Skip to main content

The Beautiful Invisible – Giovanni Vignale ****

Whereas you might think of science as the opposite of art or literature – perhaps just as a collection of matter-of-fact observations and laws, lacking in emotion – there is just as much expression, imagination and beauty in our physical theories as there is in any poem or painting, physicist Giovanni Vignale argues here.
It is fundamental limits to our understanding that allow us to be imaginative, the book conveys. Reality is, at a deep level, inaccessible and unknowable, so we can only hope to describe it indirectly. We are forced to think creatively, to come up with stories and analogies, and to understand through metaphor and abstraction: scientific theories, the author says, “lie at the interface between the fictional and the real world.”
This may seem most obvious in the quantum mechanical world, where observations and experimental results don’t make intuitive sense, so we have to think outside the box when coming up with theories to make sense of them. But it is the same across all of physics, the book explains – fields, particles and all the rest are the result of the imaginative and creative thinking of physicists and have no physical existence in and of themselves.
Most of the examples the book chooses really get across the extent to which our descriptions of reality rely just as much on human imagination as on hard, matter-of-fact data. And, fittingly, much of the book is written in quite beautiful and poetic language.
The book has a particularly interesting section on the similarities between theories in physics and updated versions of classic pieces of literature. Think, for instance, of the modern takes on Shakespeare’s plays sometimes on television. Whilst these modern versions are superficially different from the original plays – the characters’ names may be different, or we might be in 21st century America rather than 16th century Italy – the underlying themes that are dealt with are the same, and there is a core storyline that remains whichever version you are watching. In this analogy, the core themes and core storyline are reality, with a physical theory being only a particular version or ‘representation’ of it we have come up with through creative thought, and only one of many theories that we could conceivably come up with that would serve just as good a purpose.
The Beautiful Invisible can be hard going at points. It combines a sophisticated philosophical outlook (about what reality is) and numerous references to literature (some pieces of which I know little about) with at times quite technical physics – with the section on electron spin being especially technical. It certainly took me out of my comfort zone on occasion. It is the kind of challenge that is enjoyable, however. And two aspects of physics are covered particularly well. One is entropy, and the other is the discussion around the violation of Bell’s inequality.
The book also wins points for uniqueness – I can’t recall reading anything quite like it before. It’s common for authors to point out that our theories are only imperfect representations of reality. But Vignale’s book explores the idea in much more detail than usual. All in all, it is an interesting perspective on theories in physics, which makes you appreciate science for the creative discipline it is.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …