Skip to main content

Is the Universe a Hologram? - Adolfo Plasencia ***

This is a very strange book - it reads like a cross between a collection of totally unrelated science essays and Waiting for Godot. Each essay is in the form of an interview with a scientist (the term is stretched a bit to include architects and human resources experts) and the Beckett-like nature is occasionally emphasised by interviewees who don't have English as a first language who scatter the unedited interviews (complete with painfully polite introductions) with interest terms such as 'teletransportation.' Even the book's subtitle 'Scientists answer the most provocative questions' has a touch of the Google Translate about it.

In his introduction, interviewer Adolfo Plasencia explains the use of dialogue in teaching. He tells us that when Lewis Carroll has Alice think 'what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?' Carroll was criticising the teaching of his day which 'ignored the example of great teachers such as Plato and Rousseau, who considered dialogue to be essential for sound education.' What this misses is that teaching dialogues were carefully written, not a verbatim transcript of a conversation - and that there's a very good reason why we don't find them in popular science books. Because even the best science-teaching-by-dialogue, such as Galileo's three-way version, feel stilted and dull by modern standards. What we understand now (and what Alice had in mind) is the importance of narrative in good science writing. Alice's conversations were those in a well-written fictional narrative, not the real life, stultifying version.

It's not all bad. Each time I came close to giving up, I'd hit on a little nugget of really interesting content, whether it be on Casimir forces or graphene. But I suspect you could edit the good bits out into a single article. It wasn't helped by the quite long interventions for the interviewer, who seemed determined to get across his political message that Europe is better than America, and that scientific cooperation is leading the way to the European unification, which must surely follow from the wonderful EU.

This book must genuinely have seemed a good idea as a proposal, but the heavy-going dialogue combined with the weak format of a collection of unrelated essays from different sources makes it a noble failure.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Case Against Reality - Donald Hoffman ***

It's not exactly news that our perception of the world around us can be a misleading confection of the brain, rather than a precise picture of reality - everything from optical illusions to the apparent motion of video confirms this - but professor of cognitive science Donald Hoffman goes far beyond this. He wants us to believe that spacetime and the objects in it are not real: that they only exist when we perceive them. It's not that he believes everything to be totally illusory, but suggests that the whole framework of the physical world is a construction of our minds.

To ease us into this viewpoint, Hoffman gives the example of the Necker cube - the clever two-dimensional drawing apparently of a cube which can be seen in two totally different orientations. Calling these orientations 'Cube A and Cube B' he remarks that our changing perceptions suggest that 'neither Cube A nor Cube B is there when no one looks, and there is no objective cube that exists unobserve…

The Universe Speaks in Numbers - Graham Farmelo ****

Theoretical physics has taken something of a hammering lately with books such as Sabine Hossenfelder's Lost in Math. The suggestion from these earlier titles is that theoretical physics is so obsessed with mathematics that many theoretical physicists spend their careers working on theory that doesn't actually apply to the universe, because the maths is interesting. Even experimental physics can be tainted, as the driver for new expenditure in experiments, such as the proposed new collider at CERN, is not driven by discoveries but by these mathematically-directed theories. Graham Farmelo presents the opposite view here: that this speculative mathematical work is, in fact, a great success.
As I am very much in the Hossenfelder camp, I expected to find Farmelo's book rather irritating, as it's effectively a love letter to mathematically-obsessed theoretical physics - but in reality (an entertaining phrase, given the context) I found it both interesting and enjoyable. Far…