Skip to main content

The Quantum Universe: everything that can happen does happen – Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw ****

Brian Cox has picked up a lot of fans (and a few parodies) for his light and fluffy ‘here’s me standing on top of a mountain looking at the stars’ TV science shows – no doubt a fair number of them will rush out and buy his latest collaboration with Jeff Forshaw. They will be disappointed. So, I suspect, will a number of My Little Pony fans, as with its rainbow cover and glittery lettering it only needs a pink pony tail bookmark to complete the look.
The reason The Quantum Universe will disappoint is not because it is a bad book. It’s brilliant. But it is to Cox’s TV show what the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is to Toy Story. It’s a different beast altogether.
As they did with their E=mc2 book, but even more so here, Cox and Forshaw take no prisoners and are prepared to delve deep into really hard-to-grasp aspects of quantum physics. This is the kind of gritty popular science writing that makes A Brief History of Time look like easy-peasy bedtime reading – so it really isn’t going to be for everyone, but for those who can keep going through a lot of hard mental work the rewards are great too.
More than anything, I wish this book had been available when I started my undergraduate course in physics. It would have been a superb primer to get the mind into the right way of thinking to deal with quantum physics. Using Feynman’s least action/sum over paths with ‘clocks’ representing phase, the authors take us into the basics of quantum physics, effectively deriving Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle from basic logic – wonderful.
They go on to describe electron orbitals, the mechanics of electronic devices, quantum electrodynamics, virtual particles in a vacuum and more with the same mix of heavy technical arguments, a little maths (though nowhere near as much as a physics textbook) and a lot of Feynman-style diagrams and logic.
The reason I think I would have benefited so much is that this book explains much more than an (certainly my) undergraduate course does. Not explaining why quantum physics does what it does – no one can do that. But explaining the powerful logic behind the science, laying the groundwork for the undergraduate to then be able to do the fancy maths and fling Hamiltonians around and such. It is very powerful in this respect and I would urge anyone about to start a physics degree (or in the early stages of one) to read it. I would also recommend it for someone who is just really interested in physics and is prepared to put a lot of work into reading it, probably revisiting some pages several times to get what Cox and Forshaw have in mind – because they don’t ease up very often.
What I can’t do, though, is recommend this as general popular science. It isn’t the kind of excellent introduction that gives you an understanding of what’s going on in quantum theory, a view of the mysteries and a broad understanding of what the topic is about. This book is just too hard core. I’d suggest that 90% plus of popular science readers shouldn’t touch it with the proverbial barge pole. If that sounds condescending, it isn’t meant to be. Good popular science can and does have a lot more content and thought provoking meat than a typical Brian Cox TV show – but this book goes so much further still than that, inevitably limiting its audience.

Paperback 

Kindle 
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…