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:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Hidden Half - Michael Blastland *****

Michael Blastland is co-author of one of my favourite titles on the use and misuse of numbers, The Tiger that Isn't - so I was excited to see this book and wasn't disappointed.

Blastland opens with the story of a parthenogenic crustacean that seems to demonstrate that, despite having near-identical nature and nurture, a collection of the animals vary hugely in size, length of life and practically every other measure. This is used to introduce us to the idea that our science deals effectively with the easy bit, the 'half' that is accessible, but that in many circumstances there is a hidden half that comprises a whole range of very small factors which collectively can have a huge impact, but which are pretty much impossible to predict or account for. (I put 'half' in inverted commas as it might be fairer to say 'part' - there's no suggestion that this is exactly 50:50.)

We go on to discover this hidden half turning up in all kinds of applications of …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Bloom - Ruth Kassinger ***

There is much fascinating material in this chunky book by Ruth Kassinger. It may be my total ignorance of biology and everyone else knows these things, but I learnt so much - for example that seaweed is algae and not a plant, about algae's role in the development of land plants, about the algae in lichen and its contribution to coral reefs.

The book is divided into four broad sections: on the origins and development of algae, on algae (and particularly seaweed) as food, on making use of algae, for example, for biofuel, and on algae and climate change, particularly the bleaching of coral and algal blooms. This is all done in a very approachable writing style, mixing descriptive material that is never over-technical with narrative often featuring visits to different locations and to talk to a range of experts from those who study to algae to those who cook them.

There are two problems though. Firstly, the book is too long at 380 pages. Each section could do with a trim, but this wa…