A quantum leap for the fun of physics

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THE BEST just got better. Two of the most influential popular science books ever were Mr Tompkins in Wonderland (1940) and Mr Tompkins Explores the Atom (1945), written by the pioneering quantum physicist and cosmologist George Gamow. They introduced generations of young people to relativity theory and quantum mechanics, using as a literary device the dreams of a mild-mannered bank clerk whose subconscious is stirred by attending a series of scientific lectures. Through Tompkins's dreams, we "see" the effects of these non-commonsensical ideas at work, visiting a world where, for example, even riding a bicycle changes the rider's perception of space and time.

THE BEST just got better. Two of the most influential popular science books ever were Mr Tompkins in Wonderland (1940) and Mr Tompkins Explores the Atom (1945), written by the pioneering quantum physicist and cosmologist George Gamow. They introduced generations of young people to relativity theory and quantum mechanics, using as a literary device the dreams of a mild-mannered bank clerk whose subconscious is stirred by attending a series of scientific lectures. Through Tompkins's dreams, we "see" the effects of these non-commonsensical ideas at work, visiting a world where, for example, even riding a bicycle changes the rider's perception of space and time.

The original books enthralled me in the Fifties, and played no small part in my becoming a physicist. They were brought together in one volume, slightly updated, and reprinted in 1965 (three years before Gamow died) as Mr Tompkins in Paperback, where they have been available ever since.

It is rare indeed to find a physicist in the English-speaking world who has not read this book. But even as a sub-teenager I worried about inconsistencies in the stories, which originated as magazine articles. Even when reprinted in the mid-Sixties, they began to show their age - not just in the omission of the latest ideas in physics, but also in the attitudes of the characters. The only woman in the original, Maude (who becomes Mr Tompkins's wife), is presented as an empty-headed fluffy kitten.

All these issues have now been tackled by the brilliant expedient of persuading Russell Stannard, the very best writer of science books for young readers, to update Mr Tompkins. He has carried out the task with immense care and subtlety, rearranging the text, adding new material (eg a whole new dream sequence about particle physics, involving Sherlock Holmes) and changing a word or two where necessary (so the "gay tribe of electrons" becomes a "merry tribe"). Maude now reads New Scientist instead of Vogue, and leaves the washing-up for the men.

There are still minor flaws in the masterpiece. Stannard has not been able to cut out entirely a tedious mock-opera about the expanding Universe. Bits of the physics still don't quite work to a trained eye (the famous redshift, for example, doesn't necessarily make things look red). But there is nothing here to cause confusion. Such minor niggles are more than counterweighed by a really useful glossary - something I could never imagine the ebullient, impatient Gamow sitting down to compile.

I had two fears - that my remembered delight in the original would be destroyed by looking at it through more mature eyes, and that Stannard might spoil the book. Both were unfounded. There is a certain period charm about the original, but Stannard has improved on both the physics and the narrative.

So who is The New World of Mr Tompkins for? I still see it as a book for young readers - "young" in terms of contact with physics. It is absolutely the best place to get a feel for the most important scientific ideas of the 20th century. It is also a perfect way to get to visual grips with relativity theory and quantum mechanics if you have read more abstract texts and been confused. If enough chronologically young people get their hands on it, the supply of physicists is assured for 30 years at least.

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