Friday, 16 November 2007

The Void – Frank Close ***

It’s tempting to wonder why anyone would want to write a book about nothing. It would, I presume, be a short book. This is certainly a slim volume, but packs plenty in, because ‘the void’ is a more subtle and complex concept than mere nothingness. Even so, as an author, this is a title that smacks to me of ‘edge hunting’. Any popular science book needs a special something to hang the book on, whether it’s a person, an event or some special aspect of the science itself. It’s easy to imagine Frank Close having a eureka moment when he hit on the void as that special edge for his book, though as we will see, it’s one of those subjects that sounds great as an initial idea, but is hard to provide with much substance.
As a topic, the void isn’t quite as empty as it seems – at the quantum level, a vacuum is anything but empty – but there really isn’t enough in it to support a whole book, and in practice, though there are bits about vacuum and the void, this is really a book about the development of quantum theory, including the evolution of ideas about the nature of matter and light, using the idea of the void as a hook.
Sadly, it doesn’t work awfully well. Frank Close does not provide enough detail to allow the history of science in the book to be anything other than fleeting, nor does it make it possible to really explain the physics, with too much jargon for a true popular science book. Strangest of all, this is a book that seems to sit solidly in the ‘light is a wave’ historical camp. Although Close makes a passing mention of photons, nearly all the book operates on the assumption not that light has wave-like behaviour, but that it truly is a wave, presumably because Close feels this is easier for the non-technical reader to deal with. This is an unhelpful image, especially when getting into quantum theory – it’s almost as if quantum electrodynamics, describing light’s interaction with matter, and all of Feynman’s work showing how all the wave-like properties could be explained using photons, had never happened. I know we often still speak as if light were a wave for convenience, but a book operating at this level should leave the reader with a less classical view.
Overall a book that failed to satisfy, in part because what seemed like a very interesting hook proved, ironically, to have very little to it.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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