Skip to main content

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 at all - it's empty as yet. And from that, he conjures up conservation laws using Noether's theorem, then goes on to show how other laws emerge from indolence - more technically the principles of least time and least action - and anarchy. As a final gesture, Atkins throws in the insights that even some of the constants of nature, such as the speed of light and Planck's constant don't really exist, being artefacts of the units we choose to use.

Underlying all this is mathematics, which Atkins tucks away into his notes, so that the main text puts the message across with hardly an equation in sight. What we get the strong feeling for is that it really doesn't take much for the physical laws we observe to become necessary. They aren't something complex that is imposed on us, but rather the inevitable consequence of very few simple starting points.

I mentioned there are flaws. The history of science is sometimes a little weak. We're told Aristotle should have noticed that arrows would fly better in a vacuum - he did, prefiguring Newton's first law, effectively using it as an argument as to why he thought nature abhors a vacuum. Similarly we are told that Daniel Fahrenheit 'puzzlingly' took 96 as body temperature, not 100. But we know why - it was to make it easy to draw a scale between 32 and 96, as the difference of 64 can easily be constructed by repeatedly halving the distance between the two points. (Not a great reason, admittedly, unless you're manufacturing thermometers.) The book is certainly not all bad in this respect, though - we get more about Boltzmann and his work than most popular science titles provide.

The 'conjuring' metaphor also seemed particularly apt as I found Atkins' slick, mellifluous tone reminiscent of a stage magician's patter. It may leave the reader wondering what Atkins was keeping up his sleeve. There were a couple of examples where sleight of hand appeared to happen. The emergence of some of the natural laws still requires Noether's theorem and the principle of least action/time to hold... and where did they come from in a true state of nothing whatsoever? Also, the example using Noether's theorem takes us from nothing (where symmetry is inevitable) to empty space, where that symmetry remains - which then implies various conservation laws. But we got no feel for what happens when stuff begins to emerge. As the first particles come into being, why doesn't symmetry (and the conservation laws with it) go out of the window? Atkins' magical mystery tour makes it easy to miss the questions left unanswered.

A few diagrams would have helped too - there are none at all. For example, at one point Atkins is talking about gauge invariance, and says 'Now think of shifting the whole wave along a bit, so that its peaks and troughs are moved a little. Nothing observable has changed, in the sense that if you were to evaluate the probability of finding the particle at any point, then you would find the same result.' Without a diagram, there are two problems. Firstly, how is the wave shifted? Moved in which direction with respect to the direction of travel? Secondly the wave in question is the square of the plot of Schrödinger's equation - it shows the probability of finding a quantum particle in a location. So how is it possible to move the wave - so the probabilities are higher in different locations from before the move - yet nothing has changed? An illustration might have clarified things.

Inevitably a degree of magic work was necessary, though, to achieve so much without deploying the mathematics that underlies what we were being told. And in this book, Atkins proves himself a master magician.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. I can't resist quoting Ogden Nash's "Why SHRDN'T LU?" (if you're not familiar with the poem in which these words occur, do check it out)

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…