The Lazy Universe


By George B. Kauffman

The Lazy Universe: An Introduction to the Principle of Least Action. By Jennifer Coopersmith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK; New York, NY, 2017, xii + 267 pp., hardcover, $39.95.

According to Jennifer Coopersmith, Cornelius Lanczos (1893–1974), a prominent mathematician and physicist, wrote “one of the best books of physics explanation that has ever been written: The Variational Principles of Mechanics.” It explained the true meaning and philosophical content of the principle of least action. Coopersmith’s book, a paean to Lanczos, is a shorter, simplified version of Lanczos’ book, but it is an original interpretation.

Coopersmith’s book concerns a principle that underpins all of physics. The reader is assumed to have a background in the physical sciences, but a lay reader could also read this book with profit and enjoyment by skim-reading the mathematics or by reading only the Introduction (Chapter 1), the Final Words (Chapter 9), and the historical and popular chapters (Chapters 2 and 8). Although it is not a textbook, it includes numerous equations, but the aim is to explain what these equations mean.

The numerous appendices are usually at a more advanced level and condensed in style, but the reader may be entirely bypass them without loss of continuity in the main text. Aside from the invaluable advantage of seeing how a problem is solved, the reason for so many appendices is twofold: to provide a compact resource for the physicist and for the lay reader to know what subject headings to follow up at a later stage, if so desired. Enrichment material has been included but often as optional reading (in small font) or in parentheses or footnotes.

Coopersmith received her Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of London and was briefly a research fellow at TRIUMF (Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics). For many years, she was an associate lecturer for the Open University (London and Oxford). She was then a tutor on astrophysics courses at Swinburne University of Technology at La Trobe University in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia. She now lives in France.


George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and a Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.