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Showing posts from October, 2015

Chance - Michael Brooks (Ed.) ****

New Scientist has had a great success with its books filled with extracts from the 'Last Word' column where readers pose and answer questions. Titles such as Why Don't Penguin's Feet Freeze have proved very popular for a number of years. However, while no doubt they are building up more Q&As for the next such title, the New Scientist staff have come up with a different format that brings together a collection of articles based on an interesting topic. We've already seen this with Nothing - now there's a second outing with Chance. Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of books made up of a smorgasbord of articles by different authors. The outcome is often bitty and lacks any narrative flow - it just doesn't read well as a whole. The New Scientist books suffer a little for this problem, but the good news is that the vast majority of the articles in Chance on randomness, probability and the like are very readable in their own right, and there isn't t…

The Character of Physical Law - Richard Feynman ***

This was a late discovery for me amongst Richard Feynman's books, and it's something of an oddity. Like all the books with his name on, this wasn't a case of Feynman sitting down to write a book; he never wrote a single book - in this case it's a transcription of a set of lectures Feynman gave at Cornell University which were broadcast in the UK by the BBC. What the great physicist sets out to do is to explore the nature of physical laws. Where this works best (and he would probably have hated this suggestion) is where he was at his most philosophical. In the first lecture he explored just what was meant by physical laws and this is genuinely interesting stuff, especially as it's something we rarely give much thought to. After that he goes on to cover specific areas, with lectures on gravity, maths, conservation, symmetry, the arrow of time and probability, before pulling things together in a final lecture on the search for new laws. For me these chapters don't…

Moonstruck - Ernest Naylor ***

There is something uniquely beguiling about the moon. The sun might be the serious luminary power source of the solar system, but it is simply too bright to be aware of any detail without specialist equipment. But everyone can admire the full moon in all its glory. In writing Moonstruck, subtitled 'how lunar cycles affect life', Ernest Naylor keeps us very aware of this human awareness of the moon, constantly throwing in moon myths and beliefs alongside detailed information on the way that the moon, and more often its indirect influence through the tides, influences mostly aquatic behaviour.
While Naylor is sticking to sealife he is on home territory and authoritative, though for the general reader there is perhaps rather too much cataloguing of how various species behave or mate or whatever in subtly different ways dependent on the phase of the moon and the state of the tides.
Where things get a lot more slippery is when Naylor moves onto land animals, and particularly human…

The Quotable Feynman - Richard Feynman (Ed. Michelle Feynman) ***

If you asked people who did physics degrees in my generation - or who were working physicists for that matter - to name their favourite physicist, while there might have been a few dissenters going for, say, Fred Hoyle, the vast bulk would say Richard Feynman. (I honestly don't know if it's the same for young physicists now - it would be interesting to find out.) The reason I mention Hoyle is that the two shared a lot of characteristics. Neither of them sounded like a physicist. Both were, to a degree, iconoclastic. And both came up with delightful quotes. So given all that, it should be no surprise that we get here a collection of Feynman's best snippets, edited by his daughter Michelle. This isn't the first book of this kind - there was also The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, and like Einstein, Feynman was both a brilliant physicist who was able to see the world differently and a master of the witty remark, often pithy and pungent, each managing to get to the heart of th…

Is it always one thing or the other in quantum theory?

We have a report from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) of 'a photograph of light as both a particle and a wave.' HT to Ian Bald for pointing this out - the paper dates back to March, but I didn't spot it at the time.

It's interesting to dig in a bit and see a) is this true and b) is it the end of Bohr's assertion as part of his concept of complementarity that light could act like a wave or a particle but never both at the same time?

The experiment is complex enough that it's a little fuzzy when it comes to the interpretation. What the experimenters did was reported by the EPFL's press people as follows. The experimenters fired a laser at a metallic nanowire. Some of the energy from the photons in the light stimulated electrons in the wire, which meant that 'light' travelled along the wire in two directions. When these waves met they formed a standing wave which generated emitted light. They then shot electrons at the wire which inte…

The Magic of Maths - Arthur Benjamin ***

There are broadly three types of popular maths. There are books like A Brief History of Infinitywhich introduce mathematical concepts and history without actually doing any maths - and these can be fascinating. There are books of recreational maths, like Martin Gardner's classic Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions, or Ian Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, which explore the weird and wonderful of maths, with a need for a bit of practical working out, but almost always provide plenty of fun along the way. And there are book like the Magic of Maths. (Could I say, by the way, how grateful I am that the UK edition has that 's' on 'maths'.) Almost always written by mathematicians, such books set out to prove to the masses who think that actually getting your hands dirty and doing mathematics is too hard or too boring that it's really easy and enjoyable too. To give him his due, Arthur Benjamin makes a good stab at this - one of the best I've seen.…

Origins: the scientific story of creation - Jim Baggott ****

Every civilisation has its creation myths. These often beautiful stories describe how the world came into being and, most importantly in terms of the reason the stories exist, explore how we as humans relate to the wider universe. Jim Baggott, who is one of the few science writers able to make the Higgs boson comprehensible, has taken on an even greater challenge in writing a creation myth for the scientific age. Origins is a weighty tome - literally. Oxford University Press either incorporate a chunk of heavy metal into the spine or (more likely) use a particularly heavyweight glossy paper in books like these, which mean that they are a positive drag for bedtime reading or posting, but look undoubtedly handsome. But what of the contents? Baggott takes us chronologically from the origins of the universe, through the formation of stars and galaxies, on to the solar system coalescing and the Earth forming, through our planetary ages, bringing in the beginnings of life and the eventual evo…

13.8: the quest to find the true age of the universe ad the theory of everything - John Gribbin ****

If we had such a thing as a science writers' hall of fame, John Gribbin would be one of its first inductees. As one of the UK's most respected veterans of the field, and with a background in astrophysics, Gribbin is uniquely placed to take us on a guided tour of the history of attempts to establish the age of the universe, and to combine the general theory of relativity and quantum theory, almost certainly necessary if we are to have an effective picture of the earliest moments of existence.

It says a lot for Gribbin's grasp of the topic that he can write a book where, to be honest, the only real new aspect is changing the generally accepted age of the universe from 13.7 billion years to 13.8 and yet still make his content feel fresh and approachable. One of the ways he does this is to avoid going into too much depth on stories that have been told many times before. It's always a difficult balance. Do you, for instance, tell the story of the discovery of the cosmic micr…