Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Four Laws (that drive the Universe) – Peter Atkins ***

There’s something rather Victorian feeling about the concept of universal laws – and Peter Atkins rightly recognizes in his introduction that thermodynamics – the subject of this slim volume – is a word that tends to conjure up Victorian images like steam engines and pistons, but there is much more to the four laws of thermodynamics (confusingly starting with the zeroth law) than the answers to all the questions a Victorian engineer might ask. In fact, as Atkins suggests, these laws are an absolute fundamental when it comes to understanding how the universe works, and everyone ought to have a rough idea of what they are about. Apparently C. P. Snow once said “not knowing the second law of thermodynamics is like never having read a work by Shakespeare.” Now, leaving aside the fact that reading much Shakespeare is rather dull (at least compared with watching a Shakespeare play, put on by a decent cast), which I don’t think is what Snow meant, there’s an element of truth here.
So a slim book, painlessly introducing the big four to the innocent reader, more familiar with Shakespeare than physics, would be a great thing indeed. Unfortunately that’s not quite what this book is. Even most popular science fans will find it both over-complex and rather hard work. That’s not to say this isn’t a good book for a certain audience. It would be excellent to help first year physics undergraduates get to grips with the ideas behind thermodynamics before they have to plunge into doing all the calculations that go with it – and I would highly recommend it for that audience – but for the general reader, neither the style nor the content cuts in, in terms of getting across thermodynamics as accessibly as other books have managed to explain (say) relativity or quantum theory for the general reader. What a shame.
Review by Brian Clegg

Is There Life After Death? – Tony Peake ***

Don’t ignore this book because you think it’s not about science – it is, and that’s why it’s here. Tony Peake is not in the business of peddling religion, but examines the possible impact of the strangest aspects of quantum theory and modern concepts of consciousness to see if there’s a scientific way of looking beyond our normal idea of a 70 year lifespan. In a sense the title of his book is misleading (I don’t think he chose it) – it’s not so much about life after death, as life outside of the conscious existence we all familiar with.
What is really interesting about this book is the way that Peake uses legitimate (if not always mainstream) scientific theories to weave a beguiling picture of what we might be, as beings that live in a very different universe to the one we perceive (we know our perception of the world is a construct of the brain). Inevitably it brings in the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory, but also many other ideas to make a powerful and exotic suggestion of how Peake believes we can exist outside of our apparent earthly life. It’s unfortunate that he brings in “data” from pseudo-science from Nostradamus’s predictions to hypnotism, but that doesn’t stop there being a lot of very interesting ideas here. To make his case, Peake has to combine scientific theory with subjective stories, which means ignoring that excellent quote “data is not the plural of anecdote” – but that doesn’t stop this being a genuinely interesting excursion into “what if?”
The biggest concern I have about this book is not the topic itself, which is fascinating, or even the anecdotal evidence, but rather the way that the whole edifice is built on shaky foundations. There are a number of errors in the basic science at the start of the book that make it worrying just how safe the rest of the conclusions are. For instance, early on we are told that Einstein called the particles of light he dreamed up photons. Unfortunately it was Planck, not Einstein, who came up with the idea of quanta, and Einstein didn’t call them photons – the name was devised by chemist Gilbert Lewis. We are also told that according to quantum theory, matter is nothing more than a probability wave – this is a rather odd interpretation. The probability wave describes the chances of a particle being in a particular position, but this doesn’t mean the particle is a probability wave. There is also some doubtful inclusion of woffly philosophy among the science. For example, Peake asks us where the redness of a red coat resides, given it doesn’t look red in moonlight, so the red nature can’t reside in the coat. This is a doubtful interpretation. The redness is a property of the chemical constituents that decide which frequencies that it will emit and which it will absorb. The fact that it doesn’t look red in some lights or absence of light is irrelevant – redness is a property of the chemical components that is revealed by using certain lights and that’s an end to it unless you want to play philosophical games.
Perhaps most worryingly, the whole basis of Peake’s argument is that according to quantum theory there needs to be a conscious observer to make the waveform collapse and the world to be become real. While some have argued this, it certainly isn’t a view held by most physicists, whichever interpretation of quantum theory they subscribe to – most would assume that an “observation” can be as little as an interaction with another particle. Just to be clear that I’m not being picky, here’s an example of fundamental scientific errors on just one page. We are told “most gamma ray primary particles are photons” – gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation: they are entirely made up of photons. A little later we are told “these primary particle photons carry so much energy they can travel at 99.9999999 percent of the speed of light.” No, photons are light – they travel at 100% of the speed of light. A little later there’s talk of time dilation and photons. “A clock moving alongside this particle would tick at one hundred billionth of the rate of a clock on Earth.” Unfortunately, the whole basis of special relativity is that nothing can move alongside a photon. However slow or fast you move alongside a light beam, it always comes at you at the same speed. A little later: “usually charged objects such as photons will be deflected by our galaxy’s magnetic field.” Unfortunately, photons aren’t charged particles.
Overall, then, this is a fascinating book and a great subject, well worth reading if only to see if you are inclined to argue with the author or agree with him. There is some doubt about the fundamental physics – perhaps there are one or two leaps of imagination too far – yet it doesn’t stop in being a book that should be on many more people’s shelves.
Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 2 August 2007

The Time Traveller – Ronald Mallett & Bruce Henderson *****

The idea of travelling in time has been a science fiction standard for at least a hundred years, but it’s one of those subjects that real scientists tend to avoid like the plague. The fact is, scientists can be quite conservative about what they discuss, and though several have postulated that it could be possible to travel in time using impractical suggestions like wormholes, to dare to attempt to design a time machine for real is putting yourself in a real state of risk. Yet this is exactly what physics professor Ronald Mallett has done – and got away with it.
This charming book explains how a boy from a poor family was driven into science by the urge to go back and visit his dead father – it really is the stuff of fiction – and though he was worked on various topic along the way, underlying his progression has always been the belief that he would find a way to travel through time.
The book is superbly readable – it once again shows how academics can benefit from getting the help of a co-author. What might seem fairly unpromising stuff – boy grows up to be academic (yawn) – into a real page-turner. All along the way you want Ronald Mallett to succeed, such is his determination.
The book isn’t perfect. Although the asides explaining the science along the way are generally quite effective, the attempts to put things into historical context by, for instance, summarizing Einstein’s life are just too summary – they make a big thing about Einstein’s children, but don’t even mention the first one, for instance. If you are going to give historical context, it should be better researched. The other big problem is the ending. In a sense, the book has been written too early. Mallett, a theoretical physicist – has devised a means that could enable time travel, and has got an experimenter willing to put something together, but that’s as far as they’ve got, so just when you get to the chapter where you expect the big reveal, in fact the book ends with a rather wishy-washy chapter with such fillers as “what I’d ask Einstein if I could go back.” This was a real disappointment. Without the experimental results, it’s not possible to tell if it would work at all – and if it does work, whether the shift would be big enough to use. Mallett doesn’t mention the faster-than-light experiments of Nimtz, Chiao etc., which do provide a very small time shift, but one that can never be practically used, and this could be the same. (For a broader exploration of time travel, see my How to Build a Time Machine, which features a chapter on Mallett.)
Perhaps the most poignant moment is the realization of a limitation in the approach (one that’s common to many hypothetical time travel mechanisms, so it’s surprising Mallett didn’t realize sooner – maybe this was shifted later for dramatic purposes). His time travel device could never move back earlier than when the device was first made, so couldn’t be used to visit his late father.
Despite those flaws, though, a hugely readable book, a fascinating subject and a delightful story.
Review by Brian Clegg

Unknown Quantity – John Derbyshire ***

There is something rather fascinating about the little quotes you see on a the cover of a book. Sometimes they are intriguing, sometimes banal. In this case of this particular book, I had to wonder if someone writing for New Scientist, who commented “even algebraphobes will struggle to fault” was reading the same book. To be fair, “struggle to fault” is such a suspiciously ugly phrase that it’s hard not to suspect that there was more to that sentence in the original form than meets the eye. Whatever – as it stands it is very misleading.
To be fair, John Derbyshire does intertwine the mathematical bits of this history of algebra with a bit of context, telling us about the people involved, and those bits work rather well, but the fact remains there is no way you can describe this as a popular maths book. The suspicions are immediately raised by the way the book is divided up into numbered sections. There’s nothing like seeing §3.2 to bring all the joy of reading a textbook flooding back. What joy? Well, no, there isn’t any, is there? Before long, however much he Derbyshire dresses this up by telling us that Cardano (say) was “‘a piece of work’ as we might say now”, nine readers out of ten will be either struggling or bored rigid. This simply isn’t the way to get maths across to a popular audience. Maybe he should read a touch of Hawking to get the idea that you can be quite erudite without leaving your reader totally baffled.
In principle I hope I could have understood the maths – in practice, I didn’t want to. I have only ever given up three books part way through. One of these was a novel that everyone tells me is a classic and wonderful, but I found childish and boring (Catch 22), so maybe it’s me. On the other hand it could be the book.
If you are a mathematician and are interested in algebra, this is a great book to get some historical context, something sadly lacking from much university teaching. If you’re not – I really wouldn’t bother. For a much more approachable history of algebra (with group theory and symmetry thrown in) see The Equation that Couldn’t be Solved.
Review by Brian Clegg