Published by Cambridge University Press.
This copy 1950: but first published 1940.
8vo hardback with dustjacket.
Illustrations by John Hookham.
The physicist George Gamow uses the adventures of Mr. Tompkins to explain modern scientific theories to a popular audience.
The book is structured as a series of dreams in which Mr Tompkins enters alternate worlds where the physical constants have radically different values from those they have in the real world. This results in the counterintuitive results of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics becoming obvious in everyday life.
Mr Tompkins’ adventures begin when he chooses to spend the afternoon of a day’s holiday attending a lecture on the theory of relativity. The lecture proves less comprehensible than he had hoped and he drifts off to sleep and enters a dream world in which the speed of light is a mere 30 miles an hour. This becomes apparent to him through the fact that passing cyclists are subject to a noticeable Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction:
The hands of the big clock on the tower down the street were pointing almost to noon and the streets were nearly empty.
A single cyclist was coming slowly down the street and, as he approached, Mr Tompkins’ eyes opened wide with astonishment. For the bicycle and the young man on it were unbelievable flattened in the direction of the motion…
The clock on the tower struck twelve, and the cyclist, evidently in a hurry, stepped harder on the pedals.
Mr Tompkins did not notice that he gained much in speed, but, as the result of his effort, he flattened still more and went down the street looking exactly like a picture cut out of cardboard.
Then, Mr Tompkins felt very proud because he could understand what was happening to the cyclist– it was simply the contraction of moving bodies about which he had just learned.
“Evidently nature’s speed limit is lower here,” he concluded, “that is why the bobby on the corner looks so lazy, he need not watch for speeders.”
G. Gamow says:
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. Tompkins, a bank clerk interested in modern science.
I sent the manuscript to Harpers 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. 1 was chatting over a glass of excellent Polish mind 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 about the bad luck I had 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 just 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 Tompkins, 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 number of pages, should be published in book form. The book, called Mr Tompkins in Wonderland, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1940 and since that time has been reprinted sixteen times. This book was followed by the sequel, Mr Tompkins Explores the Atom, published in 1944 and by now reprinted nine times. In addition, both books have been translated into practically all European languages and also into Chinese and Hindi.
1. City Speed Limit
2. The Professor’s Lecture on Relativity which caused Mr Tompkins’s dream
3. Mr Tompkins takes a holiday
4. The Professor’s Lecture on Curved Space Gravity and the Universe
5. The Pulsating Universe
6. Cosmic Opera
7. Quantum Billiards
8. Quantum Jungles
9. Maxwell’s Demon
10. The Gay Tribe of Electrons
10.5. A Part of the Previous Lecture which Mr Tompkins slept through
12. Inside the Nucleus
13. The Woodcarver
14. Holes in Nothing
15. Mr Tompkins Tastes a Japanese Meal
Bought in Marchpane for £30, available as a modern reprint on amazon: Mr. Tompkins