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Schrödinger's Cat and 49 other experiments - Adam Hart-Davis ***

Dealing with a massive subject like physics as a ‘straight’ end to end book and making it approachable is quite a challenge. Publishers often look for some kind of hook to do this - and combined with the popularity (I can only assume primarily as gift books) of graphically interesting books with 50 or so bite-sized articles, we get to the idea of telling the story of physics through 50 experiments - and that's what turns up in Adam Hart-Davis's new title Schrödinger's Cat and 49 Other Experiments that Revolutionised Physics.

The problem is, of course, that while experiments are important, so is theory. Which gives us a problem. Do you represent Maxwell’s remarkable theoretical work on electromagnetism using Hertz’s comparatively trivial experiments? What about Einstein’s work or that of the quantum theory gang? Even the title 'experiment' of the book is a thought experiment.

The answer here is to cheat - but strangely only sometimes. Within the book, Hart-Davis refers not to experiments, as in the title, but studies, which makes theory more open to consideration. So some of the ‘experiments’ in the book are actually nothing more than the development of theories. Yet sometimes, puzzlingly, he does hide the important bit behind a lesser experiment - so, for example Bohr’s quantum atom is just a section inside the article on a largely forgotten experiment by Frank and Hertz (remember that one? And no, it's not the 'real' Hertz, who was dead by then, it's his nephew).

What I find impressive about this book is the way that Hart-Davis packs so much into the typically three page articles. From Galileo (thankfully consigning the Leaning Tower drop to legend) to the LHC he often manages to avoid over-simplifying significantly and does not just cover the key experiment (or theory) the article is headlined with, but brings in associated material. Sometimes the articles do feel a little dull - but the good thing about this format is there’s always something new over the next page.

Sometimes the illustrations are useful too - there are some quite clear diagrams - though all too often what we have is a Monty Python style image that doesn’t even give you a useful idea of what’s being illustrated. So, to pick an example at random, Marie Curie is pictured - fine - but with half her face covered with a radioactivity symbol and what may be a diagram of an atom. A triumph of style over substance.

Inevitably with any list of key experiments (and theories) there will be gaps and unnecessary inclusions to quibble about. Is it really necessary to include Schrodinger’s sad old cat as ‘an experiment that revolutionised physics’? It might be iconic, but it didn’t change anything. By contrast, for example, we don’t get Aspect’s quantum entanglement experiment or, horrendously, anything about Maxwell. We jump straight from 1850 to 1887. Admittedly, though Maxwell carried out plenty of experiments, he didn’t so on electromagnetism, but as we’ve seen there are plenty of theory-based articles here, so the omission of what the likes of Einstein and Feynman regarded as one of the most essential pieces of work in the history of physics is baffling.

Overall, Hart-Davis, a veteran science communicator, does surprisingly well given the challenge he faced. Because of the book’s style, I can’t give it more than three stars, but he does far better than it should be possible in this format.

Paperback:  



Review by Brian Clegg

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