Skip to main content

What If Einstein Was Wrong – Ed. Brian Clegg ***

It’s ironic that the editor of this website, Brian Clegg, has occasionally said he can’t see the point of books with a series of short articles on a subject… only to end up editing just such a book here. I usually review children’s books and this format is very familiar to me – the two page spread, with text on one page and a large illustration on the other – but I do accept it’s more uncommon in adult non-fiction.
For me this particular example works well. If I’m honest, though, the cover made me nervous. With a combination of an ungrammatical title and a picture of E=mc2 crossed out (something that never features inside) it seems as if it may be verging on pseudo-science, but actually the topics (written by a collection of highly respectable authors, including Jim Al-Khalili on the foreword) are the bits of physics that were once or are still challenging and that take people by surprise. In other words, the interesting bits.
The book is divided into seven sections – quantum physics, relativity and time travel, particle physics, cosmology, astrophysics, classical physics and technology. (Ok, that last isn’t really physics, but it’s technology that is physics related.) Each section also has a ‘historical’ entry that was once a little risqué but is now fairly straightforward, like Galilean relativity or the (not) flat Earth. It actually all works surprisingly well. There’s enough text to get a meaty little bit of information, plus a couple of bonus factoids, and some of the illustrations are rather fun.
It’s hard to pick out favourites among the 50 or so topics, but they range from the likes of ‘What if Schrödinger lost his cat?’ to ‘What if Maxwell had a demon?’ You get the feel, I think. Overall entertaining bite-sized physics that would make a good present or just something to read here and there.
Hardback:  
Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is edited by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

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…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …