Skip to main content

The Ascent of Gravity - Marcus Chown ****

Marcus Chown is one of the UK's best writers on physics and astronomy - it's excellent to see him back on what he does best. Here we discover our gradual approach to understanding the nature of gravity - the 'ascent' of the title - which, though perhaps slightly overblown in the words 'the force that explains everything' (quantum physics does quite a lot too, for example), certainly makes us aware of the importance of this weakest of fundamental forces. Chown's approach to gravity is a game of three halves, as they say, broadly covering Newton, Einstein and where we go from general relativity.

As far as the first two sections go, with the exception of the 2015 gravitational waves detection, there's not much that's actually new - if you want a popular science exploration of these aspects of the topic with more depth see this reviewer's Gravity - but no one has covered the topic with such a light touch and joie de vivre as Chown. 

Although Chown doesn't give us too much character detail on his two key figures, we get good mental sketches of them, enough to get a feel for what kind of personality produced the remarkable work that each was responsible for. There has been a lot written of late criticising science writers for putting too much focus on the 'heroic lone individual' in the history of science. And we certainly get a full power portrayal of this pair as solitary geniuses. But though you can quibble about how original calculus was or whether Einstein should have given more credit to others in his work on special relativity, it's hard to imagine two people in the history of science who more deserve this treatment - and it is far and above the best approach for the kind of storytelling that Chown excels at.

The third section has its highs and lows. It gives what I think is the best introduction to string theory at this basic descriptive level I've ever seen, going considerably beyond the basics of vibrating strings and rolled up dimensions. However, I was rather surprised at the total dismissal of string theory's main rival, loop quantum gravity, which literally only appears in an end note. In one sense this was refreshing. I had read so much pointing out the flaws in string theory and how it arguably wasn't even science because of its inability to make useful predictions that I had pretty much mentally dismissed it. It seemed very reasonable that the only thing that kept it alive was the large number of careers that had been dedicated to it. Chown, however, gives it a spirited defence which, while not necessarily clinching, certainly made it possible to understand why so many physicists found it attractive.

Overall, then, a very readable exploration of humanity's gradual realisation of what gravity was about with all of Chown's usual sparkle. It would have been good if we had seen a little more of the points where things aren't set in stone - for example the alternatives to dark matter or that elusive loop quantum gravity - but what we get is a delight.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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…

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…