Skip to main content

The Dancing Wu Li Masters – Gary Zukav **

Whoa, man, this whole physics trip is like, far out!

Okay, that’s a bit over-simplified, but there is a certain amount of dated charm in Gary Zukav’s 1979 book on what was then “the new physics”. To be fair, it isn’t as it might appear to be an attempt to combine physics and Eastern philosophy. It is a book on physics, but presented in a way that is supposed to be amenable to the navel-gazing generation.

One requirement here is absolutely no maths, and Zukav makes this premise from the start. This isn’t Hawking’s restriction on not having equations, but rather trying to describe things in English rather than mathematics. This is all very well, but it’s a pretty frightening challenge when dealing with quantum theory, were certain aspects have very little meaning outside the maths.

In fact, given its age, Zukav does pretty well at explaining the basics, but for anyone with an aversion to New Age bunkum the style will occasionally irritate – as, for example, when he uses some blatant mistranslation to achieve his desired ends. He points out that Wu Li, the “Chinese” (his term) for physics means “patterns of organic energy”. This sounds great if you love woffly touchy-feely meaningless phrases, but when you come to think about it, it’s almost entirely senseless as organic is a purely human level concept and has no meaning at the level of practically all of physics. (Zukav tries to get round this by saying that organic means living and trying to show that physics applies to living things, but apart from the obvious “so what?”, he’s cheated by misinterpreting organic. Methane is organic, but it’s hardly living!)

However, he also says that Li has several meanings, including “universal order” or “universal law”, and Wu can be matter or energy. Given that “the universal order of matter/energy” is actually not a bad description of physics without getting all mystical, it’s hard to avoid the fact that he is twisting things to meet his requirement. Zukav might quote Newton as saying “I frame no hypotheses” (actually he misquotes this as “make no hypotheses”, which is subtly different), but Zukav himself had a clear hypothesis from the start which he spends the rest of the book massaging physics into.

Another example of this explicit hypothesis framing is the statement “the language of Eastern mystics and Western physicists are becoming very similar.” It’s just not true. As one quantum scientist put it “we don’t spend all our time talking about these sorts of things as [Zukav] suggests.” Science is still about developing models and finding facts to better understand the universe, usually (as Zukav himself) admits in maths – as far removed from Eastern mysticism as you can get. The fact that occasionally the oddities of quantum theory have led to some speculation about the interplay of mind and matter is neither here nor there (and when it has, the scientists have always come at “mind” from a scientific viewpoint, not “matter” from a mystical viewpoint).

Rant over. There is a fair amount of good stuff in here, and Zukav really does manage to explain some aspects of physics quite well – but it’s very sad this book is still selling when there are much better explanations now available that don’t feel the need to resort to this sad packaging. You also should be warned that despite being read and commented on by many physicists, there are some bizarre mistakes. For example, he thinks the early “plum pudding” model of the atom is a plum (presumably not knowing what a plum pudding is).

Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…