No physics in gastrophysics

A word of warning. You might think that Gastrophysics: the New Science of Eating will be a book about “molecular gastronomy”, in which scientists create novel concoctions using our understanding of how food materials transform when cooked. The term was coined in the late 1980s by the University of Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti, who famously created a reverse baked Alaska – a pudding that’s hot inside but cold outside – using a microwave oven. In fact, “gastrophysics” is a concatenation of gastronomy and “psychophysics” – a long-established branch of psychology that examines the link between physical stimuli and the sensations they produce. Gastrophysics, in other words, is a book all about the psychology of eating: how sight, smell, taste and dining environment influence our perception of the food we eat. Written by Oxford psychologist Charles Spence, the book nevertheless has some appeal for physicists, who will be intrigued, for example, by his description of why food and drink taste weird in the low-pressure environment of an aeroplane and why an unfeasibly large number of passengers pick tomato juice from the trolley (tomatoes are rich in umami taste, which we respond more strongly to on planes). The book, which over-eggs the anecdotes about famous chefs, suffers from presenting far more ideas than can be easily digested. Like an all-you-can-eat buffet, it leaves the reader full but not particularly satisfied.

  • 2017 Viking 464pp £16.99hb

More than a minute needed

Physicist Richard Feynman supposedly said “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” The subject has expanded and grown by leaps and bounds since Feynman’s time, but the principles of quantum mechanics are still infamous for being weird, non-intuitive and just plain difficult to comprehend at times. In Quantum Physics in Minutes: the Inner Workings of our Universe Explained in an Instant, author and journalist Gemma Lavender aims to provide a quick and handy guide to all things quantum. The small, square-format book is part of a bigger series that includes titles on economics, world history and more. Made up of more than 200 entries divided into 13 sections, this book covers everything from wave–particle duality and the Higgs boson to quantum cryptography and superfluids. Each entry is a page long, packed with information and accompanied by a diagram, picture or graph on the opposite page. Clearly explaining any topic in science in just a few hundred words is no mean feat, but doing so with as complex a subject as quantum mechanics is even harder. In some ways, this book could be the perfect pocket guide for an undergraduate just dipping their toes into the subject and looking for a quick and robust description of, say, Compton scattering or quantum harmonic oscillators. A substantial chunk of the book is also dedicated to discussing particle physics and cosmology, which, while off-topic, may still come in handy. The same applies to the pages on string theory and supersymmetry. But it is the many entries on topics such as eternal inflation, “types of multiverse”, “quantum consciousness” and “no free will” that are worrying. While Lavender mentions that these are theories and not accepted science (even offering opposing views in some cases), it is exactly topics such as these that are commonly little-understood, greatly exaggerated and ultimately peddled as “woo” by those not intimately involved in the discourse and dialogue around such ideas. As tempting as it is to delve into these “extensions” of quantum mechanics – they are often the very things that make the subject interesting – they easily become hyperbolic and any actual scientific significance is lost. While debating such hypotheses is solidly within the remit of advancing science, doing so in 200 words or less, with minimal background and rebuttal, only breeds ignorance. On the other hand, the book contains surprisingly few entries on quantum computing (though those present are very well written) and its many recent advances. Lavender would have done well to dedicate a few more entries to, say, superconducting versus silicon qubits, rather than vague descriptions of “the observer’s role” in possibly sustaining the universe.

  • 2017 Quercus 416pp £9.99pb

Losing physics Pictionary

Physics is often best explained with the help of a diagram, as anyone who has ever tried to explain the photoelectric effect will attest to. Whether in a lesson, lecture or coffee shop discussion, diagrams offer a simple way to portray complex information. Drawing Physics looks back on how this has been the case throughout history. In a series of short essays, author Don S Lemons aims to illustrate 51 key ideas in physics and mathematics using diagrams. Lemons, a physics professor at Bethel College in the US, begins as far back as Thales of Miletus and his work on triangulation in 600 BC, before travelling through the history of physics, up to the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. On the way, he covers a huge array of topics aimed at those with little mathematical and physics background. As a book covering subjects from mechanics to astrophysics, it’s understandable that Lemons cannot go into much detail. Yet, rather than using his limited text to clearly explain the basic science, he focuses on the history of the scientists instead. While interesting, this seems to be a distraction from the book’s main aim as set out by Lemons in the preface, which was to outline the important role drawing has played in teaching and understanding physics. Furthermore, despite the book’s title, there are typically only two (poorly labelled) diagrams per chapter and these are not described particularly clearly. Although the book’s premise is promising, Lemons doesn’t quite do it justice. The diagram for the photoelectric effect, for example, is simply a rectangle containing circles with dashes and two wiggly arrows – there are no labels. His follow-up description is then reliant on bracketed directions, providing a rather stilted read. In a game of Pictionary, physicists may recognize this as a sea of electrons, two incoming photons and two outgoing photoelectrons, but Lemons’ target audience would likely be left wondering.

  • 2017 MIT Press 264pp £22.95hb