Skip to main content

Why Balloons Rise and Apples Fall – Jeff Stewart ****

In this quite short book, Jeff Stewart gives us the basics of physics in easy, digestible terms. If your memory of physics from school is dull, a) you had a bad physics teacher and b) Stewart’s version will be a refreshing surprise.
From the point of view of popular science writing, Stewart fills a gaping hole – and I’m really pleased to see it. Authors like to bang on about the latest theories and the most weird and wonderful stuff. That’s fine, but it means there are very few popular science titles taking on the basic meat and two veg of physics – and this is exactly what Stewart does. At just the right level for the beginner he runs us through all the classical physics that no one bothers with, yet is at the heart of everyday life.
So we have Newton’s laws, energy, power, electricity, magnetism. All that good stuff that you may not even have had properly at school if you did general science. This is highly laudable.
I do have a couple of hesitations. One is very personal. Stewart’s style is one I am more comfortable with in children’s books than one aimed at adults, as this is. It is very jokey. All the time we get (to pick one at random) little comments like ‘… would be like thirty of the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki all going on at once. And that’s going to hurt, even if you’ve got your plastic lab glasses and rubber gloves on.’ Yerrrs. Some people will love this style, but it really puts my back up. Whenever I put a joke in one of my books, the editor politely suggests I remove it – and he’s right.
The other issue is that after doing a good job on classical physics, he really rather rushes through 20th century physics. The chapter on relativity isn’t too bad, but the quantum physics chapter is very sketchy and the final chapter labelled ‘the universe’ is a bit of a mess. It contains the only obvious factual errors – he says that Hubble discovered the Andromeda galaxy in 1925, but it was known of a good 1,000 years before, and Herschel in the 18th century even suggested it was another Milky Way, i.e. another galaxy. He also makes the factual error of saying that ‘Andromeda – and everything else in the universe – is getting further away from us all the time.’ In fact the Andromeda galaxy is heading towards us, as it’s close enough for gravitational attraction to be stronger than the expansion of the universe.
There’s also a very tangled sentence about Grand Universal Theories, where he tantalisingly says that Mark Hadley devised what (by implication) is a better GUT than string theory in the 1990s, but it’s ignored because ‘it could be argued a thousand scientists are working on their GUTs simply because a thousand scientists are working on their GUTs – and because the best way to get funding for your GUT work is for a bunch of other scientists to agree that what you’re working on is worth the massive grant your GUT needs.’ I know what he’s trying to say, but it’s hard to understand it from that.
If you consider the last couple of chapters an epilogue and concentrate on the rest, though, this is an excellent little book for putting across the basics of classical physics to the uninitiated, and as such deserves praise.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…