Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…