Books : Putting the fun into physics
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From easily digestible introductions to graphic novels. Recent attempts to make the science that underpins the universe itself accessible to readers who may not have studied it since school days.
Having run through some of this year’s new books about the history and social impact of technology and the state of artificial intelligence, it’s time to turn our attention to the latest breakthroughs in physics. Most engineers will have a sound understanding of the basics, but unless you’ve made an effort to keep up with recent developments there’s likely to be a lot of catching up to do.
For an entertaining reminder of how physics isn’t just about billion-dollar experiments like the Large Hadron Collider or extreme astrophysical environments like black holes, ‘Breakfast with Einstein: The Exotic Physics of Everyday Objects’ (OneWorld, £12.99, ISBN 9781786074041) shows how an ordinary morning routine depends on some of the weirdest phenomena ever discovered. Author Chad Orzel, also responsible for international bestseller ‘How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog’, elevates the everyday by showing the phenomena that can be found in even the simplest activities. If you want to find out how the humble alarm clock holds secrets about quantum mechanics, or why classical physics couldn’t explain why your toaster’s heating element glows orange this is the place to start.
Adam Hart-Davis, who has done more than most to make science accessible to the public, turns his attention to physics with ‘Schrodinger’s Cat: And 49 Other Experiments that Revolutionised Physics’ (Modern Books, £9.99, ISBN 9781911130338). A follow up to a similar book about the role of Pavlov’s dog in the field of psychology, it draws on experiments ranging from Galileo’s stargazing to quantum teleportation, from Newton’s experiments with optics to the splitting of the atom. Although entertaining, there’s a serious side. Experimental procedures are described in full, and the results and implications are carefully considered, to help the reader get a sense of the methodology of scientific investigation.
Echoing Hart-Davis’s accessible approach is ‘Zapped: From Infrared to X-Rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light’ (OneWorld, £9.99, ISBN 9781786073730), in which Bob Berman takes readers on a journey from world-altering discoveries of the past to the science of the present, revealing how birds use ultraviolet light to track prey, why gamma rays are the most powerful form of light, and much more.
There’s a point, though, at which science has to get to grips with some heavy concepts, like the question of what our world is actually made up of. Paul Dirac described the idea that as science relentlessly peels away successive layers of matter we should eventually run up against some kind of fundamental, indivisible type of stuff as “the dream of philosophers”. Research has borne him out, suggesting that the foundations of our Universe aren’t as solid, certain or dependable as we might imagine. The story of how the answers to our questions became so complicated and difficult to comprehend is the backbone of Jim Baggott’s ‘Mass: The Quest to Understand Matter from Greek Atoms to Quantum Fields’ (Oxford University Press, £20, ISBN 9780198759713). Ranging from the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, and their theories of atoms and void, to the development of quantum field theory and the discovery of a Higgs boson-like particle, Baggott explores our changing understanding of the nature of matter.
If you’re wondering why this is so important, anyway, Pauline Gagnon provides some answers in ‘Who Cares about Particle Physics? Making Sense of the Higgs Boson, the Large Hadron Collider and CERN’ (Oxford University Press, £25, ISBN 9780198783244). About 60 countries considered particle physics important enough to contribute to the construction of the LHC. Without requiring prior scientific knowledge, Gagnon explains why, starting from the basics to build a solid understanding of current research into particle physics and how it is going beyond what is known to describe dark matter.
‘On Gravity: A Brief Tour of a Weighty Subject’ (Princeton University Press, £14.95, ISBN 9780691174389) is a concise introduction to the fundamental force that, despite being the one we’re most intimate with, is the least understood. Author A Zee, who is professor of physics at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, begins with the stunning discovery of gravity waves before explaining how gravity can be understood in comparison to other classical field theories and exploring cutting-edge topics such as black holes and Hawking radiation.
From the same publisher, but for those with less time to spend getting up to speed, comes ‘Gravity: A Very Short Introduction’ (Oxford University Press, £7.99, ISBN 9780198729143) by Timothy Clifton. From the early observations of Kepler and Newtonian theory, Clifton discusses Einstein’s theory of gravity, showing how it allows us to understand why the frequency of light changes as it passes through a gravitational field, why GPS satellites need their clocks corrected as they orbit the Earth, and why the orbits of distant neutron stars speed up. Clifton concludes by considering the testing and application of general relativity in astrophysics and cosmology, and looks at dark energy and efforts such as string theory to combine gravity with quantum mechanics.
The black holes predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity more than a century ago have long intrigued both scientists and the public, and been the subject of intense research. The physics governing how they behave and affect their surroundings is stranger and more mind-bending than any fiction, as Steven Gubser and Fran Pretorius explain in ‘The Little Book of Black Holes’ (Princeton University Press, £14.95, ISBN 9780691163727). Using the special and general theories of relativity as the basis for describing black holes both as astrophysical objects and theoretical ‘laboratories’, in which physicists can test their understanding of gravitational, quantum, and thermal physics, Gubser and Pretorius describe the decades-long quest to observe the universe in gravitational waves, which recently resulted in the LIGO observatories’ detection of the distinctive gravitational wave ‘chirp’ of two colliding black holes.
If a book about physics, however lively, sounds just a bit too much like schoolwork, you might want to consider one of several attempts to explain its underlying principles through a graphic novel.
Clifford V Johnson, professor of physics at the University of Southern California, has been science advisor for several movies and television series, including Marvel’s ‘Thor: Ragnarok’. He believes science should be on our daily conversation menu, along with topics like politics, books and sports, and has written and illustrated ‘The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe’ (The MIT Press, £14.99, ISBN 9780262536080). Johnson invites us to eavesdrop on a series of nine conversations about the nature of the universe that take place all over the world, in museums, trains and restaurants, between men, women, children, experts and amateur science buffs, spilling over into each other and, hopefully, prompting us to start our own.
Billed as ‘Tintin meets Brian Cox’, ‘Mysteries of the Quantum Universe’ by theoretical physicist Thibault Damour and artist Mathieu Burniat (Particular Books, £17.99, ISBN 9781846149290) has been a bestseller in France. Famous explorer Bob and his dog Rick have been around the world and even to the Moon, but their travels through the quantum universe show them the greatest wonders they’ve ever seen. As they follow their tour guide, Planck’s constant in the form of a letter h, Bob and Rick have crepes with Max Planck, talk to Einstein about atoms, visit Louis de Broglie in his castle, and hang out with Heisenberg on Heligoland.
‘Totally Random: Why Nobody Understands Quantum Mechanics’ by Tanya Bub and Jeffrey Bub (Princeton University Press, £17.99, ISBN 9780691176956) makes the ambitious claim that it will “completely change the way you think about the nature of physical reality”. Described in its sub-title as ‘A Serious Comic on Entanglement’, it’s aimed at readers who want to really understand the central mystery of quantum mechanics, which has led some of science’s greatest thinkers to talk about ideas like faster-than-light signalling, many worlds, and cats that are both dead and alive.
Finally, if you need a break from the often mind-blowing theory that underpins our ideas of gravity, quantum mechanics and even reality itself, try the story of how physics as we know it today – a highly professionalised enterprise, inextricably linked to government and industry – has evolved from its origins as a liberal art in Ancient Greece. ‘The History of Physics: A Very Short Introduction’ by JL Heilbron (Oxford University Press, £7.99, ISBN 9780199684120) explores the changing place and purpose of physics in the cultures and societies that have nurtured it over the centuries. From Islamic astronomers and mathematicians calculating the size of the Earth, medieval scholar-theologians investigating light, and Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler and Newton measuring, and trying to explain, the universe. Taking the story right up to 21st-century science highlights the shifting relationship between physics, philosophy, mathematics and technology – and the implications for humankind’s self-understanding.
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