Skip to main content

A Different Universe – Robert M. Laughlin ***

This rather quirky little book is certainly one of the most unique popular science books about physics I have read over the years. The basic argument that this title presents is that by taking a reductionist (i.e. nuts ‘n’ bolts) approach to understanding nature, physicists are not seeing the wood for the trees. Instead, Nobel Prize winner Robert Laughlin argues, physics should be concerned with emergent phenomena (i.e. what we get when the nuts ‘n’ bolts are put together) – the sort of things that chemists and biologists are typically concerned with.
Laughlin uses various examples such as: superconductivity, quantum computers, relativity, nanotechnology (of which he is incredibly dismissive) and the quantum Hall effect (the explanation of which Laughlin won his Nobel prize for) to make his case. Some of these examples don’t appear to be emergent at first glance – but as Laughlin points out this is often a case of misinterpretation of what is really going on.
The author makes effective use of humorous anecdotes and analogies to make his points. In some cases these work really well, but in some cases just serve to muddy the waters, and occasionally they verge on the completely irrelevant. There are also some fairly odd illustrations that don’t add anything at all to the book – why they have been included is a complete mystery!
Whether Laughlin succeeds in his argument is a moot point – the book certainly made me pause for thought – but I’m not sure that I was entirely convinced by the way that the science that was presented. I would argue that the book doesn’t reinvent physics as such – but it certainly does make a bold case for a new approach to the discipline.
I don’t think that this book would appeal to a general audience – you do need to have some grounding in the subject in order to really get to grips with the book’s ideas. Certainly physics lecturers/teachers, and students will find some interesting material in here, though.
Paperback:  
Review by Scotty_73

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…