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The New World of Mr. Tompkins: George Gamow’s Classic Mr. Thompkins in Paperback

Image of The New World of Mr Tompkins: George Gamow's Classic Mr Tompkins in Paperback
Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
August 2012
Fred's Rating: 
George Gamow
Russell Stannard
Total Pages: 
Cambridge University Press

George Gamow (1904-1968) was an especially gifted writer of physics for the layman. This book was updated by Russell Stannard, who is himself a gifted populariser of science. (For Gamow’s or Stannard's books I’ve read, click on one of their names.)

I recently found this book hidden in one of my bookcases when looking for another book. I assume my beloved wife Doris, who passed away in August 2011, hid it there, intending to give it to me on my birthday in October 2011. She had enjoyed with me George Gamow’s Mr. Thompkins in Wonderland (about relativity). It was a best seller in 1939 and Gamow’s Mr. Thompkins Explores the Atom was also well received in 1943. Gamow combined these two in the hugely successful Mr Tompkins in Paperback in 1965. With Gamow’s heirs’ permission, in 1999 Stannard fully revised and updated the physics. The Amazon website shows a 2001 paperback edition, but the website shows the contents of the hardback that my wife bought for me:

Only the third page of the 3-pp Reviser’s Foreword can be read online by using the option Click to LOOK INSIDE and then scrolling down from the Front Cover. But this page has Stannard’s conclusion to do a complete revision (with three entirely new chapters) but by retaining the entertaining Mr. Thompkins – Gamow’s bank clerk who attends science lectures on modern physics but always falls asleep and dreams of a world in which the topics can be experienced by him – such as a speed of light that is only 20 mph. In his dreams, as well as afterward by talking with the professor who is giving the lectures, he can learn the science by both observing and asking questions until he grasps the basics of relativity and quantum physics. Available online are the first six pages of Ch. 1 – City Speed Limit – I highly recommend reading them for they show enough for a reader to see both the character of Mr. Thompkins and Gamow’s delightful drawings of Mr. Thompkins’ encounters, while standing and while on a bicycle, the effects of a 20 mph “speed limit” of special relativity’s ‘length contraction’ and ‘time dilation’. If you were uncertain what these mean, you won’t be after reading these six pages!

Since the Table of Contents is available online, I strongly recommend looking at it. Unfortunately Gamow’s 2-pp Preface from his original Mr. Thompkins in Paperback is not available online. But I think the history therein of Gamow’s Mr. Thompkins books are worth reading, so I give it here in his words: “In the winter of 1938 I wrote a short, scientifically fantastic story (not a science fiction story) in which I tried to explain to the layman the basic ideas of the theory of curvature of space and the expanding universe. I decided to do this by exaggerating the actually existing relativistic phenomena to such an extent that they could easily be observed by the hero of the story, C.G.H. Thompkins, a bank clerk interested in modern science.

“I sent the manuscript to Harper’s magazine and, like all beginning authors, got it back with a rejection slip. The other half-a-dozen magazines which I tried followed suit. So I put the manuscript in a drawer of my desk and forgot about it. During the summer of the same year, I attended the International Conference of Theoretical Physics, organized by the League of Nations in Warsaw. I was chatting over a glass of excellent Polish miod with my old friend Sir Charles Darwin, the grandson of Charles (The Origin of Species) Darwin, and the conversation turned to the popularization of science. I told Darwin the bad luck I had along this line, and he said: ‘Look, Gamow, when you get back to the United States dig up your manuscript and send it to Dr. C.P. Snow, who is the editor of a popular scientific magazine Discovery published by the Cambridge University Press.’

“So I did this, and a week later came a telegram from Snow saying: ‘Your article will be published in the next issue. Please send more.’ Thus a number of stories on Mr. Thompkins, which popularized the theory of relativity and the quantum theory, appeared in subsequent issues of Discovery. Soon thereafter I received a letter from the Cambridge University Press, suggesting that these articles, with a few additional stories to increase the numbered pages, should be published in book form. The book, called Mr. Thompkins in Wonderland, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1940 and since that time has been reprinted a number of times. This book was followed by the sequel, Mr. Thompkins Explores the Atom, published in 1944 and by now reprinted nine times. In addition, both books have been translated into practically all European languages (except Russian) and also into Chinese and Hindi. [George Gamow was a Russian refugee.]

“Recently the Cambridge University Press decided to unite the two original volumes into a single paperback edition, asking me to update the old material and add some more stories treating the advances in physics and related fields which took place after these books were originally published. Thus I had to add the stories on fission and fusion, the steady state universe, and exciting problems concerning elementary particles. This material forms the present book.

“A few words must be said about the illustrations. The original articles in Discovery and the first original volumes were illustrated by Mr. John Hookham, who created the facial features of Mr. Thompkins. When I wrote the second volume Mr. Hookham had retired from work as an illustrator, and I decided to illustrate the book myself, faithfully following Mr. Hookham’s style. The new illustrations in the present volume are also mine. The verses and songs appearing in this volume are written by my wife Barbara. G. Gamow, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA”

This book was a delight to read. It truly provides excellent descriptions, with illustrations that are often amusing, written at the proper level for the general public, who made bestsellers, with many reprints, of quite a few of George Gamow’s 20-or-so books. Russell Stannard sticks with Gamow’s style except for Ch. 16. I highly recommend this delightful book to all. I give it a five-star rating.

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