Monday, March 29, 2004

Free books

Random discovery: The National Academies Press has placed more than 3000 complete books online for free. They are mostly technical and scientific books (Immunization Safety Review: Influenza Vaccines and Neurological Complications, anyone?), but there are some hidden gems. For example, Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention and Tragedy:
Charismatic, confident, and boyishly handsome, Thomson was not a scientist who labored quietly in a lab, plying his trade in monkish isolation. When scores of able tinkerers were flummoxed by their inability to adapt overland telegraphic cables to underwater, intercontinental use, Thomson took to the high seas with new equipment that was to change the face of modern communications. And as the world’s navies were transitioning from wooden to iron ships, they looked to Thomson to devise a compass that would hold true even when surrounded by steel.

But as the century drew to a close and Queen Victoria's reign ended, this legendary scientific mind began to weaken. He grudgingly gave way to others with a keener, more modern vision. But the great physicist did not go quietly. With a ready pulpit at his disposal, he publicly proclaimed his doubts over the existence of atoms. He refused to believe that radioactivity involved the transmutation of elements. And believing that the origin of life was a matter beyond the expertise of science and better left to theologians, he vehemently opposed the doctrines of evolution, repeatedly railing against Charles Darwin. Sadly, this pioneer of modern science spent his waning years arguing that the Earth and the Sun could not be more than 100 million years old. And although his early mathematical prowess had transformed our understanding of the forces of nature, he would never truly accept the revolutionary changes he had helped bring about, and it was others who took his ideas to their logical conclusion.

The catch to all this (and there's always a catch) is that you either have to read the books page-by-page online, or pay to buy a printed copy or download a complete PDF. Still, it's a pretty nifty program.

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