Mathematics in Popular Science Books | The Economist

Big bang (The Economist)
Popular physics has enjoyed a new-found regard. Now comes a brave attempt to inject mathematics into an otherwise fashionable subject

This review of Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s forthcoming book The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen sounds intriguing. I’m highly impressed that so much of the review focuses on the author’s decision to include a more mathematical treatment of their subject for what is supposed to be a popular science book. I always wish books like these at least had the temerity to include much more in the way of the mathematical underpinnings of their subjects; I’m glad that the popular press (or at least The Economist in this case) is willing to be asking for the mathematics as well. Hopefully it will mark a broader trend in popular books on scientific topics!

Fundamental physics

Big bang

Popular physics has enjoyed a new-found regard. Now comes a brave attempt to inject mathematics into an otherwise fashionable subject

Nov 5th 2011 | from the print edition

The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen. By Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. Allen Lane; 255 pages; £20. To be published in America in January by Da Capo Press; $25.

PREVIOUSLY the preserve of dusty, tweed-jacketed academics, physics has enjoyed a surprising popular renaissance over the past few years. In America Michio Kaku, a string theorist, has penned several successful books and wowed television and radio audiences with his presentations on esoteric subjects such as the existence of wormholes and the possibility of alien life. In Britain Brian Cox, a former pop star whose music helped propel Tony Blair to power, has become the front man for physics, which recently regained its status as a popular subject in British classrooms, an effect many attribute to Mr Cox’s astonishing appeal.

Mr Cox, a particle physicist, is well-known as the presenter of two BBC television series that have attracted millions of viewers (a third series will be aired next year) and as a bestselling author and public speaker. His latest book, “The Quantum Universe”, which he co-wrote with Jeff Forshaw of the University of Manchester, breaks the rules of popular science-writing that were established over two decades ago by Stephen Hawking, who launched the modern genre with his famous book, “A Brief History of Time”.

Mr Hawking’s literary success was ascribed to his eschewing equations. One of his editors warned him that sales of the book would be halved by every equation he included; Mr Hawking inserted just one, E=mc2, and, even then, the volume acquired a sorry reputation for being bought but not read. By contrast, Mr Cox, whose previous book with Mr Forshaw investigated “Why does E=mc2?” (2009), has bravely sloshed a generous slug of mathematics throughout his texts.

The difficulties in explaining physics without using maths are longstanding. Einstein mused, “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility,” and “the fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.” Yet the language in which the world is described is that of maths, a relatively sound grasp of which is needed to comprehend the difficulties that physicists are trying to resolve as well as the possible solutions. Mr Cox has secured a large fan base with his boyish good looks, his happy turns of phrase and his knack for presenting complex ideas using simple analogies. He also admirably shies away from dumbing down. “The Quantum Universe” is not a dry undergraduate text book, but nor is it a particularly easy read.

The subject matter is hard. Quantum mechanics, which describes in subatomic detail a shadowy world in which cats can be simultaneously alive and dead, is notoriously difficult to grasp. Its experiments yield bizarre results that can be explained only by embracing the maths that describe them, and its theories make outrageous predictions (such as the existence of antimatter) that have nevertheless later been verified. Messrs Cox and Forshaw say they have included the maths “mainly because it allows us to really explain why things are the way they are. Without it, we should have to resort to the physicist-guru mentality whereby we pluck profundities out of thin air, and neither author would be comfortable with guru status.”

That stance might comfort the authors, but to many readers they will nonetheless seem to pluck equations out of thin air. Yet their decision to include some of the hard stuff leaves open the possibility that some readers might actually engage in the slog that leads to higher pleasures. For non-sloggers alternative routes are offered: Messrs Cox and Forshaw use clockfaces to illustrate how particles interact with one another, a drawing of how guitar strings twang and a photograph of a vibrating drum. A diagram, rather than an equation, is used to explain one promising theory of how matter acquires mass, a question that experiments on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, will hopefully soon answer.

The authors have wisely chosen to leaven their tome with amusing tales of dysfunctional characters among scholars who developed quantum mechanics in the 1920s and beyond, as well as with accounts of the philosophical struggles with which they grappled and the occasional earthy aside. Where the subject matter is a trifle dull, Messrs Cox and Forshaw acknowledge it: of Heinrich Kayser, who a century ago completed a six-volume reference book documenting the spectral lines generated by every known element, they observe, “He must have been great fun at dinner parties.” And they make some sweeping generalisations about their colleagues who pore over equations, “Physicists are very lazy, and they would not go to all this trouble unless it saved time in the long run.”

Whether or not readers of “The Quantum Universe” will follow all the maths, the authors’ love for their subject shines through the book. “There is no better demonstration of the power of the scientific method than quantum theory,” they write. That may be so, but physicists all over the world, Messrs Cox and Forshaw included, are longing for the next breakthrough that will supersede the claim. Hopes are pinned on experiments currently under way at CERN that may force physicists to rethink their understanding of the universe, and inspire Messrs Cox and Forshaw to write their next book—equations and all.

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