Thursday, 8 December 2005

The Little Book of Scientific Principles, Theories & Things – Surendra Verma *****

This is an absolutely delightful little book. (I say “little” largely because that’s what the title says. It’s as wide as any normal paperback, and not overly slim at 222 pages. It’s just a little vertically challenged. The idea is simple, but effective. It contains 175 theories or key principles in science. Each gets one (or occasionally two) pages, stating what it is and giving some background.
Put as bluntly as that, it doesn’t sound very exciting – but Surendra Verma makes each little section a vignette that brightly illuminates both the idea itself and the people who were responsible for it. We get little glimpses into people’s lives – it’s an entertaining scientific peepshow that works wonderfully well.
At first sight, some of the entries are a bit scary. Unlike Stephen Hawking, Verma takes no notice of the infamous advice that every equation halves the numbers of readers. The introduction to each section, which says what the principle is before going on to put it in context and explain it, quite often does contain an equation or two. But this really shouldn’t put anyone off – there’s no need to understand what’s going on, and for those who want a little more depth it’s very useful.
The different topics come in chronological order. Many are familiar, but every now and then there’s a total left fielder that takes the reader by surprise. Although the book doesn’t read through with any continuity, it’s not just a dip-in book (though it works nicely this way), it’s easy to keep reading just one more… and just one more… and suddenly a half hour has passed by.
Occasionally the need to fit into a small space does compromise the value of the information. Take Galois’ Theory. It is described as “The study of solutions of some equations and how different solutions are related to each other”, which is so vague it could just as easily be a definition of algebra. We’re told it’s a brilliant and complex theory, and that it can be used to solve classical mathematical problems like “Which regular polygons can be constructed by ruler and compass?” (now there’s a problem we all meet every day), but unfortunately because Galois himself has such a dramatic story, the rest of the page is taken up with his (short) life, and we never really find out what his theory is, or what it can do that makes it worth including in the list. This is a rarity, though – most of the entries are concise, useful and easy to follow. (A couple don’t quite hit the mark. When describing Young’s work on light, Verma says that according to quantum theory, light is “transported in photons that are guided along their paths by waves”, which sounds more like the outdated pilot wave theory than modern quantum theory. But again, such moments are in the minority.)
I really do recommend buying this book and launching yourself into a sea of scientific wonder. Sometimes you will discover discredited ideas, like Lamarck’s theories of heredity, or Ptolemy’s earth-centred universe. At other times, you might find memories from school stimulated, as you revisit Boyle’s law or Newton’s laws of motion. Or you could come across something fresh and delightful (only you can say which these will be, but there are going to be some). This is a book that would be great for anyone studying science at school, to give some enjoyable background to what can be a boring procession of facts and figures, but equally it will provide amusement and entertainment for anyone with an interest in science. You won’t always agree with the choice of content – but that’s always part of the delight of such lists. Enjoy.
Review by Brian Clegg

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