Skip to main content

Tweeting the Universe – Marcus Chown & Govert Schilling ***

My first reaction to this book was that it was going to be an irritating gimmick. How far could you get, after all, putting across complex science in 140 character tweets? However, Marcus Chown is one of the best science writers around, who I trust with my brain (I don’t know Govert Schilling), so I was prepared to suspend disbelief.
I immediately found the style was a little irritating in its conciseness, but it did produce a certain poetic need to really craft all the words that made some of the entries like little works of art. Another concern might be that making the content so short would result in over-simplification, but in most of the entries this wasn’t the case.
There were a few small issues, though. I was a bit worried by the first entry, on Newton’s light and colour work. We come across Newton first using his prism to split light into colours at his home in Woolsthorpe. The trouble is, he bought his first prism at the 1664 Stourbridge fair (near Cambridge), several months before he was exiled home by the plague, and infamously he made a hole to use it in his blinds at Cambridge, not ‘through a slit in the curtains at Woolsthorpe’. It’s not that he didn’t do more work on light in his enforced leave of absence, but it wasn’t the beginning, as the book (or rather its enforcedly compact entries).
Another example of a slight problem probably caused by the condensed text is in the explanation of the tides, which is simplified enough to miss out entirely the main reason that there is a second tide on the far side of the Earth from the Moon.
As I got further in, I did, I confess, increasingly find the choppiness of the prose a bit off-putting. I had to work really hard not to skip over chunks as soon as I had got the gist, to try to keep things flowing. Don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of good stuff in here (particularly some lovely compact cosmology), but I would still much rather read a ‘normal’ book.
One last shame – this was a book that cried out for a section at the back with further reading suggestions for people who have got a taster from what’s on offer. (Each of these could have been tweet length.) There were even loads of blank pages at the back where the recommendations could have gone (I counted 15 empty pages). Certainly this is a bit of fun, and would make a very acceptable gift book, certainly there is some good material in there, but in the end the real thing is not quite as good as the original idea promised. This is not the authors’ fault – they’ve done a great job under the circumstances – just the inevitable limitations of the format.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…