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Explaining nuclear physics and organic chemistry without mathematics is like making bricks without straw. Actually, it's more like making bricks without clay, but Sir Alan Cottrell, a distinguished metallurgist and chief science advisor to the British government, takes a shot at it anyhow. The result is a genuinely useful primer of science and a rare imaginative experience for mathematical retards. Cottrell boldly starts with what sounds, on the face of it, like the most inaccessible realm: the nature of space, time, and motion as described in Einstein's special and general theories of relativity. He goes on to electromagnetism, the activity of subatomic particles, and the composition of organic molecules--which takes us up to the amino acids that compose the proteins, and the DNA and RNA that direct the body's protein code. The portrait of nature that emerges fuses terror and challenge: in the macrocosmic view a universe composed mostly of unimaginably dense, hot hydrogen clouds in galaxies which rush apart from each other almost at the speed of light, whose gravity bends light itself, and whose total matter determines the inertia of even a flea on earth. At the microcosmic level we find the most tremendous force in nature holding together configurations of unbelievably small electrically charged entities which may be waves or particles, whose nature is distorted by the very act of trying to observe that nature, and whose behavior appears ultimately random, subject to no law except that of probability. Out of these materials Cottrell fashions the foundations of the visible everyday world: geology and molecular biology. He foregoes the detective-thriller approach of many scientific popularizers and lets the material generate its own charge. As a result the book is undeniably difficult (you may feel brain waves bending in its gravity), but ultimately it affects one like a glimpse into a quasar.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1975
Publisher: Scribners