Skip to main content

Nothing: a very short introduction – Frank Close ***

I came to this book for the title. Like “Zero”, “Symmetry”, or “Shapes”, “Nothing” is one of those concepts that seems to offer an intriguing cross-cutting view of science. A few pages into the book, I thought it would deliver on the promise of the title page. But after a couple of chapters I realised that this is a book about Something, not Nothing. A few chapters later it dawned on me that the Something was actually Basic Ideas in Modern Physics. Basic Ideas in Modern Physics is an interesting topic, but not nearly as novel and mind-bending as Nothing.
It’s not Frank Close’s fault that modern physics is preoccupied with nothing-related issues: what happened at the beginning of the universe, when something turned into nothing; how the very smallest particles (or waves) behave; the geometry of space and time. And if you would like to trot through the basics of fields, waves, special and general relativity, quantum theory, the Big Bang, and the structure of the atom, then this book is just what it says on the packet: a stimulating way into new subjects. But somehow I expected more from Nothing.
What is in the book for those who have already trotted through the basics with other science writers? Some old friends reappear – the falling muon to illustrate special relativity, the pencil-on-its-point to describe symmetry breaking. But Close also takes some new angles on the old topics. In general relativity, objects tend to take the shortest route between two points. Close compares this to the tradition of “shortest path” thinking in other fields, like optics. He notes how Einstein’s equations for special relativity are the same, mathematically, as those in Lorentz’s theory of the ether. And he has a good eye for historical details. It’s one thing to say how one might lay out a theory of special relativity. But how did Einstein himself do it, using what he knew at the time? Close has the question – if not the answer – at his fingertips.
But Close’s angles are sometimes too oblique. In explaining special relativity he starts out with the common-sense notion of simultaneity, and explains how it is defeated if we assume light is constant. He then jumps to the conclusion that objects must get longer, and clocks run slower, for observers of a moving object. It’s not clear how he made the jump. We see that Lorentz’s equations are the same as Einstein’s, but it’s not clear why they are the same. His chapter on the quantum vacuum is interesting, with some striking examples of experiments that cast light on the “infinite sea” of the vacuum. But the chapter has about three different arguments for different kinds of “infinite sea”, and it is not obvious how they link up.
Perhaps it was the small font or pocket-sized format, but I found it hard to get a proper grip on this book. It is a compact brainstorm. Close asks lots of questions, but it’s not clear when each one is answered. His no-fuss prose fits a lot in, but sometimes it’s too compressed. He throws out ideas – the anthropic principle, “emergence”, multiple worlds – that look promising but fall out of sight of the reader. By turns stimulating and frustrating, Nothing leaves you wanting to find out more about Basic Ideas in Modern Physics. Which is, after all, better than finding out about nothing.
Paperback:  
Review by Michael Bycroft

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…