A thought-provoking look at a fierce, ongoing controversy over the future of theoretical physics.




Exploring the work of modern theoretical physicists, who are “taking a path that is entirely reasonable and extremely promising.”

A book on the role of mathematics in scientific discovery that contains little math seems a stretch, but Farmelo (Churchill's Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race, 2013, etc.) easily brings it off. It’s a cliché that scientists learn by observing and conducting experiments, but the author points out that the two greatest geniuses of modern physical science did neither. Isaac Newton’s great discoveries were less universal laws than the use of mathematics to describe them precisely—mathematics so complex that he had to invent an entire field, calculus. In studying gravity, Albert Einstein realized that space was curved rather than flat, and no physicist knew how to describe it. Fortunately, as a purely imaginative phenomenon, mathematicians had explained curved space a few decades earlier, and, with help from a mathematician friend, Einstein made his breakthrough. The idea that mathematicians could help physicists remained a minority view for most of the 20th century, until the flood of new observations diminished and experiments became increasingly expensive. By the 1980s, most physicists had changed their minds, fascinated by new, mathematics-based theories offering the possibility of explaining the nature of matter and finding the holy grail of physics: a way to unite quantum mechanics and general relativity. A downside is that these concepts deal with impossibly small phenomena (string theory) and new subatomic particles that have never been detected (supersymmetry); so far, they make no predictions that experimenters can test. By the 21st century, a growing body of physicists was complaining that this was leading nowhere. For a delightful account of this opposition, read Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math. Farmelo remains a believer, delivering lively biographies of brilliant researchers and their work up to the present, although much will be difficult for readers with no memory of college physics.

A thought-provoking look at a fierce, ongoing controversy over the future of theoretical physics.

Pub Date: May 28, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-465-05665-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...


Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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