Thursday, 30 December 2004

The Fabric of the Cosmos – Brian Greene *****

Subtitled “space, time and the texture of reality”, this could be seen as yet another book trying to do all of science – but it’s more finely tuned than that – and a much better read than most of the “tell you everything” books. In fact, what Brian Greene tries to do, and largely succeeds in, is explaining the two great underlying theories of science, both developed in the twentieth century – relativity and quantum theory – then extending beyond them to the nature of time and the composition and origins of the universe.
The first section of the book concentrates on relativity (mostly special, but quickly filling in general) and quantum theory. From there we pick up a description of what time is, whether “time’s arrow” is a realistic context, and how time slots into the quantum arena. The third section is more cosmologically oriented, spending a fair amount of space on the big bang and quantum fluctuations. Then we get onto the current preferred theories of matter – string theory and its extension to bring in “branes”. Although string theory has a lot of supporters it is pure hypothesis and very likely to disappear in the future – watch out, though for some more experimentally based gems like the remarkable and often ignored Casimir force. Finally there’s a summary “what’s it all about” section, including a delightful chapter on teleporters and time machines.
Taken individually, the subjects covered in each of the first four sections could be (and are) enough material to make a good book in their own right. There’s enough here, though to get a grip on what’s involved, and the interested reader should then go on to read a book with more detail on the individual section topics. The great thing about the way Greene has written this book is that it’s never overwhelming, yet there’s an opportunity to see how it all fits together (at least as much as it does all fit together in current theory – while those underlying aspects of relativity and quantum theory are solid, it all gets more speculative as you get further in). Although it’s quite a long book – over 500 pages with the notes and index – it doesn’t feel all that long, which is a great mercy. All too often others who have attempted books on this scale have produced tomes that are more effective as doorstops than as readable popular science.
There are some minor disappointments. Greene is a great popular science writer who pitches it just right, but occasionally his popularism is a little forced, for example in his use of characters from TV shows like the Simpsons and the X Files to illustrate his example. (The use, for example, of a duel between Itchy and Scratchy in his relatively section is a bit cringe making.) The book is beautifully illustrated, but occasionally these graphics get in the way of the facts. It’s a bit like when someone first gets hold of 3D graphics in a spreadsheet, and suddenly everything is 3D – some of the points would have been much clearer with a boring old two dimensional line diagram, rather than fancy 3D shading that gets in the way of the information the diagram is supposed to put across.
Even so, this is a strong entry from Greene, and certainly one of the best popular science books of 2004.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 20 December 2004

Leaps in the Dark – John Waller ****

This is a very good book, which impressed me very much. I have to get this rather bland positive statement in up front, as otherwise I’d start with what sounds like a negative remark, and this isn’t a negative review. John Waller relishes shattering our illusions. He’s the sort of person who tells you that Robin Hood, if he ever existed at all, was an unpleasant murderer with B.O. Or that Richard III was really a good, well-meaning king, and all the stuff about hump backs and princes in the Tower was fictional propaganda put about by the Lancastrians to justify their coup.
The reason this sort of bubble bursting is painful is that we like our stories. We exist on stories – and the best popular science has a good story at its heart. But, and here’s where we fall into line with Waller, bearing in mind we are talking about science, we shouldn’t let our enthusiasm for a good story get in the way of the truth. Yes, let’s enjoy our history of science, and make it about real people, but not about mythical characters.
Waller points out the strong tendency to push scientists, just as much as any other character in history, into black and white, stark contrasts. So we have the bad guys, the fools, like Joseph Glanvill, the member of the Royal Society who tried to prove that witches existed scientifically, or Max von Pettenkofer, who was so convinced that cholera didn’t spread by pure bacterial infection that he swallowed a whole flask of the bacteria (and survived). Not to mention the good guys, the heroes like Isaac Newton with his stunning flash of genius in performing the experiment that showed white light was composed of a mix of the colours separated by a prism.
Reality, as you might guess, is rarely like that. Waller shows us how the much maligned Glanvill, for instance, was using the best scientific method of the day, even though he came up with the wrong result. And how Newton’s discovery was more a matter of him sticking to a theory despite experimental evidence, as it was only later that optical prisms could be made well enough to prove what he asserted.
It’s nothing new to hear that science mostly consists of small, incremental and often very shaky steps forward, and is sometimes helped along by mistakes – but Waller really hammers this home in a way that hasn’t been done before. at least for a general audience. It’s absolutely amazing, if a little chastening, to see some legends of science prove to be just that – legends. Waller’s book doesn’t mean there aren’t big steps forward in science, or works of genius, even from individuals like Newton, but it does mean that we can see them in a more realistic light.
Because this is such an important topic in understanding science and where it comes from, Leaps in the Dark is a highly recommended book. It mostly reads very well, too. It’s held back from five stars because it just occasionally suffers a little from academic pomposity, and in the end, the man’s a spoilsport. But a realistic spoilsport.
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Review by Brian Clegg