Skip to main content

The Void – Frank Close ***

It’s tempting to wonder why anyone would want to write a book about nothing. It would, I presume, be a short book. This is certainly a slim volume, but packs plenty in, because ‘the void’ is a more subtle and complex concept than mere nothingness. Even so, as an author, this is a title that smacks to me of ‘edge hunting’. Any popular science book needs a special something to hang the book on, whether it’s a person, an event or some special aspect of the science itself. It’s easy to imagine Frank Close having a eureka moment when he hit on the void as that special edge for his book, though as we will see, it’s one of those subjects that sounds great as an initial idea, but is hard to provide with much substance.
As a topic, the void isn’t quite as empty as it seems – at the quantum level, a vacuum is anything but empty – but there really isn’t enough in it to support a whole book, and in practice, though there are bits about vacuum and the void, this is really a book about the development of quantum theory, including the evolution of ideas about the nature of matter and light, using the idea of the void as a hook.
Sadly, it doesn’t work awfully well. Frank Close does not provide enough detail to allow the history of science in the book to be anything other than fleeting, nor does it make it possible to really explain the physics, with too much jargon for a true popular science book. Strangest of all, this is a book that seems to sit solidly in the ‘light is a wave’ historical camp. Although Close makes a passing mention of photons, nearly all the book operates on the assumption not that light has wave-like behaviour, but that it truly is a wave, presumably because Close feels this is easier for the non-technical reader to deal with. This is an unhelpful image, especially when getting into quantum theory – it’s almost as if quantum electrodynamics, describing light’s interaction with matter, and all of Feynman’s work showing how all the wave-like properties could be explained using photons, had never happened. I know we often still speak as if light were a wave for convenience, but a book operating at this level should leave the reader with a less classical view.
Overall a book that failed to satisfy, in part because what seemed like a very interesting hook proved, ironically, to have very little to it.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…