Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Four Laws (that drive the Universe) – Peter Atkins ***

There’s something rather Victorian feeling about the concept of universal laws – and Peter Atkins rightly recognizes in his introduction that thermodynamics – the subject of this slim volume – is a word that tends to conjure up Victorian images like steam engines and pistons, but there is much more to the four laws of thermodynamics (confusingly starting with the zeroth law) than the answers to all the questions a Victorian engineer might ask. In fact, as Atkins suggests, these laws are an absolute fundamental when it comes to understanding how the universe works, and everyone ought to have a rough idea of what they are about. Apparently C. P. Snow once said “not knowing the second law of thermodynamics is like never having read a work by Shakespeare.” Now, leaving aside the fact that reading much Shakespeare is rather dull (at least compared with watching a Shakespeare play, put on by a decent cast), which I don’t think is what Snow meant, there’s an element of truth here.
So a slim book, painlessly introducing the big four to the innocent reader, more familiar with Shakespeare than physics, would be a great thing indeed. Unfortunately that’s not quite what this book is. Even most popular science fans will find it both over-complex and rather hard work. That’s not to say this isn’t a good book for a certain audience. It would be excellent to help first year physics undergraduates get to grips with the ideas behind thermodynamics before they have to plunge into doing all the calculations that go with it – and I would highly recommend it for that audience – but for the general reader, neither the style nor the content cuts in, in terms of getting across thermodynamics as accessibly as other books have managed to explain (say) relativity or quantum theory for the general reader. What a shame.
Review by Brian Clegg

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