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A Grand Tour of the conceptual landscapes of science
on 17 March 2003
De Rerum Natura badly needed updating. And Atkins's masterly survey of the great ideas of science contains echoes of Lucretius's classic work in its breadth, ambition, confidence, and clarity of exposition (also, occasionally, in the same imperiousness of tone - my one small complaint). But the similarities stop there. The ideas represented in this modern, scientific summary of the nature of things have been tested, sharpened, honed by experiment. Experiment, and generalization and abstraction, the powerful moulding agents of science's conceptual landscapes, form the underlying themes of this book. They are perhaps better epitomized by Galileo's inclined plane than his finger (it would not have made a catchy title). While Atkins's earlier work, Creation, had a rarefied elegance, in Galileo's Finger he deploys the remarkable gift for explanation that has made his textbooks so hugely successful. That makes Galileo's Finger a wonderfully accessible handbook of the key ideas of modern science. But to describe it in these terms alone would be to miss its spirit and driving force, which can be distilled into one short statement: from supreme simplicity does complexity arise.
This book is about the handful of simple but intensely powerful insights that lie at the heart of our whole modern understanding of the world. Their reach is breathtaking. Packed into this book are evolution, quantum theory, thermodynamics (never underestimate the significance of thermodynamics), the conservation laws and the deep symmetries of which they are a manifestation, string theory, number theory, spacetime. The journey takes us through landscapes at vastly different scales, and increasing levels of abstraction, right into science's mathematical soul. There are highly complex ideas here - too complex for the non-specialist to confront directly. But when viewed, like the Pleiades, surreptitiously from the side, via analogies and judicious simplifications, their basic forms can be grasped, and their significance and implications appreciated. Spreading light over such wide-ranging landscapes is no mean feat. And Atkins is not only a reliable and authoritative guide. He displays an Epicurean fearlessness in confronting the vertiginous, sometimes bleak, vistas that open up before us that is exhilarating. The result is a book that offers an astonishingly rich feast of knowledge and leaves us inspired and wanting more. Read it if your background is science. Read it, even more, if it is not.