Skip to main content

The Upright Thinkers - Leonard Mlodinow ***

Leonard Mlodinow is probably best known as co-author of a pair of books with Stephen Hawking (for example, The Grand Design), so it was interesting to see his writing away from the great man's shadow. Generally his style is light, slick and enjoyable, though he sometimes tries too hard to be witty, peppering the  book with a jokiness that gets wearing. I could do with a little less of remarks like
The first cities did not arise suddenly as if nomads one day decided to band together and the next thing they knew they were hunting and gathering chicken thighs wrapped in Styrofoam and cellophane.
However, what we have here is an easy reading and a sometimes inspiring gallop through the development of human thought and particularly the way that science has emerged from our questioning nature. As the subtitle puts it 'The human journey from living in trees to understanding the cosmos.'

It's interesting to compare this book with Steven Weinberg's To Explain the World, which has related aims, though it lacks the first part about the development of humans. Without doubt Mlodinow's book is by far the more readable. And Weinberg has been slated in some sources for being unforgiving of the lack of modern insights in the likes of Aristotle, where arguably they should be allowed to be people of their time. But for me, Weinberg delivers a more challenging and stimulating read. Even so, Mlodinow's book is certainly more of a natural read for a popular science audience.

The Upright Thinkers is divided into three sections, and for me the beginning and end work far better than the middle. As an author, I can see the sense behind the low point being the middle section, but the worry might be that some could give up part way through. The first part shone brightest for me. This is the most original section, with really interesting consideration of the very early development of maths and culture. Despite that intrusive Styrofoam, I challenge anyone not to find this section genuinely fascinating. In the middle we plod rather heavy handedly through the likes of Galileo and Newton. Then things liven up with quantum theory (oddly there is very little about understanding the cosmos per se). There isn't a huge opportunity to gain insights into quantum physics itself, but there is plenty of context and a good feel for the way that modern science has moved away from hands on science to the indirect and theoretical. 

Like Weinberg, one of Mlodinow's failings is  not putting across the best understanding of history of science. He doesn't seem to realise, for instance, that Newton's 'If I have seen further' comment in a letter to Robert Hooke was not supposed to be a compliment. And, yes, there's the hackneyed old claim that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for the heresy of declaring 'that the earth revolved around the sun.' (He wasn't, it was common or garden religious heresy.) And, for that matter, the family of Gilbert Lewis will be surprised to discover that Max Born introduced the term 'photon'.

Overall then, a solid overview with some interesting novelties on early civilisation, but probably more a book for those who don't generally read popular science than those who do - and that's not a bad thing. 

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…