Tag Archives: Particle physics

Book: The Goldilocks Enigma

The Goldilocks Enigma
Life’s so perfect. Why?

Mind-boggling science proves the world is a marvellous place.
(I already knew that.)

350 pages, ★★★

The Goldilocks Enigma follows the same structural model as The Future of Physics, The Science Delusion and 23 Things. All these books are collections of easy-to-read scientific essays with introductions, fact-boxes, conclusions and summaries that plug a single thesis (in this case, “Life is miraculously improbable“). This formulaic approach to non-fiction really works, and the arguments stick in my head this way.

The Goldilocks Enigma proposes that the universe seems so perfectly suited for life that to some people, it looks purpose-built (the anthropic principle), or created by a deity (creationism). The author renounces multiverse theories as ridiculous (reductio ad absurdum) both on scientific and philosophical levels. I agree.

I saw author Paul Davies speak at the AAAS Annual Conference in Chicago in 2009. He emphasised the sheer miraculousness of Earth’s existence—six physical constants are calibrated perfectly:

Tweak any one of these constants and life becomes impossible! Some people liken this impossibility to “a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard and assembling a perfectly-formed Boeing 747”. It’s reassuring to see scientific evidence of how precious and rare our planet is.

The physics in this book overlaps significantly with The Trouble with PhysicsQuantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction and The Science Delusion. While it’s an easy book to understand, it’s only mildly entertaining. Unless you’re really interested, only read one of these popular physics books. The Science Delusion is the best. ★★★

Book: Information

Information: The New Language of Science
Info about info. That’s all there is.

Never really takes off.
272 pages, ★

Information lacks relevance throughout. I was asking, “What’s the point of this book?” somewhere around the middle. I only finished this book because I was in a hospital waiting room and found it slightly more entertaining than watching kindergarten programmes on the overhead TV.

I lost interest completely at this point:

“Imagine twisting the beads on your team’s necklace and watching the corresponding beads on the other team’s necklace twist in the opposite direction. Now imagine shattering that necklace and asking them what order the beads were in by asking them to re-twist them. Of course, the only beads whose directions can’t be communicated are the ones attached to the clasp. That’s basically Quantum Theory.”

Paraphrased from page two-hundred-and-something

This drivel disappoints me. I expect PopSci (that’s Popular Science) to bridge the gap between theory and application, thus bringing researchers closer to the public. Unfortunately, this book pushes them further apart.

This is a shame, because there’s some fascinating research being done in the field of Information Theory:

  • Enigma machines (WW2)
  • earthquake prediction
  • election fraud
  • stock market fluctuations
  • gambling cheats
  • evolution of religion
  • music analysis
  • and more…

This book fails to communicate all of this amazing stuff.

Information needs to be edited by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki to make it relevant and fun. I sincerely hope that this book isn’t the “new language of science” as its subtitle claims. ★

Book: Stories of the Invisible

Stories of the Invisible: a guided tour of molecules
A modest cover for a modest book.

Rapid tour of the sciences, from Chemistry to Biology.
380 pages, ★★★★★

Reading this, I feel like one of those busy tourists who takes a coach-tour of 17 European countries in the same number of days.

The book’s travel plan looks like this:

  • Pure Mathematics (smallest)
  • Statistics
  • Theoretical Physics
  • Particle Physics
  • Applied Physics
  • Theoretical Chemistry
  • Inorganic Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Genetics
  • Cell Biology
  • Physiology
  • Psychology
  • Medicine
  • the Social Sciences
  • Philosophy (largest)

By reading this book, you’ll get a glorious tour of all the subjects in bold above. Equate that to dozens of stamps in your passport.

You’ll learn why spider silk becomes insoluble when it solidifies as it comes out of the spider (and thus can’t be re-constituted like dried vermicelli can). You’ll learn the history of some chemical discoveries (all of which occurred by accident). You’ll learn why bacteria can ‘swim’, and how this technology can be harnessed to make nano-robots. You’ll learn how ambiguous names such as “A-bands” and “H-zones” (in muscle sarcomeres) indicate that the discoverers hadn’t the faintest clue as to their purpose. On top of all that, you’ll even learn how nerves work (that’s physiology).

This book even dispels my two favourite high-school lies: first, that mitochondria are round (actually, they are long and blobby, like the wax that drips down the side of a burning candle); and second, that ATP has a “high-energy phosphate bond” (actually, it’s only a high-energy bond under normal cellular conditions because cells manufacture a strong intracellular disequilibrium in favour of ATP).

This book is a quick primer to Chemistry and Biology. It’s clearly-written, and big diagrams are used when necessary. I recommend Stories of the Invisible for all prospective chemistry, biochemistry, or biology students. You all have time to read it. ★★★★★