Skip to main content

Atom – Piers Bizony ****

Sometimes the simplest ideas make for the best popular science books – quite possibly because one of the wonders of science is that many of apparently simple ideas are anything but simple when examined closely. Atoms are the building blocks of all matter – a substantial part of the universe, and decidedly significant to us in our atom-constructed bodies – so they prove a substantial topic, and yet one that brings in plenty of history, intriguing characters and weird science, once the quantum age is reached.
It’s worth contrasting this book with Marcus Chown’s The Quantum Zoo, which so elegantly explains quantum theory (and general relativity for good measure). Where Chown’s book wins hands down is the effectiveness with which it explains quantum theory in surprising depth, yet in a way that is comprehensible to the general reader. Piers Bizony takes a different approach in Atom, rather more skimming the technical side, but including more historical context and details of the human beings who have made contributions to our understanding of atoms over the years. This makes it an easier read than Chown’s, though ultimately not as rewarding if you really want to grasp what quantum theory (inseparable from understanding atoms) is all about. Similarly for a much more in-depth exploration of how atoms were formed in stars, and how this discovery was made, see Chown’s The Magic Furnace, which has significant similarities in content, but considerably more richness.
A really good popular science book that takes a history of science approach will immerse the reader in the characters and the lives of those making the discoveries, so the science is almost absorbed by osmosis as you go. Atom doesn’t quite achieve this. I think the fault, perhaps, is not so much Bizony’s writing, which is effective and enjoyable, but the fact that this is a book of a TV series (to be precise, according to the cover “a major television series” – have you ever seen the book of “an insignificant television series”?). This must to some extent shape the structure and level to which Bizony can go down to, though I would guess (I’m afraid I haven’t seen the BBC series) the book manages to get in much more detail than was shown on screen.
The result is that there is more biographical information than you need to set the context, but not quite enough to really become immersed in the individuals. One example – Richard Feynman gets a lot of biographical coverage, yet his second marriage, an important reflection of his character at the time, is never even mentioned, as if it never existed. There’s often a feeling that Bizony is holding back, not giving us the colour that will make the person come alive, and so the biographical parts can seem a little detached.
The only other moan about this book is the final chapter, which seems to be a tacked on collection of little essays, and doesn’t really fit with the structure or feel of the rest of the book. I would rather have lost it, and gained more insights into the individuals involved in what is, without doubt, a fascinating exploration of one of the most fundamental aspects of nature, and one that Bizony brings alive in an effective way. A good popular science book for those who are taking their first, tentative steps into the genre.

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


Popular posts from this blog

Artifact Space (SF) - Miles Cameron *****

This is a cracking (and, frankly, wrist-cracking at 568 pages) piece of space opera. That's a term that is sometimes used as a put-down to suggest pulp rubbish, but I use it affectionately. It's not trying to be great literature, but it's a great read, which is all I want from a book.  The author mentions Alistair Reynolds as an inspiration - and it's certainly true that there's something of Reynolds' (or Banks') sweeping imagination of a space-based civilisation. But for me, there's more here of a modern equivalent of Robert Heinlein at his best. Not the soppy stuff he produced towards the end of his career, but the period that peaked with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . In fact, the basic storyline has a distinct resemblance to that of Heinlein's Starman Jones . In that 1950s novel, the main character is from a spacegoing family who manages to get a place on a ship despite not having the qualifications, and with his skill manages in the end to save

A Dominant Character - Samanth Subramanian ****

When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life. Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics - and along with his irascible, blunt (well, rude really) personality, delight in shocking others and apparent enthusiasm for the dangers of warfare, comes across as a fascinating, if sometimes repulsive study (on the whole, Subramanian takes a more forgiving view, though without holding back on Haldane's faults). Apart from his decades-long enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and ruthless (and fearless) approach to military life, we see how Haldane's science brought huge strides i

This is Your Mind on Plants - Michael Pollan ***

There is a powerfully American cultural flavour to this book that even comes through in the title. I'll be honest, that title baffled me initially. The first thing it made me think of was the TV show 'This is Your Life', then I wondered if it was about having ideas while lying on a straw mattress. In reality it's a complete misnomer - it's entirely about Michael Pollan's life on plants (and the psychoactive chemicals derived from them) - it's a very me-oriented book. I was sold this as a science book, but it really isn't. Pollan describes his interactions with three plant-derived chemical substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline - but there's hardly anything about the science of what's involved, just a brief, dictionary-like reference to how these chemicals act. It's all about Pollan, what he experiences, how he feels. That Americanness also comes across in his casual acceptance that someone he deals with keeps an assault rifle by his desk,