Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Matchbox that ate a Forty-Ton Truck - Marcus Chown

Originally linked off of BoingBoing, I think this is the best physics book for non-physicists that I've ever read. Chown takes a really nice approach - picking something in the everyday world that you've probably noticed, and maybe wondered about, maybe not, and then linking it to some aspect of physics which we don't have any intuition about. For example, he points out that if you look out the window you can see your own faint reflection in the glass, as well as what's outside the window - because quantum effects are random, and some photons are randomly being reflected by the glass while others pass through. If the world were totally deterministic, then they would all either get reflected, or pass through, but it isn't - it's quantum, and the quantum world is dominated by probabilities.

It isn't all quantum physics. He throws in a lot of information about elementary particles, strong and weak nuclear force, the big bang, and finishes off with aliens. His style of constantly relating unfamiliar things back to the familiar really makes this book easy to read, and not get totally lost in like many popular physics books. Additionally the fact that each chapter stands alone means there's less chance of getting stuck on a concept and having to give up. It is written at a level that anyone with a high school physics education could read it (I think), but there were only a couple times where I felt irritated by unnecessary levels of detail. If you've got a degree in astronomy or particle physics, this would probably be boring, but I really felt like I learned something. There wasn't a lot that I hadn't seen before, but it was put together in a way that was interesting, and helped me make a lot of new connections.

So, if you like popular physics books, I think you'll love this one. If you're scared of popular physics books, you'll probably still really enjoy it. Chown manages to simplify some really difficult concepts without oversimplifying, and communicate them in a really engaging way. I definitely want to acquire a copy of this book if only to lend it around to everyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment