Skip to main content

Seven Pillars of Science - John Gribbin ****

I was highly sceptical of the very short hardback science book form when Carlo Rovelli started the trend with his woffly Seven Brief Lessons, however, I've been proved wrong - the last couple of years we have seen a string of books that pack bags of science in a digestible form into a small space. John Gribbin has already proved himself a master of this approach with his Six Impossible Things, and he's done it again with Seven Pillars.

The title echoes that of T. E. Lawrence's feels-even-longer-than-it-is Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but Gribbin's book is that volume's antithesis - light, to the point and hugely informative. Strictly speaking, perhaps this book should have been titled Seven Pillars of Life, as its linking thread is seven scientific occurrences needed for life to exist. As Gribbin makes it clear, these were all ideas that when first put forward were considered unlikely contenders, but now have mostly become mainstream.

The seven ideas span the nature of atoms, what stars are and how they work, the chemical nature of life, the existence of organic molecules in abundance in the galaxy, the resonant surprise that leads to the relatively abundant formation of carbon, the genetic code and the nature of hydrogen bonding. Each of these contributes to the existence of life, and each provides a fascinating story in the history of science. Some of these stories are more widely known than others, but even where they are familiar, Gribbin brings in small and delightful insights that are less familiar to the reader of popular science. It's also the case that Gribbin provides particularly clear insights into what can be relatively technical topics, for example in describing Fred Hoyle's contribution to our understanding of the way that stars created the elements (and rightly pointing out how much Hoyle should have had a Nobel Prize for his efforts).

Gribbin bookends the story with thoughts on how relatively unique the intelligent life on Earth might be in the galaxy. In his opening prologue he introduces Giordano Bruno and his idea of multiple worlds inhabited by intelligent life, teasing us with the prospect that there may be many such planets out there... only to rein this concept in at the end of the book, in the face of the narrow squeaks life on Earth has gone through to end up with intelligent lifeforms, making it seem more of an unlikely occurrence.

That approach is fun, but does give me my only slight moan about the book, which is that Bruno is given too much credit. Gribbin does not fall into the trap of some science writers of setting Bruno up as a saint, martyred for his scientific genius. However, he does tell us that Bruno was the first to identify the stars as other suns with their own inhabited systems - but Bruno seems to have taken this from Nicholas of Cusa, who lived over 100 years earlier. Similarly, though Gribbin recognises that the main heresy charges Bruno faced were purely theological, he tells us that 'speculating about the plurality of worlds' was one of the charges, where the actual point at issue was 'a plurality of worlds and their eternity', the second part being the important bit as it challenged the idea of the creation.

This is a very minor issue though, and has no impact on the effectiveness of the book as whole. It packs in the science, tells an intriguing story and is beautifully packaged. (In fact, for the price differential, it's well worth going for the hardback as this is a lovely book to hold and read.) Deserves to do very well indeed.

Hardback:

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Math Without Numbers - Milo Beckman *****

In some ways, this is the best book about pure mathematics for the general reader that I've ever seen.  At first sight, Milo Beckman's assertion that 'the only numbers in this book are the page numbers' seems like one of those testing limits some authors place on themselves, such as Roberto Trotter's interesting attempt to explain cosmology using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language, The Edge of the Sky . But in practice, Beckman's conceit is truly liberating. Dropping numbers enables him to present maths (I can't help but wince a bit at the 'math' in the title) in a far more comprehensible way. Counting and geometry may have been the historical origin of mathematics, but it has moved on. The book is divided into three primary sections - topology, analysis and algebra, plus a rather earnest dialogue on foundations of mathematics exploring the implications of Gödel's incompleteness theorems, and a closing section on modelling (

Linda Schweizer - Four Way Interview

Linda Schweizer earned an MA in mathematics and a PhD in astronomy at UC Berkeley, with the visual arts and dance as her other passions. She observed southern-hemisphere galaxy pairs with several telescopes in cold dark domes in Chile, then modelled, analyzed, and published her work in 1987. Those papers on the statistical and dynamical modelling of dark matter in binary galaxy halos were, she says, just a small stone in the mosaic of our growing understanding of dark matter. A Carnegie Fellowship in Washington, DC, was her first science job. By then, she had her second daughter in the oven— with two more daughters to follow, and she turned her focus to properly preparing them for life. After 15 years, she returned to the world of astrophysics. After a brief stint in External Affairs, she taught science writing to undergraduate students at Caltech and loved it. She was a Visiting Scholar at Caltech while researching Cosmic Odyssey , an insider’s history of one of the greatest eras in a

The Ten Equations that Rule the World - David Sumpter ****

David Sumpter makes it clear in this book that a couple of handfuls of equations have a huge influence on our everyday lives. I needed an equation too to give this book a star rating - I’ve never had one where there was such a divergence of feeling about it. I wanted to give it five stars for the exposition of the power and importance of these equations and just two stars for an aspect of the way that Sumpter did it. The fact that the outcome of applying my star balancing equation was four stars emphasises how good the content is. What we have here is ten key equations from applied mathematics. (Strictly, nine, as the tenth isn’t really an equation, it’s the programmer’s favourite ‘If… then…’ - though as a programmer I was always more an ‘If… then… else…’ fan.) Those equations range from the magnificent one behind Bayesian statistics and the predictive power of logistic regression to the method of determining confidence intervals and the kind of influencer matrix so beloved of social m