Saturday, 4 July 2015

Physics in 100 Numbers - Colin Stuart ***

I'm not generally a big fan of the popular science equivalent of those filler TV shows like 'The 50 best comedy moments' or 'The 100 TV scenes you least want to see again' or whatever. Some of these books feel no more than an easily sellable packaged concept with little imagination behind it. I'm pleased to say that Colin Stewart's Physics in 100 Numbers is not one of these - it has plenty of genuine moments of interest.

What we have here is a collection of single page items and double page spreads in slightly wider than usual hardback (though not big enough to class as a coffee table book) format in numerical order from 5.49x10-44 (Planck time) to 1x10500 (number of possible string theory 'solutions'). Occasionally the format is a little squeezed - so 1543, for instance, is not really a number, but the year that the groundbreaking book by Copernicus was published - but mostly Stuart sticks to the straight and narrow.

What the author tries to do, and at which he often succeeds, is to turn each little essay into an enjoyable expansion of the basic facts to include enough context to make it worth reading. So, for instance, for the permeability of free space (1.26x10-6, but you knew that) we don't just discover what the scientific term means, but who came up with the word 'permeability' (Oliver Heaviside, who in his photo looks scarily like an Edwardian version of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine), why permeability and its counterpart permittivity were important in Maxwell's work on electromagnetism, and how it made the prediction that light was an electromagnetic wave possible.

The reason I really can't give a title like this the four stars that some of its content deserves is that I am never really sure what such a book is for. Unless readers have trainspotting inclinations, I can't see them sitting down and reading the book end to end. I certainly found that quite difficult to do (and I was a trainspotter in my teens). But on the other hand, physics isn't necessarily the ideal topic for a dip in, dip out loo book. Perhaps the best application here is as a gift for difficult-to-buy for people.

So if you enjoy these kind of highly segmented 'n things' type books, and a lot of people must because they sell pretty well, this is without doubt one of the best of the breed. (Incidentally, it's a format that should work well on Kindle - a shame not to see it as an ebook.)

Review by Brian Clegg

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