Profile Books £7.99
Nothing: From Absolute Zero to Cosmic Oblivion, Edited by Jeremy Webb - Paperbacks review
Sunday 08 December 2013
What goes on in our brains when we’re not thinking? Why do some animals lounge around all day doing nothing? Is outer space completely empty? Why did it take so long for the number zero to be accepted? These are just some of the questions discussed in this intriguing collection of essays on “nothingness” by science writers including Ian Stewart, Marcus Chown, Nigel Henbest, Michael Brooks, Paul Davies and David Fisher.
The book is the latest from Profile in association with New Scientist, and topics include the Big Bang (and whether something can really come from nothing); transistors (in which “holes” in a semiconductor take on a life of their own); the power of placebos (and their evil twins, “nocebos”); and “interplanetary superhighways” (enabling super-efficient space travel along gravitational contours).
As the stories show, there’s really no such thing as nothing. Animals that appear to spend their whole life doing nothing are, in fact, doing nothing of the kind. Burmese pythons, for example, often go for months between meals – but that time is spent digesting the previous (often huge) meal. In his introduction, Webb explains why he chose not to shoehorn the stories into chapters themed along conventional lines – cosmology, mathematics, psychology etc – and instead to create chapters headed, for example, “beginnings”, “mysteries” and “surprises”.
If you want to read all the essays on a particular theme, a signpost at the end of each essay points you to the next one in the chain. I found many so engrossing that I immediately wanted to continue the thread. So, having to skip several chapters to find the next essay on the same theme was a distraction. I’d have preferred all the essays on, say, the history of the number zero (you’d be surprised how fascinating this subject is in the hands of a gifted mathematical communicator such as Ian Stewart) to be grouped together. That way, you could dip into the book at random, because the essays on a specific theme can be read in any order – it’s not a text book, more of a story book. I also felt that a few more illustrations would have been helpful.
Still, these are minor quibbles. If only I’d had this book in my school days, when smart-arse prefects would like to punish young miscreants by telling them to write 300 words about the inside of a pingpong ball. How surprised they would have been by my answer.
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 4 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 5 Rashida Jones speaks out against male-centric porn saying 'women should have sex and feel good about it'
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
Game of Thrones really doesn't want Danny Dyer - EastEnders star rejected three times
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
25 years of Disney: How Darth Vader, Iron Man, Elsa and Pixar's geniuses helped the company conquer the world (again)
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures
King Abdullah dead: We can't afford not to hold Saudi Arabia's royals to account