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Showing posts from April, 2022

An Infinity of Worlds - Will Kinney ***

There is something rather odd about this book on cosmic inflation. Will Kinney assumes a considerable amount of foreknowledge in the reader - for example, he uses electron volts as a unit of energy without unpacking the concept and throws in everything from 'the unification of strong and electroweak forces' to 'the Hawking radiation of black holes' as if these are topics with which the reader will be comfortably familiar, no explanation needed. The problem with this is, if you know that much, you are probably pretty clued in on the basics of cosmic inflation too, so I'm not sure who the target reader of this book is. This is not helped by a series of light cone-based diagrams that convey nothing much at all. Inflation is a strange subject. It's a patch to fix the Big Bang theory so it can cope with the way that the universe is unexpectedly homogenous and flat (in the sense of (not) curved space), a patch that has limited evidence to back it up. Kinney emphasises

Schrödinger in Oxford - David Clary ***

There have been a number of biographies ofAustrian quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger, but here the focus is on the handful of years that Schrödinger was a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.  There is an introductory section beforehand, plus a chapter on his move to what would become his permanent home of Dublin and one on his legacy - but it is Schrödinger's time in Oxford that is at the heart of this book: unsettling years both in world affairs leading up to the Second World War and in physics as classical ideas were turned on their head. David Clary, a chemistry professor and former president of Magdalen College is perhaps the ideal person to cover this topic. Don't expect lots of details on quantum physics - this is very much a biography, rather than a science book with biographical sprinklings. However, what you will find is a level of detail that simply can't be found elsewhere, some of it delightful. So, as a random example, we are told according to Magdalen Colleg

White Fang Goes Dingo (SF) - Thomas Disch ***(*)

In the 1960s, science fiction underwent a revolution, often called the new wave. For many authors of the time, the 'hard' science and two-dimensional characterisation of Isaac Asimov and other writers from the 30s-50s was considered naive. The new young things preferred more human-centred stories, more experimental writing, darker topics and would sometimes indulge in total abandonment of the conventional story form. A lot of the output of the period could be classed as interesting but failed experimentation - which is not a bad thing. It is arguably an essential for real creativity. This means that much of the output doesn't stand the test of time. But some authors, including Thomas Disch, produced some remarkable fiction. This collection of short stories, first published in 1966 under the title 102 H-bombs  is an effective illustration of both what was good and bad about the period. Some of the stories are powerful, effective and original - others don't work at all. I

The Music Instinct - Philip Ball ****

A remarkable book exploring the nature of music, how it's written and how it affects us. It was published back in 2010, but I've only just come across it, and it hasn't aged at all. I suspect I am in many ways the perfect audience - I have sung for many years and read music, but have no formal musical training. At the same time, I find the science behind it all fascinating. However, Philip Ball's analysis is of far more than how music works physically and how it influences the brain - though that's all in here. To an extent this is a love letter to music. It shows us why music is so important to our lives. How it fulfils far more than simply to act as auditory cheesecake (as Steven Pinker described it) both in terms of the mechanics of music itself and the ways that it insinuates itself into so many spheres of activity. I challenge anyone with an interest in music to read this book and not come away with new and interesting insights. If you are a music expert, the s

Ten Days in Physics that Shook the World - Brian Clegg ****

Updated for paperback Joining the host of books with a number in the title, Brian Clegg's Ten Days identifies key dates in history when a theoretical or practical breakthrough in physics would lead to developments with a significant impact on our lives. It's a nice format as it gives an opportunity to put the idea into context - for example, providing other world events that happened in the same year - and it gives the reader a chance to discover more about the individual(s) involved as human beings, not just as scientists. There is a good mix of familiar names - Newton, Faraday, Curie and Einstein, for example - and of more obscure contributors, like Clausius, Kamerlingh Onnes, James Biard and Vint Cerf. Of course, like any other 'best of' type of selection, it's possible to argue about what should and shouldn't be included. We don't get the origin of quantum physics, for example, although there are several 'days' where the discovery is quantum rel

The Joy of Science - Jim Al-Khalili ****

While some pocket-sized science hardbacks have been very thin on content (think Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons ), Jim Al-Khalili has demonstrated how it's possible to pack a feast for the mind into this compact form in  The World According to Physics . He is, however, trying to do something very different with The Joy of Science , even though the format is similar. The title gives nothing away (apart, possibly from a knowing reference to the work of Alex Comfort) - what Al-Khalili tries to do here is to explain how scientists look at the world and from this to draw lessons for all of us on topics such as how 'Mysteries are to be embraced, but also to be solved', 'If you don't understand something, it doesn't mean you can't if you try' and 'Don't value opinion over evidence' - that last a particularly difficult one at a time even academic institutions seem determined to rate feelings over reality in their effort to appeal to the cult of the