Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Atom – Piers Bizony ****

Sometimes the simplest ideas make for the best popular science books – quite possibly because one of the wonders of science is that many of apparently simple ideas are anything but simple when examined closely. Atoms are the building blocks of all matter – a substantial part of the universe, and decidedly significant to us in our atom-constructed bodies – so they prove a substantial topic, and yet one that brings in plenty of history, intriguing characters and weird science, once the quantum age is reached.
It’s worth contrasting this book with Marcus Chown’s The Quantum Zoo, which so elegantly explains quantum theory (and general relativity for good measure). Where Chown’s book wins hands down is the effectiveness with which it explains quantum theory in surprising depth, yet in a way that is comprehensible to the general reader. Piers Bizony takes a different approach in Atom, rather more skimming the technical side, but including more historical context and details of the human beings who have made contributions to our understanding of atoms over the years. This makes it an easier read than Chown’s, though ultimately not as rewarding if you really want to grasp what quantum theory (inseparable from understanding atoms) is all about. Similarly for a much more in-depth exploration of how atoms were formed in stars, and how this discovery was made, see Chown’s The Magic Furnace, which has significant similarities in content, but considerably more richness.
A really good popular science book that takes a history of science approach will immerse the reader in the characters and the lives of those making the discoveries, so the science is almost absorbed by osmosis as you go. Atom doesn’t quite achieve this. I think the fault, perhaps, is not so much Bizony’s writing, which is effective and enjoyable, but the fact that this is a book of a TV series (to be precise, according to the cover “a major television series” – have you ever seen the book of “an insignificant television series”?). This must to some extent shape the structure and level to which Bizony can go down to, though I would guess (I’m afraid I haven’t seen the BBC series) the book manages to get in much more detail than was shown on screen.
The result is that there is more biographical information than you need to set the context, but not quite enough to really become immersed in the individuals. One example – Richard Feynman gets a lot of biographical coverage, yet his second marriage, an important reflection of his character at the time, is never even mentioned, as if it never existed. There’s often a feeling that Bizony is holding back, not giving us the colour that will make the person come alive, and so the biographical parts can seem a little detached.
The only other moan about this book is the final chapter, which seems to be a tacked on collection of little essays, and doesn’t really fit with the structure or feel of the rest of the book. I would rather have lost it, and gained more insights into the individuals involved in what is, without doubt, a fascinating exploration of one of the most fundamental aspects of nature, and one that Bizony brings alive in an effective way. A good popular science book for those who are taking their first, tentative steps into the genre.
Review by Brian Clegg

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