Skip to main content

Antimatter – Frank Close ****

I like this little book. Regular readers of my reviews will know that ‘little’ isn’t an insult – there’s nothing worse than a bloated, over-inflated popular science book. This one delivers the goods on the subject without resorting to endless padding. The subject in question is antimatter, which Frank Close covers with just enough context – particular the US Air Force’s interest in antimatter weapons, and Dan Brown’s awful antimatter-based thriller Angels and Demons – to keep the reader interested.
It’s a bit of a Brief History of Time kind of book. Before Dr Close gets all excited and waits for the royalties to come crashing in, I don’t really mean that I expect it to have the same kind of popularity of ABHoT, but rather it has the same tendency to plunge into just a bit too much depth and not necessarily to explain the science in a way that comes across well to the uninitiated. Having said that, there is some good writing here explaining why antimatter is so important and how the Big Bang could have result in mostly matter.
Even if you know a bit about antimatter, there are some surprises. And what’s lovely is the way the book really thinks about the practicalities of antimatter. You can’t store antiatoms, for instance, because they aren’t charged, so you can’t keep them in an electromagnetic container away from matter. But you can’t have billions of positrons or antiprotons in the same place either, because they repel each other. I wasn’t clear why you can’t use an anti-plasma – I wish that had been covered.
The presentation is just a touch dry – this is very obviously a book written by an academic who is trying hard to be populist but not quite making it – which is why it only gets four stars rather than five. And I don’t think he does any favours by suggesting that many people seriously think the Tunguska fireball was antimatter. But it’s a really interesting book that stretches the brain and that is packed with glowing little antimatter nuggets.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…