Skip to main content

Physics in 100 Numbers - Colin Stuart ***

I'm not generally a big fan of the popular science equivalent of those filler TV shows like 'The 50 best comedy moments' or 'The 100 TV scenes you least want to see again' or whatever. Some of these books feel no more than an easily sellable packaged concept with little imagination behind it. I'm pleased to say that Colin Stewart's Physics in 100 Numbers is not one of these - it has plenty of genuine moments of interest.

What we have here is a collection of single page items and double page spreads in slightly wider than usual hardback (though not big enough to class as a coffee table book) format in numerical order from 5.49x10-44 (Planck time) to 1x10500 (number of possible string theory 'solutions'). Occasionally the format is a little squeezed - so 1543, for instance, is not really a number, but the year that the groundbreaking book by Copernicus was published - but mostly Stuart sticks to the straight and narrow.

What the author tries to do, and at which he often succeeds, is to turn each little essay into an enjoyable expansion of the basic facts to include enough context to make it worth reading. So, for instance, for the permeability of free space (1.26x10-6, but you knew that) we don't just discover what the scientific term means, but who came up with the word 'permeability' (Oliver Heaviside, who in his photo looks scarily like an Edwardian version of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine), why permeability and its counterpart permittivity were important in Maxwell's work on electromagnetism, and how it made the prediction that light was an electromagnetic wave possible.

The reason I really can't give a title like this the four stars that some of its content deserves is that I am never really sure what such a book is for. Unless readers have trainspotting inclinations, I can't see them sitting down and reading the book end to end. I certainly found that quite difficult to do (and I was a trainspotter in my teens). But on the other hand, physics isn't necessarily the ideal topic for a dip in, dip out loo book. Perhaps the best application here is as a gift for difficult-to-buy for people.

So if you enjoy these kind of highly segmented 'n things' type books, and a lot of people must because they sell pretty well, this is without doubt one of the best of the breed. (Incidentally, it's a format that should work well on Kindle - a shame not to see it as an ebook.)

Review by Brian Clegg


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…

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…