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!
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.
from the print edition | Books and arts
How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.
This is a fantastic article that everyone should read and take some serious time to absorb!
This is a great short article on bioengineering and synthetic biology written for the layperson. It’s also one of the best crash courses I’ve read on genetics in a while.
“The Information,” by James Gleick, is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.
This book is assuredly going to have to skip up to the top of my current reading list.
“The Information” is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly. Imagine luxuriating on a Wi-Fi-equipped desert island with Mr. Gleick’s book, a search engine and no distractions. “The Information” is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.
In this relaxed setting, take the time to differentiate among the Brownian (motion), Bodleian (library) and Boolean (logic) while following Mr. Gleick’s version of what Einstein called “spukhafte Fernwirkung,” or “spooky action at a distance.” Einstein wasn’t precise about what this meant, and Mr. Gleick isn’t always precise either. His ambitions for this book are diffuse and far flung, to the point where providing a thumbnail description of “The Information” is impossible.
So this book’s prologue is its most slippery section. It does not exactly outline a unifying thesis. Instead it hints at the amalgam of logic, philosophy, linguistics, research, appraisal and anecdotal wisdom that will follow. If Mr. Gleick has one overriding goal it is to provide an animated history of scientific progress, specifically the progress of the technology that allows information to be recorded, transmitted and analyzed. This study’s range extends from communication by drumbeat to cognitive assault by e-mail.
As an illustration of Mr. Gleick’s versatility, consider what he has to say about the telegraph. He describes the mechanical key that made telegraphic transmission possible; the compression of language that this new medium encouraged; that it literally was a medium, a midway point between fully verbal messages and coded ones; the damaging effect its forced brevity had on civility; the confusion it created as to what a message actually was (could a mother send her son a dish of sauerkraut?) and the new conceptual thinking that it helped implement. The weather, which had been understood on a place-by-place basis, was suddenly much more than a collection of local events.
Beyond all this Mr. Gleick’s telegraph chapter, titled “A Nervous System for the Earth,” finds time to consider the kind of binary code that began to make sense in the telegraph era. It examines the way letters came to treated like numbers, the way systems of ciphers emerged. It cites the various uses to which ciphers might be put by businessmen, governments or fiction writers (Lewis Carroll, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe). Most of all it shows how this phase of communication anticipated the immense complexities of our own information age.
Although “The Information” unfolds in a roughly chronological way, Mr. Gleick is no slave to linearity. He freely embarks on colorful digressions. Some are included just for the sake of introducing the great eccentrics whose seemingly marginal inventions would prove to be prophetic. Like Richard Holmes’s “Age of Wonder” this book invests scientists with big, eccentric personalities. Augusta Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, may have been spectacularly arrogant about what she called “my immense reasoning faculties,” claiming that her brain was “something more than merely mortal.” But her contribution to the writing of algorithms can, in the right geeky circles, be mentioned in the same breath as her father’s contribution to poetry.
The segments of “The Information” vary in levels of difficulty. Grappling with entropy, randomness and quantum teleportation is the price of enjoying Mr. Gleick’s simple, entertaining riffs on the Oxford English Dictionary’s methodology, which has yielded 30-odd spellings of “mackerel” and an enchantingly tongue-tied definition of “bada-bing” and on the cyber-battles waged via Wikipedia. (As he notes, there are people who have bothered to fight over Wikipedia’s use of the word “cute” to accompany a picture of a young polar bear.) That Amazon boasts of being able to download a book called “Data Smog” in less than a minute does not escape his keen sense of the absurd.
As it traces our route to information overload, “The Information” pays tribute to the places that made it possible. He cites and honors the great cogitation hives of yore. In addition to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., the Mount Rushmore of theoretical science, he acknowledges the achievements of corporate facilities like Bell Labs and I.B.M.’s Watson Research Center in the halcyon days when many innovations had not found practical applications and progress was its own reward.
“The Information” also lauds the heroics of mathematicians, physicists and computer pioneers like Claude Shannon, who is revered in the computer-science realm for his information theory but not yet treated as a subject for full-length, mainstream biography. Mr. Shannon’s interest in circuitry using “if … then” choices conducting arithmetic in a binary system had novelty when he began formulating his thoughts in 1937. “Here in a master’s thesis by a research assistant,” Mr. Gleick writes, “was the essence of the computer revolution yet to come.”
Among its many other virtues “The Information” has the rare capacity to work as a time machine. It goes back much further than Shannon’s breakthroughs. And with each step backward Mr. Gleick must erase what his readers already know. He casts new light on the verbal flourishes of the Greek poetry that preceded the written word: these turns of phrase could be as useful for their mnemonic power as for their art. He explains why the Greeks arranged things in terms of events, not categories; how one Babylonian text that ends with “this is the procedure” is essentially an algorithm; and why the telephone and the skyscraper go hand in hand. Once the telephone eliminated the need for hand-delivered messages, the sky was the limit.
In the opinion of “The Information” the world of information still has room for expansion. We may be drowning in spam, but the sky’s still the limit today.
My first realization I was hooked on Oscar was when I seriously began pondering one of mankind's most profound dilemmas: whether to rent or buy a tux. That first step, as with any descent down a...
This is a great (and hilarious) story by and about the writer of THE KING’S SPEECH.
Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article “The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” is an interesting must-read article. In it he discusses the “Decline Effect” and outlier statistical effects within scientific research.
Among other interesting observations in it, he calls attention to the fact that, “according to the journal Nature, a third of all studies never even get cited, let alone repeated.”
For scholars of Fisher, Popper, and Kuhn, some of this discussion won’t be quite so novel, but for anyone designing scientific experiments, the effects discussed here are certainly worthy of notice and further study and scrutiny.
Data analytics are changing the ways to judge the influence of papers and journals.
This article from earlier in the month has some potentially profound affects on the research and scientific communities. Some of the work and research being done here will also have significant affect on social media communities in the future as well.
The base question is are citations the best indicator of impact, or are there other better emerging methods of indicating the impact of scholarly work?
From hiccups to wisdom teeth, our own bodies are worse off than most because of the differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live.
A short and interesting list of examples showing proof of our evolution.Syndicated copies to:
Finally, after 140 years, Robert Strain and Philip Gressman at the University of Pennsylvania have found a mathematical proof of Boltzmann’s equation, which predicts the motion of gas molecules.