Skip to main content

Professor Povey's Perplexing Problems - Thomas Povey ****

I have a recurring nightmare where I find myself in my final year physics exam at university, but with no opportunity for revision and with practically every detail I learned forgotten. Not surprisingly it is a disaster. In fact one of the greatest moments of my life was when, on starting my first job, I realised I would never have to take another exam. So in principle this book, which is supposedly fun and according to the author ought to be entertaining, should have been my worst possible read. As I started it, I was mentally cursing Simon Singh for saying it was a cut above most popular science titles. In fact, things went rather better than expected. 

The idea is to put the reader through the kind of brain-taxing maths-based problems that are given to physics candidates applying to Oxford University. And some of these are genuinely entertaining. In particular I found the sections on logic problems, perpetual motion machines and estimating highly enjoyable - the estimating section consists of what are often known as Fermi problems, though Thomas Povey seems not to have heard of that name. (There is a whole book of these called How Many Licks.)

What I found myself doing was reading the problem, having a think about what the shape of the answer might be and then flicking though the answer without reading it in detail. If I'm honest - and this is probably why I never made it as a real scientist - I didn't really care what the actual answer was. That just seemed like grunt work. But thinking around the problem was genuinely stimulating.

However, I did find a number of the topics - geometry and various areas of mechanics for instance - sufficiently dull that even getting a vague idea of the direction that should be taken was rather meh. It's a shame that there weren't more genuinely interesting topics. Now, admittedly by limiting topics to those that high school students should know there is a natural tendency to the duller subjects, but the perpetual motion section showed you could make basic mechanics and energy considerations approachable - it's just a shame there weren't more exotic interpretations like that. 

Overall, then, I surprised myself by getting more out of the book than I thought I would, and despite expectations, I don't think I will have nightmares as a result of reading it either. I even had the delight of having recently researched one of the estimates that Povey uses in his Fermi problems, and could feel a little smug as he was almost an order of magnitude out (as long as you consider Americans rather than Brits). In the spirit of the book, I'm not going to tell you which estimate it was, or why there are special circumstances that make the answer in the book closer to correct than it should be. 

However, this book certainly isn't for everyone who would read a conventional popular science book. I'd go as far as to say that it's not for most popular science readers. But if you fancy doing physics, maths or engineering at university - or wish you once had - it is an absolute must-have buy.

Paperback 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …