Skip to main content

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.

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


Popular posts from this blog

Mars - Stephen James O’Meara ****

This is the latest in the excellent ‘Kosmos’ series from Reaktion Books (who clearly have a thing about the letter k). They’re beautifully packaged, with glossy paper and hundreds of colourful images, but the text is so substantial and insightful they can’t simply be dismissed as ‘coffee-table books’. My earlier reviews of the Mercury and Saturn titles, written by William Sheehan, gave both books 4 stars. This new one by Stephen James O’Meara is up to the same standard.As with the previous books, this one goes into more detail than you might expect on the ‘prehistory’ of the subject, prior to the advent of space travel. The first three chapters – about a quarter of the book – deal in turn with mythological narratives, ground-based telescopic discoveries and romantic speculations about the Red Planet. Some of this is familiar stuff, but there are some obscure gems too. The Victorian astronomer Richard Proctor, for example, decided to name dozens of newly observed features on Mars after…

Nicholas Mee - Four Way Interview

Nicholas Mee studied theoretical physics and mathematics at the University of Cambridge.  He is Director of software company Virtual Image and the author of over 50 multimedia titles including The Code Book on CD-ROM with Simon Singh and Connections in Space with John Barrow, Martin Kemp and Richard Bright. He has played key roles in numerous science and art projects including the Symbolic Sculpture project with John Robinson, the European SCIENAR project, and the 2012 Henry Moore and Stringed Surfaces exhibition at the Royal Society. He is author of the award-winning popular science book Higgs Force: Cosmic Symmetry Shattered. His latest title is Celestial Tapestry.Why mathematics?Mathematics has its own inner beauty. But it also represents far and away the most powerful set of intellectual tools that we have and it contributes enormously to our understanding of how the universe works and our place within it. Furthermore, it enables us to control and manipulate the world with great p…

Hard Time (SF) - Jodi Taylor ****

Jodi Taylor has had a lot of success with her Chronicles of St Mary's series, time travel adventures with a quirky sense of humour. Those books feature St Mary's, a sort of standalone university history department with no teaching that investigates through time travel, but whose staff are more like the inhabitants of Hogwarts than any real university. I enjoyed Plan for the Worst in that series, but found the constant juvenile jokey behaviour of the staff irritating. Here, in the second of a spin-off series, Taylor switches focus to the Time Police, an organisation that are to some extent the enemy of St Mary's, even though both are technically good guys. Although there is still far too much banter between characters, the more serious setting lifts the book to a higher level, allowing Taylor's skill at putting her characters in danger to shine through with gripping adventure.The Time Police are responsible for preserving the timeline - in this adventure they rescue a p…