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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 not very visual, but often a diagram is necessary to make an obscure aspect of physics comprehensible - but perhaps because of his experience as a radio presenter, Al-Khalili's use of words is precise and informative enough to fill the reader in with hardly a moment where you have to go back and read it again because it's not making sense (the classic moment where diagrams tend to be inserted).

This isn't a cold, impersonal approach - not only do we get a strong feeling for Al-Khalili's enthusiasm, we also see his personal biases, which he mostly makes clear. For example, although he doesn't baffle the reader too much with interpretations of quantum physics, he does admit it's one of his driving interests and makes the case that the 'shut up and calculate' approach isn't really proper science in his mind, because the scientist wants to know 'Why?' and 'How?'

Just occasionally the author does fall for the professional scientist's trap of assuming a little too much knowledge in his audience. This is very much a book for the kind of reader who, up to now, probably hasn't taken any interest in physics. So it might be a little too much to assume the reader knows what interference is when explaining why light was thought to be a wave. But such moments are rare. The only other slight moan I'd have is that the book is very one-sided on dark matter, pointing out where modified gravity theories don't match reality as well as dark matter, but omitting to say that there are also plenty of examples where modified gravity is closer to observation.

At the end of the book, Al-Khalili presents a defence of blue sky physics, making the sound point that plenty of work in the past that had no obvious application would later prove valuable, though he could have been more balanced in presenting the reasonable view that theoreticians who spend their working life not only dealing with extremely speculative topics, but those that don't even apply to the actual universe are really not doing science at all. 

It's a bit of an odd-looking book - my copy, incidentally is royal blue, not the purple of the illustration - this is not helped by the blurb, which is pasted to the inner front cover as if someone forgot to include it and added it at the last minute. However, I wouldn't hesitate to say that if someone with no background in science asked for an introduction to what physics is all about I would say run, don't walk, to the bookshop and pick up a copy of The World According to Physics. It's that good.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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