Isaac Newton on one pound note

Book review: ‘Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World’ by Brian Clegg

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How scientists have transformed everyday life thanks to the far-reaching consequences of their discoveries.

To begin with, I’d like to take issue with the title of this book, nicely written and highly illuminating as it is. Brian Clegg’s pun on John Reed’s iconic chronicle of the 1917 Russian revolution, ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’, is misleading in that the title of Reed’s courageous and eye-opening reportage was tongue-in-cheek. His diary-style account of the revolution, with all its chaos, poverty, violence and corruption has a negative connotation. In Reed’s view, those ten days changed the world not for the better, but for the worse.

If they shook the world, it was to a point at which it nearly collapsed – the direct opposite of what Clegg ascribes to what he considers the ten most important discoveries in the world of physics, all of which have contributed hugely to improving our lives.

Title aside, ‘Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World’ (Icon, £12.99, ISBN 9781785787478), with no formulae and/or equations of any kind and just a handful of photos and illustrations, constitutes an engaging read not just for engineers and scientists, but for a broad ‘general’ audience. “Physics is central to our understanding of how the world works. But more than that, key breakthroughs in physics – and physics-based engineering – have transformed the world we live in,” Clegg notes in his introduction.

Those breakthroughs range from the publication of Isaac Newton’s ‘Principia’ on 5 July 1687 and Michael Faraday’s ‘Experimental Researches in Electricity’ on 24 November 1831 to the initiation of the first link of what was to become the internet by Steve Crocker and Vint Cerf on 1 October 1969.

Each chapter closes with a ‘Life Changers’ section, in which Clegg sums up the far-reaching practical applications of the breakthrough in question: satnavs and space travel as long-term results of Newton’s pioneering research into gravity; fridges and air conditioning evolved from Rudolf Clausius’ findings in thermodynamics; and modern radiotherapy stemming from Marie Curie’s discovery of polonium. The latter, incidentally, is a good example of how a great scientific discovery can turn destructive and even murderous in the wrong hands. I am talking about the poisoning of the Russian dissident Alexandr Litvinenko in 2006, reportedly masterminded by Russia’s secret services.

To me, one of the book’s best features is the section, present in each chapter, that portrays the inventor as a person, adding a human face to their discovery. For instance, Clegg rightly and knowledgeably characterises Newton not merely as the traditional ‘national treasure’, but as a “physicist, mathematician, alchemist, heretical religious scholar, MP and bureaucrat”.

Clegg’s choice of the ten greatest breakthroughs is of course personal and far from conclusive. Every reader will be able to come up with their own list and I’m no exception. My own choice would have been influenced by my late father – a doctor of physics who worked for most of his life at the world-famous Ukrainian Physico-Technical Institute in Kharkiv. I remember him telling me of a couple of world-changing discoveries in physics made at the Institute during one and the same year – 1932 - when the nucleus of lithium atom was caused to undergo fission by a group of Kharkiv-based scientists led by AK Val'ter, and the proton-neutron model of the atomic nucleus was proposed for the first time by Dmitri Ivanenko and Evgeny Gapon.

If Clegg, or another writer, one day decides to write a sequel, they might want to put the above-mentioned physicists on their list too. And, hopefully, choose a more appropriate title.

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