Professor Brian Cox, most known for his television series Wonders of the Solar System, followed a year later by Wonders of the Universe as well as popular radio science discussion programme The Infinite Monkey Cage, has become one of the country’s most recognised and popular scientific figures in a field not normally known for being sexy and “down with the kids”. In that respect, to many people Cox must seem like an enigma – a young and trendy guy who started public life in the band D:Ream (known for Things can only get better) and now inspiring young people to take up the hard sciences again and creating an interest in Astronomy not seen since Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I went to the Basingstoke show of Uncaged Monkeys last year (the stage version of the radio show) and was pleased to see it was a sell out. Ben Goldacre, Stephen Jones and Simon Singh were also on the guest list. Science is getting big again and it is getting trendy too.
Anyway, gushing aside let’s get on with the book review. Physics is not one of the easiest of the hard sciences to comprehend and understandably it has not generally sold very well in the popular science category. It has become a bit of a joke that a lot of people buy A Brief History of Time but rarely get beyond the first couple of chapters. Do Cox and Forshaw succeed any better than Hawking in explaining the brain-aching complexities of physics? Is the passion there? Is this book likely to get young people going in for physics in the way that Dawkins has inspired interest in biology? Perhaps…
Where it is a challenge for the average person to read and absorb the principles of Einstein’s theory, it must be a challenge in the world of physics to attempt to explain these concepts in terms that a lay audience might be able to comprehend. The objective of this book then must be to achieve this through the theory and how it works in practice. The authors largely do this rather well. You find yourself nodding at the examples when the theory is being explained but when we get to the bigger ideas, the wider picture your head does start to ache. Not, it seems because it is difficult to understand, but because the actual theory goes against what our eyes are telling us most of the time. To fully grasp the concept you must break the individual-centric view and that is the largest obstacle to overcome. I hate to say “go with it” because that is not what the authors want. They need you to understand one chapter and fully get it before moving on with the next – and that is the biggest challenge here. It is easy to understand at the time you are reading it but a few pages down the line what once made sense can easily be lost to you.
I’m pleased to say that I stuck with it, I got it (mostly) but now it will probably be relegated to the “reference” section of my bookshelf. It will take you time, it is not the sort of book that you can fly through (I started this at the end of January). You will constantly need to keep going back to remind yourself about this or that concept despite that the authors always include handy little reminders (“remember in Chapter 2 when we gave the example of…” sort of thing). Through flicking back and forward, I have probably read this through twice. If you want to understand physics, there is probably no better popular science book on the market to so thoroughly explain E=mc2, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy reading.