Skip to main content

The Instant Physicist – Richard A. Muller ***

Richard Muller is the author of one of my favourite popular science books of all time, Physics for Future Presidents. That book is such a neat idea, the physics you need to know about if you want to run the country. So I looked forward to his new title with interest. The Instant Physicist takes an illustrated take on getting the key points in physics across.
It’s a pocket sized hardback, set up as a series of two page spreads. On the right is a colour cartoon, very professionally done by Joey Manfre, illustrating a surprising observation that forms its caption. So, for example, we have ‘If not for the notorious greenhouse effect, the entire surface of the Earth would currently be frozen solid.’ or ‘The world’s first uranium reactor is 1.7 billion years old.’ Then on the left hand page there’s a simple explanation of the surprising fact, giving the basic science behind it. It’s a glossy book throughout.
The result kind of works, but there are a couple of problems. The format means there really isn’t a lot of text in there. Compared to my equivalent sized Instant Egghead Guide to Physics, for instance, there is only a tiny amount of content. Not everything essential can be driven by wow-amazing-facts, so it cherry picks, and there’s rather too much about radioactivity, I suspect Prof. Muller’s speciality, and not enough (say) quantum theory. The other thing is the layout is just wrong! You have to read the caption – on the right hand side of the spread – before you read the main text – on the left hand side. We have this fairly well known convention of reading left to right. Making the reader take in the right hand page before the left is silly and unnecessary.
So, not an entirely satisfactory experience, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a fun idea, and it’s well produced. It might be best pressed into service as one of those books people keep in the toilet, where you dip into it and pick out just one article or two, then put it away for next time. And it would make an entertaining gift. But it could have been better.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…