Skip to main content

The Elegant Universe of Albert Einstein – Tom Barnes et al ***

Like all books that are collections of essays – in this case, a series of talks given on New Zealand national radio – there is a certain degree of dislocation to this book – but it works better than many, as most of the sections are lucid and readable in their own right. The main disadvantage is a tendency to leap from topic to topic with the fragile linking theme of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s great year 1905 (although the book didn’t come out until 2006).
So we get topics from a brief history of the universe and the history of our knowledge of the age of the Earth, to relativity, quantum theory and more, including the often difficult interaction between science and religion.
Some of these topics only have a very tangential link to Einstein – in fact only one strongly covers Einstein’s work, and includes a potted biography of the man. This is where the segmented nature of the book comes out strongest as there is also a mini-biography in the introduction – you’d think the author of the introduction would have been aware of the overlap.
Generally the subjects are covered in a very approachable fashion. The first (the brief history of the universe one) suffers from occasional moments of wince-making whimsy – for example, the author Matt Visser says ‘These days, when your child wanders up to you and says, “Dear parental unit, why does the sun shine?”‘ Only the very desperate would find ‘dear parental unit’ anything other than cringe-worthy. The other section that is a little weak is the second by Hamish Campbell on the age of the earth. This lists the naming of the different periods at tedious length and is rather stodgy. But the rest of the pieces read very well.
I particularly enjoyed Paul Callaghan’s ‘Journey to the Heart of Matter’ section on the discovery of the nature of matter (inevitably, and why not, strongly featuring the work of New Zealand’s biggest scientific star, Ernest Rutherford) and the final section by John Stenhouse, called ‘Galileo’s Dilemma’. Stenhouse steers a careful course, identifying where (for instance) the Catholic church went very wrong with Galileo but also being clear that not all problems ascribed to religion (such as the fictional insistence on a flat earth in medieval times) really existed. It’s too easy for scientists who are very vocal against religion, like Richard Dawkins, to paint things just as black and white as any religious fundamentalist – this section gives a much more balanced view.
All in all, it’s an enjoyable little taster around aspects of the physical sciences that can be loosely tied in to Einstein. Each section then needs opening up further with a whole book on the subject – but it’s a good starting point.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…