Skip to main content

It’s Not Rocket Science – Ben Miller *****

Ben Miller is probably best known for playing a detective in the gentle, rather underrated comedy drama Death in Paradise, and as half of the comedy duo Armstrong and Miller, but he studied physics at Cambridge and was en route to a doctorate when he realized that getting a real job was much more useful. (I would like to apply a large kick to Brian Cox for writing the most condescending puff for the book I’ve ever seen: ‘A fun and insightful ride through the whole of science – it’s almost as if he’d finished his PhD.’)
I don’t know why it is, but people always get a little excited when an entertainer has a science qualification. (Think Brian May or Dara O’Briain for instance.) No doubt many others have, say, English or history degrees, but for some reason this doesn’t cause the same amazement. Perhaps the assumption is that all entertainers are a bit, well, thick. But either way we really have to take the book on its merits. And they are considerable.
Miller conducts a rambling tour of some of the best bits (in the terms of being mind boggling) of science. He takes us into the world of particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider, into the depths of the universe and black holes, looks at how the solar system formed, at the wonders of evolution and geology, DNA, the chemistry of cookery, global warming, and how space travel requires Newton’s laws of motion. All this is done in a good humoured light-hearted fashion. Particularly engaging are the sections where he describes how he got into science, his experiences at Cambridge and taking on Gordon Ramsay in making a sponge cake.
I’d say the ideal audience for this book is someone who has never read a popular science book and wants a primer. It is probably too simplistic for any regular science reader, but for the newcomer, Miller’s enthusiasm (much more Magnus Pyke than Brian Cox) is infectious. Just occasionally it gets a bit too childish and hand wavy, but mostly it works well. Admittedly even Miller can’t make geology exciting. And there is one out-and-out error, when he describes Einstein’s 1905 papers as general rather than special relativity, but these are small issues. He hits most of the good bits on the nail (except quantum theory, which is hardly covered at all) and carries the reader along effortlessly.
Not a book for everyone, then, but for teenagers or adults taking a first step into the world of popular science, this is a cracker.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

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…

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 …