Skip to main content

The Elegant Universe of Albert Einstein – Tom Barnes et al ***

Like all books that are collections of essays – in this case, a series of talks given on New Zealand national radio – there is a certain degree of dislocation to this book – but it works better than many, as most of the sections are lucid and readable in their own right. The main disadvantage is a tendency to leap from topic to topic with the fragile linking theme of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s great year 1905 (although the book didn’t come out until 2006).
So we get topics from a brief history of the universe and the history of our knowledge of the age of the Earth, to relativity, quantum theory and more, including the often difficult interaction between science and religion.
Some of these topics only have a very tangential link to Einstein – in fact only one strongly covers Einstein’s work, and includes a potted biography of the man. This is where the segmented nature of the book comes out strongest as there is also a mini-biography in the introduction – you’d think the author of the introduction would have been aware of the overlap.
Generally the subjects are covered in a very approachable fashion. The first (the brief history of the universe one) suffers from occasional moments of wince-making whimsy – for example, the author Matt Visser says ‘These days, when your child wanders up to you and says, “Dear parental unit, why does the sun shine?”‘ Only the very desperate would find ‘dear parental unit’ anything other than cringe-worthy. The other section that is a little weak is the second by Hamish Campbell on the age of the earth. This lists the naming of the different periods at tedious length and is rather stodgy. But the rest of the pieces read very well.
I particularly enjoyed Paul Callaghan’s ‘Journey to the Heart of Matter’ section on the discovery of the nature of matter (inevitably, and why not, strongly featuring the work of New Zealand’s biggest scientific star, Ernest Rutherford) and the final section by John Stenhouse, called ‘Galileo’s Dilemma’. Stenhouse steers a careful course, identifying where (for instance) the Catholic church went very wrong with Galileo but also being clear that not all problems ascribed to religion (such as the fictional insistence on a flat earth in medieval times) really existed. It’s too easy for scientists who are very vocal against religion, like Richard Dawkins, to paint things just as black and white as any religious fundamentalist – this section gives a much more balanced view.
All in all, it’s an enjoyable little taster around aspects of the physical sciences that can be loosely tied in to Einstein. Each section then needs opening up further with a whole book on the subject – but it’s a good starting point.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …