Skip to main content

Enjoy Our Universe - Alvaro de Rújula ***

I’m going to start this review with a longish quote from the author’s preface, for several reasons. It explains De Rújula’s purpose in writing the book, as well as the audience he’s trying to reach, while giving a taste of his idiosyncratic writing style (which he keeps up throughout the book). It’s also a good starting point for discussing the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Here’s the quote:

'This book is not intended for (very) young kids nor for physicists. It is intended for anyone – independently of the education (s)he suffered – who is interested in our basic current scientific understanding of the universe. By "universe" I mean everything observable from the largest object, the universe itself, to the smallest ones, the elementary particles that "function" as if they had no smaller parts. This is one more of many books on the subject. Why write yet another one? Because the attempts to understand our universe are indeed fun and I cannot resist the temptation of putting in writing – and attempting to partake of my own share of this fun.'

So it’s meant to be a lighthearted book about cosmology and particle physics – two notoriously heavy subjects – aimed at the general reader, with an emphasis on the fun of doing science. That sounds like a great book concept, and De Rújula certainly makes an effort to live up to it. His jaunty writing style is entertaining and sometimes genuinely funny, spanning all the usual suspects from quarks and Higgs bosons to gravitational waves and dark matter. The book is profusely illustrated with quirky full-colour cartoons, mostly drawn by the author himself. In style, they appear to be aimed at 11 or 12 year olds, which is presumably why he only excluded ‘very’ young kids in the above quotation. Unfortunately, most 11 or 12 year olds (or even 40 year olds with no grounding in mathematical science) are going to find the book hard going.

The fact is that De Rújula – a theoretical physicist at CERN for the last 40 years – is simply too close to the subject. In common with many professional scientists who try their hand at writing, he confuses ‘general reader’ with ‘first-year undergraduate’. He understands that many readers won’t like equations (chapters that contain them are marked with asterisks so they can be skipped over), but he doesn’t realise that the problem goes further than that. Even his non-asterisked chapters are filled with logarithmically scaled graphs, powers-of-ten notation and variables with Greek names – and all those things are going to scream ‘mathematics’ to most people.

Every now and then he falls into the trap of trying to educate – rather than simply intrigue – the reader, and then the ‘physics is fun’ illusion collapses completely. I’m not really a ‘general reader’ myself, since I’ve got a degree in physics, but some of the asterisked chapters (such as the one on Renormalisable Relativistic Quantum Field Theories) still managed to go over my head. At some points I wondered if De Rújula actually started out to write a different book altogether – an amusing take on physics to be enjoyed by physicists themselves – but was persuaded by the publishers that it would sell more copies if ‘physicists’ was crossed out and replaced with ‘general audience’.

Certainly some of the book’s anecdotes and in-jokes will make a lot more sense to people who already know something about the subject – as will some of De Rújula’s more offbeat opinions (such as his argument than Einstein misunderstood E = mc2). Here’s another example. One of the book’s cartoons depicts the ‘Margaret Thatcher at a cocktail party’ analogy for the Higgs boson. This may be familiar to a few of the book’s readers – but probably not the younger ones,  or those living outside the United Kingdom, who may not even know who Mrs Thatcher was. Yet the analogy isn’t spelled out in the text, and the caption tantalisingly says ‘It would be difficult to misrepresent better the underlying physics. There is no sense in which inhabitants of the vacuum gather around a massive particle’ – with no further explanation than that. What a missed ‘physics is fun’ opportunity! It needs at least a page of text to explain the political background to the competition that produced the analogy, the logic of the analogy itself, and why De Rújula thinks it’s a bad one.

The book’s back cover boasts glowing endorsements from not one but two past winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics. That’s cheating, really, because he said earlier that it wasn’t a book for physicists! Personally I’m not sure who it’s for – and that’s my main criticism of it. If you’re thinking of buying it, I’d recommend reading a few sample pages first. If you enjoy them, you’ll probably enjoy the whole book. If you find them too quirky or confusing, then it’s best to give it a miss.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…