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The Atom and the Apple – Sebastien Balibar ****

At the heart of this slim hardback are a series of personal stories. In the very acceptable translation from Sebastien Balibar’s original French (it’s perhaps ironic that one of the chapters is about the importance of the French running international conferences and journals in English), these are charming and really give a sense of having a chat with this engaging physicist.
The book starts very strong with the chapters titled ‘Black Night’, ‘My Cousin the Leek’ and ‘I am radioactive’, sags a bit n the middle, and recovers strongly at the end. Based on those first few chapters I had been going to give it a five star rating, but it didn’t quite keep up the impetus. Balibar works in low temperature physics, and it’s good to see some exposure for this rarely described aspect of science, though he also covers many different topics along the way.
There are a few minor flaws. Balibar’s knowledge of history of science might not be quite as polished as his expertise in the science itself. For instance, he says ‘What made Hubble come up with the idea that the Universe had been flying off in all directions since the initial explosion?’ Hubble didn’t – he very explicitly didn’t speculate as to why the universe was expanding, merely presented the data. It’s also the case that because he’s flitting about quite quickly between different subjects, he can sometimes be rather summary – but I only found this frustrating in topics which I already knew quite a lot about, so this may be less of a problem if the whole works is new to you.
Overall, then, a pleasantly personal view on some key scientific issues, life, the universe and everything.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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