Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from June, 2008

A Different Universe – Robert M. Laughlin ***

This rather quirky little book is certainly one of the most unique popular science books about physics I have read over the years. The basic argument that this title presents is that by taking a reductionist (i.e. nuts ‘n’ bolts) approach to understanding nature, physicists are not seeing the wood for the trees. Instead, Nobel Prize winner Robert Laughlin argues, physics should be concerned with emergent phenomena (i.e. what we get when the nuts ‘n’ bolts are put together) – the sort of things that chemists and biologists are typically concerned with. Laughlin uses various examples such as: superconductivity, quantum computers, relativity, nanotechnology (of which he is incredibly dismissive) and the quantum Hall effect (the explanation of which Laughlin won his Nobel prize for) to make his case. Some of these examples don’t appear to be emergent at first glance – but as Laughlin points out this is often a case of misinterpretation of what is really going on. The author makes effectiv…

Before the Fall-out – Diana Preston *****

This is a highly compelling, and in places positively gripping, account of the discovery of radioactivity and nuclear physics and its subsequent use in the first atomic bomb. The physics involved is described in a very clear and readable manner, but what really makes this book a page-turner is the fact that we get the human story behind the narrative of the scientific discoveries made. Preston does an excellent job of relating the biographical details of the key scientists such as the Curies and Ernest Rutherford in the early days of the science of radioactivity. The work of Otto Hans and Lise Mietner, their struggles in Nazi Germany, their subsequent escape and gradual realization of the potential of nuclear energy are also vividly described. As you might expect a fair proportion of the book is devoted to the Manhattan Project and the tension between Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. Preston also does an excellent job of portraying everyday life at Los Alamos for the scientists a…

The Undercover Scientist – Peter J. Bentley ***

I was very much looking forward to this book, I suspect in part because I had greatly enjoyed the book The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford, and was expecting something similar, point out the unexpected science that lurks behind our everyday lives. In a sense, that’s what Peter Bentley sets out to do, but it just doesn’t work the way Harford’s book does. In part the problem is the context. Bentley has each section start with a running story of everyday disaster, told in the second person, where the protagonist suffers everything from slipping on a wet bathroom floor to breaking a tooth. This whole continuing story is very forced and feels rather amateurish. It is designed to fit his descriptions of how everyday science works into a framework, but that framework wasn’t necessary. Like Harford’s economist, there was no need to do anything more than pick up on the really revelatory bits of science in everyday life. The other way that the book fails in comparison with Harford’s is that…

Giant Leaps: Mankind’s Greatest Scientific Advances – John Perry & Jack Challoner ****

This is the only popular science book I know of that has been personally endorsed by Tony Blair (but don’t let that put you off it!) who after reading it said: ‘I wish there had been a book like this to awaken my interest in Science.’ This colourful and well-illustrated coffee table book is an unlikely collaboration between The Sun (one of the UK’s infamous tabloid newspapers), and the Science Museum that covers most of the major inventions and discoveries in scientific history, and even speculates on those that might yet be made. Each one is described in a two page spread: one page of which is written by the Science Museum and is purely factual, and the other being a mock up of what the front page of The Sun would have looked like if it had been reporting on the relevant discovery. The fun here is of course that the tabloid reporting style is spoofed perfectly – leading to such gems as: ‘MONKEY NUTTER! Barmy Boffin Darwin Reckons We’re All Descend From Apes’ and the discovery of peni…

The Goldilocks Enigma – Paul Davies ****

The anthropic principle, depending on whom you believe, is either the most profound idea in cosmology or a load of old hokum. Essentially the principle says that the universe has to be the way that it is otherwise we would not be here to observe it in the first place. This may at first glance appear to stating the obvious – but this idea has very deep implications about our universe. In particular, some cosmologists have appealed to the principle to help explain what is know as the fine tuning problem. The constants of nature such as Planck’s constant, the speed of light, the universal gravitational constant, etc. have very precise values, in fact if some of these constants were even slightly different (i.e. to the nth decimal place) then the physical nature of our universe would be radically different to what it is. Stars, galaxies and in fact life itself would not be able to exist in such conditions. The problem is, of course, why these constants should have values that have made ou…

It’s ONLY Rocket Science – Lucy Rogers ***

This is a book I’ve really mixed feelings about – it does what it sets out to do very well. And it does what it says on the tin. It’s a plain English introduction to rocket science. But it’s not really popular science, and so it can’t score very well here. You can tell that the publisher isn’t aiming at the popular science market without even opening the covers. The cover is too thin for a commercial book – it feels like a textbook – the pages are glossy, again unusual in a commercial book unless it’s a picture book, and the price is too high for a popsci paperback. But it doesn’t take too much reading to reinforce this message. I have no doubt whatsoever that Lucy Rogers knows her stuff and gives us quite detailed coverage of everything from propulsion systems to commercial space flight. But the text is a chewy concatenation of facts. It’s just fact, after fact, after fact. To open at random and summarise what I see – this is what a launch vehicle is, these are the design decisions w…

The Last Man Who Knew Everything – Andrew Robinson ****

It may seem a rather grand claim to make, but this biography of polymath Thomas Young paints a picture of a remarkably talented man, who endeavored in fields as diverse as physics, Egyptology and physiology, making discoveries that are still being made use of today. Young’s work in engineering and material sciences is a key part of any A-level physics course, the Young Modulus of a material determines how elastic it is and thus is a vital figure to know when building any sort of structure and what stresses it can withstand. Likewise Young’s famous double slit experiment proved conclusively that light behaved like a wave (and later allowed physicists to gain a greater understanding of how quantum theory worked), showing Newton’s ‘corpuscular’ theory of light to be wrong. Young also made significant discoveries in the field of optics – and through a series of rather painful and slightly gruesome experiments on himself found out how the focusing mechanism of the eye works. In addition he…

50 Physics Ideas you Really Need to Know – Joanne Baker ***

I am not sure exactly what audience this book is intended for, as it isn’t quite a coffee table book and yet neither is it a reference work, indeed it falls somewhere between the two. The title is an accurate description of the book’s content (although it could be argued if anyone really does need know these ideas or not!) – the author describes within the space of two or three pages each, 50 diverse concepts in physics such as Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, the EPR paradox, chaos theory, the photoelectric effect, Hooke’s law, etc. Baker does a fairly good job of describing the relevant physics behind each idea, however there are some silly errors here and there that distract from the text. In places it would appear that tighter editing would have improved things no end. However, the range of physics covered is admirable and all the big physics ideas that you would expect to find in such a book are all present, and by and large correct. Along with each idea covered there is a time…

Endless Universe – Neil Turok & Paul J. Steinhardt ****

The standard big bang inflationary model of cosmology describes our Universe as beginning as an infinitesimal point of infinite density, energy and mass known as a singularity, where all of the known laws of physics break down. For reasons we are still not certain about, this singularity started to expand. In order to explain certain features of the universe around us (mainly the smoothness of the cosmic background radiation), it has been proposed that our early universe went through an exponentially rapid period of expansion – this is dubbed ‘inflation’. Although this is the conventional view that cosmology holds about the origins of our universe, it is not without its flaws. In particular some astrophysicists are unhappy about the proposed singularity at the start of our universe. Inflation theory has also had to be tinkered with in order to take in to account the existence of dark matter and more recently dark energy, driving our universe’s expansion to accelerate, contrary to the …

The Physics of Superheroes – James Kakalios ****

Would Superman really be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound in the real world? Could Ant Man shrink to insect size whenever he needed to? And what do Spiderman’s battles with his archenemy Electro teach us about electricity? By combining his passions for comic books and physics, James Kakalios succeeds in writing a lively, humorous and entertaining book. As he explains in his prologue he uses the physics of comic book situations with his students in order to give them a better understanding of concepts such as mechanics, energy, electromagnetism, etc. by placing the science into an approachable context. The author’s knowledge of numerous superheroes antics is certainly comprehensive – however don’t be put off by this as Kakalios does an excellent job of explaining the scenario the heroic protagonists face, often illustrated with the appropriate pages from the comic book in question. He then uses this to explore the relevant physics in a clear and very accessible fashion. So…

The Tao of Physics – Fritjof Capra ***

Currently enjoying its fourth revised edition (the UK version is the third edition), this book has been around for over 30 years – and indeed enjoys a bit of a cult status. It is not without its critics however! Sadly, physics (in particular quantum theory) has been subverted by new age mystics in order to make ridiculous claims – the atrocious film What The Bleep Do We Know? is a recent example. Capra’s work does not set out to do the same. Capra draws out the parallels between quantum theory, relativity and Eastern mysticism and belief. Capra’s treatment of this is not as pseudo scientific as you may think, he does a very good job of describing what physics has to say about the nature of the universe and in particular our theories about space and time, and points out the similarities in how Shintoism, Buddhism etc. view the universe by comparison. As with most Westerners I was unaware of what Eastern religions had to say about the nature of the world around us, so this was a doubly …

Cosmic Imagery: key images in the history of science – John D. Barrow *****

This lavishly illustrated book is a must-have, not just for the beautiful pictures within it, but for Barrow’s spectacular commentary on the significance of the diagrams, images, and illustrations it contains, and how they have helped to shape science and mathematics over the centuries. As you may expect there are many pictures in the book from the field of astronomy, which have given us significant insights in to how our Universe works – such as the Hubble Deep Field image of some of the earliest known galaxies. But what is slightly less obvious is the link that Barrow makes between the Earl of Rosse’s famous drawings of the Whirlpool Galaxy, which he made with the famous Leviathan telescope, and the way these drawings probably inspired the swirling night sky in Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. This is where Barrow succeeds in making this an engrossing read in drawing out the boarder significance of the scientific discoveries he looks at. The book is a mixture of the things you may well e…

The Trouble with Physics – Lee Smolin *****

This is the second book I have read recently which seeks to deconstruct string theory, and put in to question its validity as a scientific theory. (The other one is the more mathematical and technical Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit.) Smolin describes string theory in a very deft and readable fashion, but the real strength of the book is Smolin’s reflections on the flaws in the reasoning behind string theory, and how the way that the physics community works has helped to elevate string theory to the point where it is seen as a panacea to all of the big issues that remain for physicists to try to answer. Smolin successfully argues the point that we need to reassess our understanding of space and time if we are ever to come up with a ‘theory of everything’, which string theory purports to be. As the author points out, if physicists are to do this then we need to encourage ‘seers’ (Smolin’s term), like Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, etc. who have the brilliance of thought to be able to underst…