Skip to main content

Can We Travel Through Time – Michael Brooks ***

 It can be something of a struggle to make a book stand out, to make it different from the crowd. In this case, Quercus Books has achieved the different feel by giving The Big Questions: Physics the appearance of a notebook. It’s a hardback with an elastic closure (the black stripe in the picture), just like many notebooks. I’ve a suspicion it’s one of those novelties that seemed a good idea at the time – all it does for the reader is get in the way a bit, though you can use it as a bookmark, but it does at least make the book, or rather the series, distinctive.



My suspicion is that the whole approach didn’t work, as the paperback is a conventional design and has been retitled to pull out just one of the questions – Can We Travel Through Time (a question that isn’t really answered in the book – for that you need my How to Build a Time Machine).


Although the book is an individual one by Michael Brooks, the series is a significant one in getting a feel for this title. Edited by professor of philosophy Simon Blackburn, it ‘confronts the fundamental problems of science and philosophy.’ Because of this context, it has quite a different feel to many popular science books.

One impact is an undesirable one. There is considerably less historical and human context than there is in a normal popular science book. Although it contains most of the key aspects of physics, it does so always from the point of view of the science, rather than the people involved and how the scientific ideas were developed. This is a shame, because it’s a big part of the appeal of popular science. That’s what is taken away. What is added is (not surprisingly) more of a philisophical slant. So, for instance, we have considerably more on the possible interpretations of quantum theory than you would normally find in such a book. This was an interesting addition.

Overall it’s always a difficult challenge, trying to take on all of a subject as wide as physics. I recently did this with Egghead Physics, and I respect anyone who can get good coverage. Brooks is strong on twentieth century physics – relativity, quantum theory, particle theory, modern cosmology and the understanding of existence that has emerged from these fields. There is significantly less on areas that were developed sooner but are still important, from mechanics to electricity and magnetism.

The level of the writing was generally quite breezy, readily comprehensible by a non-technical reader, though occasionally the focus on the science with non of the context made it a trifle dull.
On the whole, Brooks gets his contents right, though the chapters feel rather arbitrary and unstructured. Perhaps the only point things go a little astray is when talking about the implications of having an infinite universe. ‘Though it would contain infinite numbers of worlds, and thus infinite numbers of worlds with Earth-like life,’ it begins. Whoa there. You can have an infinite universe with just one world in it. Or with infinite worlds of which only one is capable of supporting Earth-like life. Similarly, even if you had an infinite set of worlds all capable of supporting Earth-like life, there wouldn’t have to be many worlds with a replica of you on them, as Brooks suggests. You could have infinite worlds all of which only developed bacterial life, or that never developed mammals. It’s a misunderstanding of infinity to think that as soon as you have an infinite set, you have a set which contains all possible entities.
That apart, it’s a sound book, I’m just not quite sure who it’s aimed at. It’s too lightweight to be a book for physics students, but lacks context for popular science. It’s probably best as a guide to physics for philosophy students, which may have been the intention in the first place.

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…