Thursday, 24 September 2009

We need to talk about Kelvin – Marcus Chown *****

The things we react to first about a book are its cover, its title and its author. This one has an eye-popping cover in a very 2008/9 comic style, a title that really grabs the attention (even if the pun is a bit wince-making) and an author that immediately gives you the reassurance that you are going to have a good time – Marcus Chown is one the most consistently entertaining popular science writers in the business.
For entertainment value, and driving pace, Kelvin never lets the reader down. From the start we are bombarded with amazing facts, driven by Chown’s very effective idea of taking everyday aspects of human existence and exploring the exciting science that lies behind them. So, for instance, the partial reflection through a night-time window leads on to the consideration of the quantum theory of light and much more. Later on, we discover more about the nature of atoms and heat, thermodynamics and cosmology.
Chown’s great strength is that he can counter the QI glaze effect. On the TV show QI, when they occasionally have a panellist with a science background, the other competitors start to glaze over whenever that person starts on about a science subject. They visibly drop off and lose interest. It’s very easy to present something like the Pauli exclusion principle that is at the heart of subatomic physics in a way that would put the reader to sleep as well – but Chown makes it interesting and makes it seem very logical.
A lot of the content is fairly familiar ground if you regularly read popular science books, but that doesn’t stop it being interesting even if it is familiar – and for many readers there will be much that is new. Even for the popular science enthusiasts there will be some surprises, for example the shock revelation that 99 per cent of astronomers get the answer to Olber’s paradox -why is the night sky black, rather than full of stars? – wrong. And I rather like the way he finishes the book on a very open topic – why we aren’t being constantly visited by aliens.
Inevitably there are a few small gripes. The book doesn’t have any illustrations or diagrams – this is usually fine, and Chown does a great job of painting a picture with his words. But there were a couple of occasions, particularly when describing the difference between fermions and bosons, when a diagram or two really would have helped untangle what was being said. Another problem I had is that to make the material approachable he is very definitive. You would think there was no possibility of alternative theories to some of the concepts mentioned. And very occasionally his cracking pace gets in the way of understanding. When he says that light being produced by an electron is a bit like a 40 tonne truck emerging from a matchbox, I want to know a bit more – but he’s already on to the next thing. But these are all very minor worries.
All in all, a great idea for a book, a very enjoyable read and a strong addition to the Chown oeuvre.
Review by Brian Clegg

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