Skip to main content

The Little Book of Scientific Principles, Theories & Things – Surendra Verma *****

This is an absolutely delightful little book. (I say “little” largely because that’s what the title says. It’s as wide as any normal paperback, and not overly slim at 222 pages. It’s just a little vertically challenged. The idea is simple, but effective. It contains 175 theories or key principles in science. Each gets one (or occasionally two) pages, stating what it is and giving some background.
Put as bluntly as that, it doesn’t sound very exciting – but Surendra Verma makes each little section a vignette that brightly illuminates both the idea itself and the people who were responsible for it. We get little glimpses into people’s lives – it’s an entertaining scientific peepshow that works wonderfully well.
At first sight, some of the entries are a bit scary. Unlike Stephen Hawking, Verma takes no notice of the infamous advice that every equation halves the numbers of readers. The introduction to each section, which says what the principle is before going on to put it in context and explain it, quite often does contain an equation or two. But this really shouldn’t put anyone off – there’s no need to understand what’s going on, and for those who want a little more depth it’s very useful.
The different topics come in chronological order. Many are familiar, but every now and then there’s a total left fielder that takes the reader by surprise. Although the book doesn’t read through with any continuity, it’s not just a dip-in book (though it works nicely this way), it’s easy to keep reading just one more… and just one more… and suddenly a half hour has passed by.
Occasionally the need to fit into a small space does compromise the value of the information. Take Galois’ Theory. It is described as “The study of solutions of some equations and how different solutions are related to each other”, which is so vague it could just as easily be a definition of algebra. We’re told it’s a brilliant and complex theory, and that it can be used to solve classical mathematical problems like “Which regular polygons can be constructed by ruler and compass?” (now there’s a problem we all meet every day), but unfortunately because Galois himself has such a dramatic story, the rest of the page is taken up with his (short) life, and we never really find out what his theory is, or what it can do that makes it worth including in the list. This is a rarity, though – most of the entries are concise, useful and easy to follow. (A couple don’t quite hit the mark. When describing Young’s work on light, Verma says that according to quantum theory, light is “transported in photons that are guided along their paths by waves”, which sounds more like the outdated pilot wave theory than modern quantum theory. But again, such moments are in the minority.)
I really do recommend buying this book and launching yourself into a sea of scientific wonder. Sometimes you will discover discredited ideas, like Lamarck’s theories of heredity, or Ptolemy’s earth-centred universe. At other times, you might find memories from school stimulated, as you revisit Boyle’s law or Newton’s laws of motion. Or you could come across something fresh and delightful (only you can say which these will be, but there are going to be some). This is a book that would be great for anyone studying science at school, to give some enjoyable background to what can be a boring procession of facts and figures, but equally it will provide amusement and entertainment for anyone with an interest in science. You won’t always agree with the choice of content – but that’s always part of the delight of such lists. Enjoy.

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…

Outbreaks and Epidemics - Meera Senthilingam ****

This book was written before the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, though it has been updated to include it: it's certainly not any kind of attempt to cash in, but rather a sober reflection on how outbreaks and epidemics work, what process the world has in place to deal with them and how a changing, globalised world has magnified risk.

If I'm honest, I'm not a great fan of medical books, but Meera Senthilingam gives an important introduction to disease outbreaks and epidemics, giving enough detail to make sense of them without ever being too technical for the general reader. This is careful journalism, which can sometimes come across as rather dry, but that's not necessarily a bad thing given the topic.

The book starts by plunging us into the beginnings of the 2003 SARS epidemic, then brings in COVID-19 (as of, by the look of it, around the start of March 2020) and measles before plunging back to smallpox and the origins of vaccination. There is a strong section on disea…