Skip to main content

Deciphering the Cosmic Number – Arthur I. Miller ***

Finding a new subject is increasingly difficult when looking at biographies of 20th century scientists. Arthur I. Miller has adopted the cunning approach of combining the life and work of physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychotherapist Carl Jung, an apparently unlikely combination, but Pauli was analyzed by Jung and corresponded with him for many years, sharing an interest in mystical concepts and alchemy.
I started off very enthusiastic about this book as Pauli is probably the famous physicist I know least about. (I say famous – it’s telling that Miller comments later on that in 2000, Physics World had a poll for the 10 most famous physicists of the 20th century, and Pauli didn’t get a single vote. He did make some very significant contributions, including the exclusion principle and predicting the existence of the neutrino, but he’s not exactly in Einstein or Feynman’s league.) I was also interested in Jung because I’d made use of the Myers Briggs Type Profile when working at British Airways, and, like much personality profiling, this is based on Jungian concepts.
Miller gives us a good crack at Pauli’s life history – and it’s an interesting life – plus explanations of Pauli’s work that are probably a little equation heavy for some readers, but worth persevering with as they don’t get too technical, with the probably exception of some of the material on the fine structure constant. Pauli made an essential contribution with the exclusion principle to our understanding of atomic structure – this is good stuff and deserves a wider audience.
I was less impressed by Jung – this isn’t Miller’s fault, however. Though Jung has probably been less slated of late than Freud, because his personality types seem to have some basis in reality, the fact is that almost all of Jung’s thinking now seems both extremely dated, and hand-wavingly vague with no real science attached. Although I’ve always found medieval ideas of science interesting, Jung (and to some extent Pauli)’s tendency to take all this stuff seriously, rather than treat it as interesting but no longer valid historical knowledge grates rather.
Worst of all, and here to some extent I do have to blame Miller, there are whole chunks of the book that go into Pauli’s dreams in excruciating detail. It’s a well-known fact, and Prof. Miller should have realized this, that other people’s dreams are the biggest turn-off in reading history. They are instant boredom. Unfortunately, Jung did a lot of dream analysis, and we get page after page of Pauli’s dreams and what they meant. This kills the middle section of the book, and it never really recovers its impetus.
So, an interesting idea to take a different approach, and plenty of good material on Pauli, but many readers may feel the urge to skip over large sections to avoid falling asleep and having their own dreams.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…