Skip to main content

Physics in 100 Numbers - Colin Stuart ***

I'm not generally a big fan of the popular science equivalent of those filler TV shows like 'The 50 best comedy moments' or 'The 100 TV scenes you least want to see again' or whatever. Some of these books feel no more than an easily sellable packaged concept with little imagination behind it. I'm pleased to say that Colin Stewart's Physics in 100 Numbers is not one of these - it has plenty of genuine moments of interest.

What we have here is a collection of single page items and double page spreads in slightly wider than usual hardback (though not big enough to class as a coffee table book) format in numerical order from 5.49x10-44 (Planck time) to 1x10500 (number of possible string theory 'solutions'). Occasionally the format is a little squeezed - so 1543, for instance, is not really a number, but the year that the groundbreaking book by Copernicus was published - but mostly Stuart sticks to the straight and narrow.

What the author tries to do, and at which he often succeeds, is to turn each little essay into an enjoyable expansion of the basic facts to include enough context to make it worth reading. So, for instance, for the permeability of free space (1.26x10-6, but you knew that) we don't just discover what the scientific term means, but who came up with the word 'permeability' (Oliver Heaviside, who in his photo looks scarily like an Edwardian version of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine), why permeability and its counterpart permittivity were important in Maxwell's work on electromagnetism, and how it made the prediction that light was an electromagnetic wave possible.

The reason I really can't give a title like this the four stars that some of its content deserves is that I am never really sure what such a book is for. Unless readers have trainspotting inclinations, I can't see them sitting down and reading the book end to end. I certainly found that quite difficult to do (and I was a trainspotter in my teens). But on the other hand, physics isn't necessarily the ideal topic for a dip in, dip out loo book. Perhaps the best application here is as a gift for difficult-to-buy for people.

So if you enjoy these kind of highly segmented 'n things' type books, and a lot of people must because they sell pretty well, this is without doubt one of the best of the breed. (Incidentally, it's a format that should work well on Kindle - a shame not to see it as an ebook.)


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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

Twenty Worlds - Niall Deacon *****

This is a truly entertaining and informative book, but the reason I’m giving it the full five stars has as much to do with the refreshing novelty of the author’s style as anything else. There’s novelty in the subject-matter too – the wide variety of recently discovered exoplanets orbiting other stars – but even so this is the third book on the topic that I’ve read. The first two were a lot less fun to read, and (without naming and shaming the authors) it’s worth a brief diversion to explain why.The first author was a university professor with a vast knowledge of the subject, who seemed determined to convey the entirety of that knowledge without stopping to think whether it was interesting or necessary for a general audience. The second author – another academic – took a different but equally tedious approach, with a plodding chronological account that focused as much on the dull routine of the scientists involved as on their work.Niall Deacon doesn’t make either of those mistakes. He’…