Skip to main content

Measures of Genius - Alan Durden ***

There are broadly three ways to write a popular science book. The author can focus on one particular area of science, on the life and work of a key scientist, or use some linking mechanism to pull together a range of topics. This last approach can be very successful, and is tempting to authors and loved by publishers, which implies that they sell well - but it is the most difficult approach to take.

To compare the good and bad sides of such 'linked topic' books, it's only necessary to take a look at titles covering the periodic table. The less successful ones just work through the elements, or a subset of them, in some kind of pattern based on the table itself. But that results in a very mechanical approach, little more than textbook lite. The alternative, typified by The Disappearing Spoon, is to use the broad theme of the chemical elements, but to let the narrative structure carry the reader through, resulting in a far more successful presentation.

Measures of Genius is a linked topic book, pulling together short scientific biographies of historical figures with scientific units named after them. Following an introductory chapter on the nature and development of measurement, we get 14 chapters each on a scientist (in the case of Fahrenheit and Celsius, two for the price of one) who inspired a unit, from very familiar names like Isaac Newton and James Watt to those whose units are better known than the individuals, typified by Ohm, Ampere and Coulomb. However, Alan Durden does not limit himself to the specific scientist's work, where necessary pulling in other names. So, for instance, in Ampere's chapter, Young, Huygens, Arago, Fresnel and Oersted all pop up.

Although the book has a linking theme, it's an arbitrary one, as the selection of scientists to provide unit names has sometimes been decidedly odd. My biggest concern was why we should care about this group of individuals. Durden provides us with plenty of facts about their lives and work, but doesn't build much of a narrative. When covering the well-known figures, the content was solid without adding a lot to the many other scientific biographies on these subjects, staying safely at the uncontroversial end of the spectrum. So, for instance, Newton's sexuality was skirted around, and though his interests in alchemy and biblical research were mentioned, there was little opportunity to understand why they were so important to him. Similarly, Tesla's chapter gives no feel for the fascinating conflict between his genius at electrical engineering and his sometimes shaky grasp of physics, leading to his dismissal of relativity and misapprehension about the nature of electromagnetic radiation.

It was great, however, to find out more about the lesser-known figures. These were inevitably more interesting because there has been so little written about them, though in most case it seems that one of the reasons that they don't feature more widely is that they were rather dull people. There are plenty of facts here, and I think the book would be extremely useful as a way to get some background on the contributions these individuals made to science and technology, but I would have liked a little more flair along the way.


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…