Monday, 9 September 2013

Inventing Reality – Bruce Gregory *****

I am decidedly in awe of this book. It is simply the best, straightforward description of physics I have ever read.
I do have to get one proviso in straight away. This isn’t a typical popular science book. Although it is accessible and hasn’t got formulae, it is a rather cold, clinical, dry assessment with little of the storytelling and use of biographical detail that makes popular science more approachable. It is, arguably, a very readable textbook, rather than a popular science book. But if you are prepared to put in the effort to read it, it builds the structure of classical and then modern physics layer by layer in a way that makes it all beautifully clear.
But that’s not the most remarkable thing – because in a way explaining physics is only a sideline of the book. Its main theme is the way that science, and physics in particularly, is a construct, a way of predicting what happens that is quite detached from whatever reality may be. It shows why, for instance, Feynman’s instance that everything quantum was particles, and the more prevalent idea among modern physicists that everything is fields is not a disagreement but simply two descriptions both of which work to match what is observed and neither of which is any more than a model of reality. The subtitle is ‘physics as language’ for a reason.
So don’t expect fun stories, and do expect to work quite hard to take in a combination of practically everything important aspect of physics and some quite heavy duty philosophy all in a single slim tome. But it is so worth the effort. You will both understand the nature of physics better and see science in a whole new light. It is quite possibly the best book about science I have ever read.
This is not a new book – it came out in 1988 and depressingly it is out of print, though you can get copies from Amazon Marketplace (if you don’t mind a used copy, very cheaply).  But apart from technological references (for instance it thinks the collider that might find the Higgs is the never-built American SSC, not the LHC) there is nothing whatsoever that has dated here.
There is something of a tendency to bring back out of print books as ebooks as it’s cheap to do – please Wiley, do it for this one. The world needs it.
Hardback:  
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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