Skip to main content

We need to talk about Kelvin – Marcus Chown *****

The things we react to first about a book are its cover, its title and its author. This one has an eye-popping cover in a very 2008/9 comic style, a title that really grabs the attention (even if the pun is a bit wince-making) and an author that immediately gives you the reassurance that you are going to have a good time – Marcus Chown is one the most consistently entertaining popular science writers in the business.
For entertainment value, and driving pace, Kelvin never lets the reader down. From the start we are bombarded with amazing facts, driven by Chown’s very effective idea of taking everyday aspects of human existence and exploring the exciting science that lies behind them. So, for instance, the partial reflection through a night-time window leads on to the consideration of the quantum theory of light and much more. Later on, we discover more about the nature of atoms and heat, thermodynamics and cosmology.
Chown’s great strength is that he can counter the QI glaze effect. On the TV show QI, when they occasionally have a panellist with a science background, the other competitors start to glaze over whenever that person starts on about a science subject. They visibly drop off and lose interest. It’s very easy to present something like the Pauli exclusion principle that is at the heart of subatomic physics in a way that would put the reader to sleep as well – but Chown makes it interesting and makes it seem very logical.
A lot of the content is fairly familiar ground if you regularly read popular science books, but that doesn’t stop it being interesting even if it is familiar – and for many readers there will be much that is new. Even for the popular science enthusiasts there will be some surprises, for example the shock revelation that 99 per cent of astronomers get the answer to Olber’s paradox -why is the night sky black, rather than full of stars? – wrong. And I rather like the way he finishes the book on a very open topic – why we aren’t being constantly visited by aliens.
Inevitably there are a few small gripes. The book doesn’t have any illustrations or diagrams – this is usually fine, and Chown does a great job of painting a picture with his words. But there were a couple of occasions, particularly when describing the difference between fermions and bosons, when a diagram or two really would have helped untangle what was being said. Another problem I had is that to make the material approachable he is very definitive. You would think there was no possibility of alternative theories to some of the concepts mentioned. And very occasionally his cracking pace gets in the way of understanding. When he says that light being produced by an electron is a bit like a 40 tonne truck emerging from a matchbox, I want to know a bit more – but he’s already on to the next thing. But these are all very minor worries.
All in all, a great idea for a book, a very enjoyable read and a strong addition to the Chown oeuvre.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …