Between the lines: Christmas special
Dec 7, 2016
Taken from the December 2016 issue of Physics World
An eclectic mix of popular-science books, from everyday physics to loop quantum gravity to collider cartoons, reviewed by Matin Durrani, Kate Gardner, Hamish Johnston, Margaret Harris and Louise Mayor
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What has the US military ever done for us? While it is possible to respond to this question in a number of ways, for Greg Milner the most compelling answer is the time-and-navigation network known as the Global Positioning System. In his book Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds, Milner, a US-based science journalist, argues that this constellation of 31 satellites has had a greater impact on human civilization than almost any other development of the past quarter-century. For readers whose experience of GPS is limited to sat-navs and smartphone mapping apps, this may seem like an overstatement. But as Milner shows, a plethora of other technologies – including crucial ones such as the “synchrophasors” that collect real-time data from electrical grids – also depend on the faint-but-oh-so-precise timing signal that GPS provides. The importance of GPS is all the more impressive for the recent, accidental and insidious nature of its rise. The modern system was not operational until the 1980s, and its US military sponsors were astonishingly myopic about its potential. One of Milner’s many interviewees notes that when he informed superior officers that the system could tell them their exact location, a typical response was “Why do I need a damn satellite to tell me where I am?” Today, the number of GPS-enabled devices is in the billions, and putting numbers on the technology’s economic value is essentially impossible. But Milner’s book is no mere gee-whiz success story. Chapters focusing on the system’s vulnerabilities and its usefulness in tracking people raise troubling questions about this apparently benign technology. Moreover, while the evidence for GPS changing the way we think is comparatively weak, the idea itself seems plausible. After all, Milner writes, “What is the world if not a maze through which we all navigate, using the tools and maps…at our disposal?”
- 2016 W W Norton $27.95hb 336pp
The UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has, over the last few years, published puzzles that keen members of the public could solve to get noticed by the organization’s recruitment team. What they didn’t let on, though, is that what we’ve seen until now is a mere glimpse of a giant puzzle archive going back decades. Internally, GCHQ employees have been designing and setting each other puzzles since the 1980s. The mindbenders first took place over the Christmas period, evolving to include an Easter Teaser and even a real-life Treasure Hunt, where about 50 staff descend on a Cotswold town. The GCHQ Puzzle Book is a chunky compendium where readers are introduced to the whole back catalogue, which has remained secret until now. One puzzle type that stands out as being particularly “meta” is the Puzzle Hunt – a set of pictorial puzzles that don’t come with any questions, so that the solver has to first work out what to do for each part, then after solving them, combine the answers to solve a final puzzle, which itself has no question. Tantalizing too is the “artwork” on the book’s inside cover, which is a collection of higgledy-piggledy letters. Together with the advice that “there may be more questions in the book than those which are immediately obvious”, the artwork looks suspiciously code-like. There is also an entirely fresh “competition” puzzle to be solved; get in quick as the deadline to enter is 28 February 2017. Keen-eyed readers will spot that Physics World gets a mention. That’s because in 2013, for the 25th-anniversary issue of Physics World, we worked with GCHQ to produce a set of physics-themed puzzles, the first of which is included in the book’s introduction.
- 2016 Penguin Random House £12.99 336pp
Why popcorn pops
Using the second law of thermodynamics to explain why dogs pant, how best to get tomato ketchup out of a glass bottle and why Hawaii is so great for surfing, is a pretty unusual approach to understanding physics. Helen Czerski, self-described “bubble physicist” at University College London, TV presenter and author of Storm in a Teacup: the Physics of Everyday Life, wants to make physics accessible to everyone. She takes the science of the everyday – tea sloshing around in a mug, swimming goggles fogging up, bees collecting pollen – to explain basic physics concepts. Czerski shows how the same physical laws are applicable on astronomical and microscopic scales, as well as to current science topics, such as climate change and medical testing. Even when you know the physics, it can be a revelation to realize that, for example, popcorn pops due to the same gas laws that cause thunderstorms, and it’s fun to take a detour via the short-lived invention of rocket post (yes – that is mail sent by rocket and it really happened, though many letters were blown up during early tests). The one drawback of this is the brevity of topics. Each one- or two-page example could easily fill a whole chapter, but that would be a very different kind of book. In a friendly, chatty style that includes anecdotes from her personal and professional life, Czerski manages to make spilled coffee fascinating; tree growth astonishing; telecommunications intuitive. She has a comedic flair, including lots of details that are odd or silly, but what really makes this book readable is her evident enthusiasm, and not just for bubbles.
- 2016 Bantam Press 290pp £18.99hb
From ebb to flood
At first glance, it seems as though the tides are just a bit of simple physics – the Moon’s gravity tugs on the oceans, and the Sun has a smaller but similar effect. But why then, do tides in some places rise and fall roughly twice a day, while elsewhere the cycle only occurs once in 24 hours? Why does Canada’s Bay of Fundy have an enormous tidal range of 16 m whereas just 50 km away in the Northumberland Strait the range is a piddling 1.6 m? These and other questions perplexed some of history’s greatest scientists and in Tide: the Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth, author Hugh Aldersey-Williams explains how we came to understand why the oceans rise and fall, and indeed, how the course of history can turn on the tide. Attacking on an exceptionally high tide, for example, was seen as crucial to the success of the D-day landings in the Second World War. The Allies, he explains, used a mechanical tidal prediction machine designed 1872 by William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) to calculate the tides along the Normandy coast using a hodge-podge of incomplete information. The best part of the book though, is Aldersey-Williams’ contemplative description of a complete tidal cycle – from ebb to flood, and back again – that he experienced one warm September day on a lonely creek near the Norfolk coast. “The warming mud that has not seen the Sun for half a day raises a sweet shellfish odour,” he writes, “The seabed is coming to life.”
- 2016, Viking, £18.99, 426pp
Back in 2015, the surprise hit of the popular-science world was a slender volume with the English title Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Written by the Italian-born theorist Carlo Rovelli, and intended as a basic introduction to post-Newtonian physics, the book’s Italian edition sold some 300 000 copies. Rovelli’s follow-up, Reality Is Not What It Seems, is longer and a bit more technical, and unlike its predecessor, it focuses on loop quantum gravity – Rovelli’s main research area and a topic seldom covered in general-audience publications. The book begins conventionally, with the atomic theories of Democritus and other thinkers from the ancient Greek world, and then (rather regrettably) treats the ensuing 1.5 millennia as if nothing scientific happened whatsoever. After Democritus and Ptolemy, we jump from Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo to Newton, Faraday and Maxwell; and finally Einstein and a coterie of early 20th-century quantum revolutionaries. Despite this standard-issue structure, the ideas of Democritus and other great scientists of the past are not mere starting points, but touchstones for all subsequent theories, and Rovelli refers back to them regularly throughout the book. His treatment of relativity, and particularly his claim that special relativity is “more difficult to digest than general relativity” (clearly, being a loop quantum gravity theorist does exciting things to one’s digestion), are also unusual. However, Rovelli has a gift for presenting complex ideas in a way that makes them seem intuitive, without diminishing their depth or lustre. Physicists wishing to grasp the essentials of loop quantum gravity without tangling with its mathematics could not wish for a better guide in the book’s second half, when the subject matter passes from “what…we credibly know about the world, to what we don’t yet know but are trying to glimpse”.
- 2016 Allen Lane £16.99hb 272pp
Physics and cartoons collide
How many different ways are there to explain cutting-edge physics to readers who want to get to grips with the subject? Benjamin Bahr, a quantum-gravity theorist at the University of Hamburg, and experimental particle-physicist Boris Lemmer from the University of Göttingen have hit upon the idea of using cartoons. The pair teamed up with Canadian cartoonist Rina Piccolo to create this series of 76 mini-essays about a range of topics in physics, each illustrated with one large cartoon and several smaller drawings. The focus in Quirky Quarks: a Cartoon Guide to the Fascinating Realm of Physics is squarely on cosmology, quantum physics and particle physics, with wormholes, tachyons, extra dimensions and other far-out material collected in a chapter dubbed “beyond the boundaries of our knowledge”. The entries are authoritative and clearly written – if a little over-eager – with the cartoons providing a welcome light relief. Disappointingly, though, there is very little on “everyday” physics. Casual readers may also be deterred by the relatively steep price, which is at odds with the book’s “fun” approach.
- Springer £22.50/$39.99pb 319pp