Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Edge Of Physics

There's a fairly standard format for popular science books, especially ones dealing with maths or physics:

  1. Say something which on the face of it sounds ridiculous and counter-intuitive.
  2. Go back in time to the person or people who discovered the theory.
  3. Very carefully go through the theory, step by step, in a way that's hopefully comprehensible to the laymen.
Anil Ananthaswamy takes a very different and refreshing approach in The Edge Of Physics.  If you've never heard of neutrinos, the cosmic background, or dark matter then this might not be the best book to start with.  There are explanations of all three, but they're relatively cursory and jump fairly quickly into the meat of the book - a round-the-world trip covering every continent and visiting some of the biggest and most audacious experiments currently being attempted.

It's a refreshing change - this is a very real look at the people who are currently sat in high altitude deserts, or freezing cold icecaps, or anywhere else that counts as remote and inhospitable, and the outrageously big, expensive and precise machines they're using to probe space and time.  You're just as likely to find accounts of the physicist's favourite drinking games and running jokes as you are an explanation of what neutrino oscillation is and why it's important.  It's a book that's very much about the human side of the experiments, the dangers, the Heath Robinson solutions so often employed and the humour that has to go hand in hand with jobs that are as far removed from the dusty, dry popular perception of theoretical physics as it's possible to get.

The LHC, the current poster-boy, get a good going over, as does the far more established (by a century or so) Mount Wilson observatory.  The part I particularly enjoyed was the coverage of two of the biggest neutrino telescopes in the world, one suspended in the depths of Lake Baikal and the other embedded in cubic kilometres of the Antarctic ice cap.  

This is a book that's not only to be applauded, but even made into a very cool TV show.

The Edge Of Physics
Anil Ananthaswamy
Duckworth Overlook 
ISBN: 9780715637043

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