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Pass Me The Aspirin Please
on 14 April 2010
Marcus Chown claims "Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You". What he doesn't say is that it can leave you with a very bad headache. A friend of mine, who took her degree in physics, said it was hard - and she actually understood the subject!! For those of us without scientific training and reliant upon our native intelligence and education it's far more difficult. Chown recognises this by stating at the outset that "as a science writer I am constantly amazed by how much stranger science is than science fiction, how much more incredible the Universe is than anything we could possibly have invented." Certainly some of his assertions seem incredible although the vastness of the Universe does make the fitting of the entire human race into the volume of a sugar cube credible. What Chown tries to do is to explain the complexities of science to the general reader. I'm not convinced he's succeeded, partly because the complexities of the subject are in abstract form whereas the general reader is looking for literary explanations which are significantly different in nature.
Chown splits the subject into two, small things and big things. The small things are atoms, so small that it would take 10 million of them laid end to end to span the width of a full stop. In addition, they are mainly empty space. Chown traces the history of atomic discovery, including the suggestion by Rutherford and Soddy that radioactive atoms were heavy atoms seething with energy. Rutherford's discovery of the atomic nucleus created a problem because "it was totally incompatible with all known physics". This discovery opened the way for quantum theory to explain the nature of the physical world. Apparently it took some while for scientists to accept the existence of photons so it was no surprise that Chown failed to explain them to a non-scientist. After several readings I understand what he is trying to say but his explanation reminds me of a police officer proceeding in a westerly direction. Probably accurate but no use unless "westerly" can be established in the mind of the hearer from knowledge of the road to which the officer was referring. It was downhill all the way thereafter.
Chown then discusses big things including how Einstein's special theory of relativity changed our perceptions of space and time. Einstein, of course, was not infallible. He did not believe that time travel was possible or black holes existed, both ideas which modern physicists believe can be achieved. He remained a critic of quantum theory which he considered provided an incomplete picture of nature. However, Chown suggests that Einstein's theory of general relativity is unable to provide an explanation of how the universe came into being. He argues that what is needed in a quantum theory of gravity. In the final analysis he asks but cannot answer the big questions. "Where did the Universe come from? Why did it burst into being in a Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago? What, if anything, existed before the Big Bang?"
There's a thirty-eight page glossary at the back of a book in which the main text is contained in 158 pages. My maths isn't brilliant but that seems closer to 25% than to 20%. Although it does provide assistance in understanding the text, it is indicative of the weakness of the main text which is where the explanation of each point should have been made. Chown may be a writer of popular-science but this book falls some way below what I would expect from an easy to read book. It gets better on each re-read so some of that could simply be down to my own unfamiliarity with the subject rather than Chown's explanation. Then again I would expect Chown to get through to the general reader lacking in knowledge of the subject first time as was the case with Hawking.
I was given the book by someone with more knowledge of science than myself who found Chown's presentation fell between the explanatory on one hand and the illustrative on the other. I've given three stars largely because the main points became clearer on later re-reads and with knowledge gleaned from the glossary. However, don't let my view deter anyone from buying the book. Whatever faults I found may lie with me rather than Chown. Then again maybe it lies with both of us. Buy a copy and make up your own mind.