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on 26 June 2006
This is an interesting and non-mathematical introduction to quantum theory ("atoms and their constituents") and the general theory of relativity ("our picture of space, time and gravity"). These subjects are fiendishly difficult to understand, but Chown's use of many fresh explanations and analogies should help you get to grips with them. Chown has put in a great deal of effort to try and make these subjects as accessible as possible. As a result, this book has given me a much better understanding of these subjects. And far fewer headaches than many of the other books, articles and documentaries I've encountered before.

At the moment, there's no free preview chapter on this site for the Quantum Zoo; but if you Google Chown's website you can sample a free chapter before making a decision.
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on 21 June 2006
This is an interesting and non-mathematical introduction to quantum theory ("atoms and their constituents") and the general theory of relativity ("our picture of space, time and gravity"). These subjects are fiendishly difficult to understand, but Chown's use of many fresh explanations and analogies should help you get to grips with them. Chown has put in a great deal of effort to try and make these subjects as accessible as possible. As a result, this book has given me a much better understanding of these subjects - and far fewer headaches than the many other books, articles and documentaries I've encountered before.

At the moment, there's no free preview chapter on this site for the Quantum Zoo; but if you visit Chown's website at www.marcuschown.com, you can sample a free chapter before making a decision
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on 6 October 2006
What I really like about Chown's books is his stories about the people who come up with all this wonderful physics. (By the way if you are interested in the story behind this year's Nobel Prize for Physics, his 1996 book Afterglow of Creation is a surprisingly emotional and gripping tale of how the background radiation was found, with extraordinarily vivid portraits of the people who did it. How often can you say that about a science book? But I digress.) The Quantum Zoo also brings it home that science is done by real people, and how difficult it can be, even for the most brilliant minds: "It is ironic that Einstein himself missed the message in his own theory." He gives us historical perspective too, and reminds us that it is just as important in science to come up with the questions as the answers: "The fact that the Universe began in a Big Bang explains another great mystery - why the night sky is dark. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler, in 1610, was the first to realize this was a puzzle."

Chown also includes some wonderful asides. "The night after Houtermans and Atkinson did the calculation, Houtermans reportedly tried to impress his girlfriend with a line that nobody in history had used before. As they stood beneath a perfect moonless sky, he boasted that he was the only person in the world who knew why the stars were shining. It must have worked. Two years later, Charlotte Riefenstahl agreed to marry him. (Actually, she married him twice, but that's another story.)" (Can we look forward to the full story in the next book please?)

I found the science a bit mind-boggling in places, but Chown is a good explainer and I dare say the book is hard because the science is, um, hard.

My complaint about the book is its lack of pictures. For example Chown describes the orbits of electrons using the analogy of organ pipes, and a diagram showing this would have been a great help. The first half of the book, on Small Things, is largely about waves, and the second half, Big Things, is all about planets and stars and things, both of which lend themselves to diagrams and photos. I can imagine pictures from scanning tunneling microscopes and telescopes making it a rather attractive coffee-table book.

But that is a minor thing as the book paints some very good pictures in one's brain. Thoroughly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 February 2008
I was touring this black hole with my trusty guide to the "neverending" universe by my favorite science writer Marcus Chown. I wanted to get just inside the horizon where time slows down so magnificently that I wouldn't age. The idea was then to somehow escape the black hole and come back home and see my investments so wonderfully grown.

But somehow I must have missed a chapter in Chown's book or maybe a section or something because no matter how hard I tried I didn't seem to be getting anywhere. The problem is that the gravity well is so intense that time is crawling by so incredibly slowly that I may never get home. I don't seem to be moving at all!

But since the universe is "neverending" and I got stuck such a long, long time ago (your time), what with Hawking's dissipation, things are beginning to look rather good. The hole is about to evaporate and I should be free. Ah, but now I remember: this evaporation is taking place something like one particle at a time and I will come out a bit thin. On the other hand despite having entered the horizon some billions of years ago, I really haven't made much progress and in fact I'm not really IN the black hole yet even though it's dissipating.

Curiouser and curiouser. Such is the world as it apparently REALLY IS.

Chown has a lot of fun with all the quantum weirdness along with a retrospective on Einstein's relativity. He writes with his usual charm and grace although don't be fooled: we are NOT enlightened. I still cannot imagine that very real but "cloudy" electron, probabilistically surrounding the proton. I cannot imagine something that is both a single-pointed particle and a wave. The duality of all matter suggests to me that there is a level of reality that we haven't reached yet. And probably one beyond that.

Chown starts out with "Small Things" (title of Part One). He goes on to--yes!--"Big Things" (Part Two) and finishes up with a rather good 31-page Glossary. I learned that the force of gravity "doesn't exist" (Chapter 9). That instead, as Einstein divined it over a hundred years ago, gravity is merely mass bending space and time. But space and time do not exist without matter and energy, so what's to bend? Of course I should be writing "spacetime." Chown has reminded me that Einstein declared space and time to be equivalent, just as gravity and acceleration are equivalent. But if gravity is just a force field, why are physicists still expecting to detect gravitons? Gravity waves I can understand rippling through spacetime, but gravitons?

Then again maybe this is not so confusing since waves are particle and particles are waves. (Such a mixed up world it is!)

Chown tries to dazzle us with such observations that we age less when flying than we do on the ground or that a cup of coffee weighs more when it's hot than when it's cold. But we know the differences are not measurable. And when he advises us that if the empty space in atoms were removed, the entire human race would fit inside the volume of a sugar cube, we are not impressed. After all, according to Big Bang theory the entire universe was once the size of an atom. If you can believe that.

I believe it. I just can't comprehend it. I take all of what I read on relativity and quantum mechanics and cosmology with a grain of salt. After all it wasn't so many years ago, as Chown notes, that our galaxy was thought to be the entire universe, and not too many generations before that, it was believed that the earth was the center of the cosmos and we its finest product. (Always with the hubris, we are!)

Anyway as I was grappling with the ancient conundrum, Why is there something rather than nothing? and reading Chown's explanation of why space can't be empty (since it would violate Heisenberg's uncertainty principle), and while I was imagining all those ghostly particles popping in and out existence, it occurred to me that nothing is impossible. No, not that nothing is impossible, but that the state of there being nothing is impossible. Or rather I mean to say that there has to be SOMETHING otherwise Heisenberg would be sorely embarrassed.

The subtitles to the chapters are how and why questions such as "How we discovered that light is the rock on which the universe is founded and time and space are shifting sands" (Chapter 7), or "Why we can never know all we would like to know about atoms and why this fact makes atoms possible" (Chapter 4). Typically following the subtitles are some witty sayings by (mostly) physicists or cosmologists. Here are three:

"Passing farther through the quantum land our travelers met quite a lot of other interesting phenomena, such as quantum mosquitoes, which could scarely be located at all, owing to their small mass." --George Gamow

"I woke up one morning and all of my stuff had been stolen, and replaced by exact duplicates." --Steven Wright

"When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute--it's longer than an hour. That's relativity!" --Albert Einstein.

And in QM land, that's show biz!

Chown follows the subtitles and quotes with short fanciful stories such as a weapon that squeezes all the empty space from matter, reducing the enemy to practically nothing, beer creeping up the sides of glasses, and eye glasses that allow the viewer to see X-rays and microwaves.

Bottom line: this is a reader-friendly, non-technical guide to recent insights into cosmology, relativity, and quantum mechanics written by a guy who knows how to make those words dance.
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on 7 July 2006
A wonderful book, simple to read yet full of amazing concepts, expained in a to the point, well articulated manner. Even if you have no previous experience with quantum theory, or general relativity this is a great starting point.

Highly recomended, especially for the price.
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on 23 June 2006
This is an interesting and non-mathematical introduction to quantum theory ("atoms and their constituents") and the general theory of relativity ("our picture of space, time and gravity"). These subjects are fiendishly difficult to understand, but Chown's use of many fresh explanations and analogies should help you get to grips with them. Chown has put in a great deal of effort to try and make these subjects as accessible as possible. As a result, this book has given me a much better understanding of these subjects - and far fewer headaches than the many other books, articles and documentaries I've encountered before.

At the moment, there's no free preview chapter on this site for the Quantum Zoo; but if you visit Chown's website (easily found on google), you can sample a free chapter before making a decision.
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In the "real" world, the one we can see and feel, things are generally predictable. Rain doesn't fall from a cloudless sky, and the sun rises at the eastern horizon. Down in the invisible world of atoms and their components, things are less organised. The story doesn't flow like a good novel, it skips around, chapters are out of sequence, and the conclusions aren't just illogical, they're impossible. At least compared to what we're accustomed to. In this excellent - and much-needed work, Marcus Chown is able to make some sense of a rather poorly conceived tale.

As Chown is at pains to point out, understanding the universe's basic mechanisms doesn't come easily. He ought to know - he's been in the trade. Yet his close knowledge provides a solid foundation for explaining it. More important here, he enjoys a fine talent for turning complex issues into understandable and readable accounts. He shows us how these things work, succeeding admirably at the task. Predictability, he explains, isn't part of how the universe works. Thus, the reader must shed a few misconceptions about reality derived over the years and let Chown guide you through an unknown world. He's a talented writer and provides a wealth of tips to aid in the tour of the fascinating atomic realm. He's able to make sense of the seemingly chaotic story underlying the world we live in.

"What is light?" seems a straightforward question, but Chown describes how much effort has gone into making that definition. For centuries light was thought to be a wave. After all, it exhibits various frequencies [according to colour], can be "bent" by obstacles and so on. Yet, as the author reminds us, light's speed is finite - a critical point. Einstein demonstrated the flaws in thinking of light as a wave and, in Chown's words, you can "Say Good-bye to Certainty". To help bridge the gap between what is happening in the atomic realm and our world, he opens each chapter with a thought experiment exercise. Can you imagine a river flowing uphill? Chown challenges your thinking with that and similar scenarios, then goes on to demonstrate how such a phenomenon can occur.

As Chown goes on to explain, what we've learned about light can be applied to conditions within the atom. Light doesn't come from torches or burning embers in a simple, continuous manner. It emerges from jumping electrons which are prodded and poked by other forces and "microscopic" elements within atoms [Chown's use of "microscopic" throughout this book is slightly misleading - none of what he writes can be seen by a microscope. But continuous use of "sub-microscopic" would be boring.] The "jumping" is the hint of what quantum mechanics means - there is very little smooth, undisturbed and continuous action in the atomic world. Things may occur with seeming regularity, then quickly shift to another condition. This state of affairs, as Chown notes, applies across the cosmos. Predictability is abandoned and any semblance of a coherent narrative is lost. Read this and find out why you should learn something of quantum physics. It's a finer tale than Shakespeare. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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