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

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…