Book review: ‘The World According to Physics’ by Jim Al-Khalili
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Sheer enthusiasm helps one of the UK’s most accomplished science communicators explain why physics matters to everyone.
The problem facing anyone attempting to bring physics to a lay audience, says Jim Al-Khalili at the beginning of ‘The World According to Physics’ (Princeton University Press, £12.99, ISBN 9780691182308), is that the entire enterprise is pretty much doomed from the word go.
The reason for this is that the research scientists who write the brilliant academic papers aren’t always good at communicating ideas to the non-scientific reader, while those with the communications skills – so-called ‘popular science’ authors – are necessarily not always in total command of the complexity, scale and subtleties of their subject.
Seeing the problem for what it is, the presenter of the BBC Radio 4 series ‘The Life Scientific’ valiantly tackles it head on, serving up what some will undoubtedly see as a compromise between over-simplification and lucid exposition, while others will see a bridge. Could he have done it better? Possibly (and he admits that), although it’s hard to see how.
That’s because his approach to explaining everything from space and time to energy and matter, quantum and the future of physics, is based on three underpinning positions.
First, there is his sheer enthusiasm for the subject, the passion for science that makes his radio show such compulsive listening.
Then there is the premise that all physics is interconnected and that even at its most obscure, every facet is fascinatingly part of a story that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.
Finally, there’s the idea that physics is important to everyone and that it is only through reaching an understanding of the processes by which the universe works that we are able to create a practical and beneficial technological landscape for tomorrow’s world.
If this sounds a bit too dry to swallow, let alone digest, it’s worth remembering that the author is perhaps one of the most gifted science communicators of his generation who - despite his misgivings about how successful such a project could ever be - has come up with an indispensable primer for the general reader.
People should enjoy physics, says Al-Khalili, and you can’t help thinking as you are propelled along through the historical and familiar principles, as well as more recent and emerging ideas, that he is entirely correct. This is largely because he takes the view that physics is a set of tools that enables us to discover the nature of reality, rather than prosaically seeing it as a scientific method for explaining what we know so far.
The beauty of this approach is that it keeps open the sense of wonder, discovery and possibility that is so attractive to the non-specialist reader (and let’s face it, that’s most of us). This is never more apparent than in his later chapter - ‘The Future of Physics’ - in which he focuses his mind not so much on what we don’t know, as on what we know we don’t know. Great stuff.
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