Skip to main content

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they are to physicists – are so abstract they’re best skipped over.

The book’s title, ‘The Cosmic Mystery Tour’, is a highly appropriate one. It really is a whistlestop tour, flitting at breathtaking speed from one idea to the next. There are a couple of dozen main chapters, but each of these is divided into numerous subsections, many of them a page or less in length. Unusually for a book of this type, the narrative is distinctly nonlinear – so, as with any good mystery tour, you never know what’s coming next. 

Opening the book at random, we find Thomas Young and the Rosetta Stone, followed by the double slit experiment, followed by de Broglie’s electron waves, followed by Julian Voss-Andreae’s amazing quantum sculptures, followed by electron microscopes, followed by the Large Hadron Collider. And that all happened in just five pages (pp. 12-16). Here’s another random five-page dip (pp. 138-142): a Chinese earthquake detector from the Han dynasty, gravitational waves, neutron stars, gamma ray bursts, the periodic table and Tutankhamun’s gold mask.

As someone with a notoriously short attention span, I really appreciated Mee’s fast-moving style. It’s a completely different take on the ‘physics is fun’ theme. While de Rújula emphasized that doing physics is fun, Mee makes communicating physics fun. He does it in an impressively eclectic way, too. The illustrations include van Gogh’s Starry Night, the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (featuring the radio signal from a pulsar) and a scene from John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic, about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.

This is a great book for the target audience – non-specialists looking for a pain-free introduction to the physicist’s view of the universe – but it will also appeal to readers who are already familiar with most of the material, and just want a relaxing and entertaining read for a couple of hours.
Review by Andrew May


Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Making Eden - David Beerling ****

I'll be honest up front - I found parts of Making Eden hard work to read. But the effort was more than rewarded. David Beerling makes a good case that botany is unfairly seen as the Cinderella of biology - it simply doesn't get the same attention as the animal side. I realised how true this was when I saw a diagram of a 'timeline of evolution of life on Earth' the other day. Out of about 30 entries, arguably three of them applied to plants. And yet, as Beerling makes clear, without plant life, the land would still be barren and the seas far less varied. No plants - no animals.

As someone with a very limited background in biology, I learned a lot here. The sophistication of some plant mechanisms are remarkable. Beerling dedicates a chapter, for example, to what he describes as 'gas valves', the stomata that open and close on the underside of leaves, allowing carbon dioxide in. The apparent downside is that they let moisture out - but as Beerling describes this …