; THANK YOU!

Einstein's Dreams (by Alan Lightman) looks like a similar exploration of ideas in fictional form. I've added both to my wishlist at Amazon to pick them up when I have the money.

(And I grumble at trying to decide what format: They're each about $5 with shipping if I order used; Tompkins is $10 as an ebook and Einstein's Dreams is $14. I prefer ebooks; I'm not sure I'm willing to pay double to triple to get them.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:22 AM on April 15, 2018

Note that the original Mr. Tompkins books, while charming in their own way, were written in the 1960s. As a result, there is some science in there that is out of date, and there are some turns of phrase and characterization that could raise the eyebrow of a reader with modern sensibilities. In 1999 Russell Stannard did a revision of the book, The New World of Mr. Tompkins, which retains much of the charm while updating the science and the language a bit.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:12 AM on April 15, 2018

If it's math you want, try The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj. Charmingly written, it took me quite a while to realize it's a history of mathematics (being in no sense a mathematician myself), but I loved it.
posted by MovableBookLady at 2:56 PM on April 15, 2018

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