Skip to main content

Why Balloons Rise and Apples Fall – Jeff Stewart ****

In this quite short book, Jeff Stewart gives us the basics of physics in easy, digestible terms. If your memory of physics from school is dull, a) you had a bad physics teacher and b) Stewart’s version will be a refreshing surprise.
From the point of view of popular science writing, Stewart fills a gaping hole – and I’m really pleased to see it. Authors like to bang on about the latest theories and the most weird and wonderful stuff. That’s fine, but it means there are very few popular science titles taking on the basic meat and two veg of physics – and this is exactly what Stewart does. At just the right level for the beginner he runs us through all the classical physics that no one bothers with, yet is at the heart of everyday life.
So we have Newton’s laws, energy, power, electricity, magnetism. All that good stuff that you may not even have had properly at school if you did general science. This is highly laudable.
I do have a couple of hesitations. One is very personal. Stewart’s style is one I am more comfortable with in children’s books than one aimed at adults, as this is. It is very jokey. All the time we get (to pick one at random) little comments like ‘… would be like thirty of the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki all going on at once. And that’s going to hurt, even if you’ve got your plastic lab glasses and rubber gloves on.’ Yerrrs. Some people will love this style, but it really puts my back up. Whenever I put a joke in one of my books, the editor politely suggests I remove it – and he’s right.
The other issue is that after doing a good job on classical physics, he really rather rushes through 20th century physics. The chapter on relativity isn’t too bad, but the quantum physics chapter is very sketchy and the final chapter labelled ‘the universe’ is a bit of a mess. It contains the only obvious factual errors – he says that Hubble discovered the Andromeda galaxy in 1925, but it was known of a good 1,000 years before, and Herschel in the 18th century even suggested it was another Milky Way, i.e. another galaxy. He also makes the factual error of saying that ‘Andromeda – and everything else in the universe – is getting further away from us all the time.’ In fact the Andromeda galaxy is heading towards us, as it’s close enough for gravitational attraction to be stronger than the expansion of the universe.
There’s also a very tangled sentence about Grand Universal Theories, where he tantalisingly says that Mark Hadley devised what (by implication) is a better GUT than string theory in the 1990s, but it’s ignored because ‘it could be argued a thousand scientists are working on their GUTs simply because a thousand scientists are working on their GUTs – and because the best way to get funding for your GUT work is for a bunch of other scientists to agree that what you’re working on is worth the massive grant your GUT needs.’ I know what he’s trying to say, but it’s hard to understand it from that.
If you consider the last couple of chapters an epilogue and concentrate on the rest, though, this is an excellent little book for putting across the basics of classical physics to the uninitiated, and as such deserves praise.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

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…