Skip to main content

What If Einstein Was Wrong – Ed. Brian Clegg ***

It’s ironic that the editor of this website, Brian Clegg, has occasionally said he can’t see the point of books with a series of short articles on a subject… only to end up editing just such a book here. I usually review children’s books and this format is very familiar to me – the two page spread, with text on one page and a large illustration on the other – but I do accept it’s more uncommon in adult non-fiction.
For me this particular example works well. If I’m honest, though, the cover made me nervous. With a combination of an ungrammatical title and a picture of E=mc2 crossed out (something that never features inside) it seems as if it may be verging on pseudo-science, but actually the topics (written by a collection of highly respectable authors, including Jim Al-Khalili on the foreword) are the bits of physics that were once or are still challenging and that take people by surprise. In other words, the interesting bits.
The book is divided into seven sections – quantum physics, relativity and time travel, particle physics, cosmology, astrophysics, classical physics and technology. (Ok, that last isn’t really physics, but it’s technology that is physics related.) Each section also has a ‘historical’ entry that was once a little risqué but is now fairly straightforward, like Galilean relativity or the (not) flat Earth. It actually all works surprisingly well. There’s enough text to get a meaty little bit of information, plus a couple of bonus factoids, and some of the illustrations are rather fun.
It’s hard to pick out favourites among the 50 or so topics, but they range from the likes of ‘What if Schrödinger lost his cat?’ to ‘What if Maxwell had a demon?’ You get the feel, I think. Overall entertaining bite-sized physics that would make a good present or just something to read here and there.
Hardback:  
Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is edited by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…