2008-01-27

A brief history of... plagiarism?

In the dark past of my commie youth, about age 14 or 15, I was very inspired by a popular science book by V. S. Barashenkov called A universe inside the electron (Вселенная в электроне).

I loved the book, as it very clearly and precisely outlined the evolution of scientific thought about the origins and the future of our universe, its structure on the very large and very small scales, general relativity and quantum mechanics. The book was specifically addressed at young readers with no more than high school knowledge of physics, but it was far from elementary. The illustrations were copious, fun, and to the point. In short, it was a cool book.

Many many years later, after Feynman's memoirs rekindled my unsteady interest in physics, I thought, let's check out that book I read back in school! Thanks to not very effective copyright enforcement on the Russian internets I was able to find the full text of A universe in the electron. I read it, and found it cool yet again, even though this time around I was reading it--supposedly--as an adult. It is a short book and an easy read, so it was very soon finished.

Same day, I was looking for some fiction books to read on the plane (we'll get to that in a bit) in a used bookstore, and stumbled on a paperback copy of A brief history of time by Stephen Hawking. It was on my Amazon "wish list" for a long time, so I got it.

How large my surprise was to find out that my childhood physics book seemed to be a very loose abridged adaptation of Hawking's text! Granted, some of the anecdotes about famous international physicists were replaced by matching ones from Russia, but some, like the "Pauli effect," were not! My impression was that about 50-75% of Barashenkov's text was not original.

Given that there is only that much to be told about the workings of the universe to non-specialists without confusing them, and also that there is a limited number of humorous stories about physicists, I almost feel bad being harsh on A universe in the electron, so I will leave it to the unlikely bilingual reader to confirm or rebuff my claim.