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Ten Physicists - Rhodri Evans and Brian Clegg ***
I have little time for list books. You know the kind of thing. Fifty things you always wanted to know about chemistry, or whatever. I used to review a lot of children's science books. The kind of 'all you want to know in an easily digestible two page spread (with lots of pictures)' approach is okay in that context, but in something aimed at adults seems downright condescending to me. They must be popular, though, because publishers keep churning them out. But I really don't understand why.
Technically, this too is a list book, but at least it's a more grown-up list with a proper chapter of real sentences on each of the ten physicists featured. There is no doubt, as the introduction suggests, that there is a fascination produced by this particular kind of top ten list, if only because it's pretty easy to disagree with the list used. We discover that both Steven Weinberg in the preface and the authors in the introduction do disagree. (This gives the rather odd outcome of a book discussing the top ten physicists, using a list that the authors don't think covers the top ten physicists. I can see the point for the fun of the argument, but shouldn't they have corrected the list?). Whatever you think of the ten, we get a pretty good pocket biography of each one, including some insightful comments on the significance of their physics, a process that highlights why Marie Curie should probably be regarded more as a chemist than a physicist.
The overall effect, then, is quite interesting, though frankly each of the individuals featured deserves (and has received elsewhere) a solo scientific biography in his or her own right. If you can't be bothered to read ten different books, which many of us can't, this does pull the whole together efficiently and might, perhaps, indicate where you want to read more (for me it was Maxwell's story that really whet the appetite for in-depth discovery). If you think of Ten Physicists as the Reader's Digest condensed book of key physicists, with a little interesting discussion on what makes a great physicist, you won't go to far wrong and you should come out the other end significantly the wiser.
Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is co-authored by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.
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…
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 …
‘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…