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Seven Pillars of Science - John Gribbin ****

I was highly sceptical of the very short hardback science book form when Carlo Rovelli started the trend with his woffly Seven Brief Lessons, however, I've been proved wrong - the last couple of years we have seen a string of books that pack bags of science in a digestible form into a small space. John Gribbin has already proved himself a master of this approach with his Six Impossible Things, and he's done it again with Seven Pillars.

The title echoes that of T. E. Lawrence's feels-even-longer-than-it-is Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but Gribbin's book is that volume's antithesis - light, to the point and hugely informative. Strictly speaking, perhaps this book should have been titled Seven Pillars of Life, as its linking thread is seven scientific occurrences needed for life to exist. As Gribbin makes it clear, these were all ideas that when first put forward were considered unlikely contenders, but now have mostly become mainstream.

The seven ideas span the nature of atoms, what stars are and how they work, the chemical nature of life, the existence of organic molecules in abundance in the galaxy, the resonant surprise that leads to the relatively abundant formation of carbon, the genetic code and the nature of hydrogen bonding. Each of these contributes to the existence of life, and each provides a fascinating story in the history of science. Some of these stories are more widely known than others, but even where they are familiar, Gribbin brings in small and delightful insights that are less familiar to the reader of popular science. It's also the case that Gribbin provides particularly clear insights into what can be relatively technical topics, for example in describing Fred Hoyle's contribution to our understanding of the way that stars created the elements (and rightly pointing out how much Hoyle should have had a Nobel Prize for his efforts).

Gribbin bookends the story with thoughts on how relatively unique the intelligent life on Earth might be in the galaxy. In his opening prologue he introduces Giordano Bruno and his idea of multiple worlds inhabited by intelligent life, teasing us with the prospect that there may be many such planets out there... only to rein this concept in at the end of the book, in the face of the narrow squeaks life on Earth has gone through to end up with intelligent lifeforms, making it seem more of an unlikely occurrence.

That approach is fun, but does give me my only slight moan about the book, which is that Bruno is given too much credit. Gribbin does not fall into the trap of some science writers of setting Bruno up as a saint, martyred for his scientific genius. However, he does tell us that Bruno was the first to identify the stars as other suns with their own inhabited systems - but Bruno seems to have taken this from Nicholas of Cusa, who lived over 100 years earlier. Similarly, though Gribbin recognises that the main heresy charges Bruno faced were purely theological, he tells us that 'speculating about the plurality of worlds' was one of the charges, where the actual point at issue was 'a plurality of worlds and their eternity', the second part being the important bit as it challenged the idea of the creation.

This is a very minor issue though, and has no impact on the effectiveness of the book as whole. It packs in the science, tells an intriguing story and is beautifully packaged. (In fact, for the price differential, it's well worth going for the hardback as this is a lovely book to hold and read.) Deserves to do very well indeed.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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