Skip to main content

A Little History of Science – William Bynum ***

Doing all of science in one book is not an easy task, nor is it obvious how to go about it. William Bynum has chosen to provide us with a breezy high speed canter through the history of science, with the keyword being ‘history’. There is a lot of about the people involved and the context, always good from a popular science viewpoint.
Bynum manages to do this in an approachable way – almost too approachable sometimes as the style veers between writing for adults and for children. The bumf says ‘this is a volume for young and old to treasure together,’ but it really is neither fish nor fowl. The approach generally speaking is one that works best for adults, but then you get a sentence like ‘Galen was very clever and was not afraid to say so,’ that sounds ever so Janet and John.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the book is that while the history side of it was usually fine, the science was not always so. Some of it was just little factual errors – stating that the human appendix has no function – actually it has recently been discovered to have one – or referring to ‘degrees Kelvin’ like ‘degrees Celsius’ where the unit on the Kelvin scale is just kelvins (no degrees). But the problems were more painful when it came to modern physics – it did rather look like the author really didn’t know what he was writing about.
He tells us, for instance, that cyclotrons and synchrotrons were used by Chadwick in ‘smashing high-speed neutrons into heavy atoms’ – but these devices can only accelerate charged particles, and Chadwick used slow neutrons from decaying radioactive substances. He also says that the twins paradox ‘is just a thought experiment and could only happen in science fiction’. Well, no, it’s not, and on a small scale with atomic clocks it has been performed many times. He also seems confused about gravity, commenting that in space ‘there is no gravity. Astronauts and their spacecraft are essentially in free fall.’ The last bit is true, but not because there is no gravity – there’s plenty of gravity at the kind of level that, say the ISS orbits. But that free fall means it isn’t felt.
The absolute worst example is a paragraph that I find almost entirely without meaning. I would be grateful if anyone could explain this one to me:
As Einstein’s E=mc2 tells us, at ever higher speeds – almost the speed of light – in the accelerators the mass is mostly converted into energy. The physicists found that these very fast particles do some fascinating things. The electron emerges unchanged from the accelerator. It is part of a family of force-particles – the leptons.
I am baffled. Overall, then I am not sure what the audience for this book is, nor am I happy that they will get any sensible understanding of modern physics.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…