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.

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…