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.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I was raped by another man. And now the Government wants to take away the one thing that saved my life
- 2 Wikipedia edits from inside Parliament removing scandals from MPs' pages, investigation finds
- 3 Preston fan who appeared to snatch Jermaine Beckford's shirt from eight-year-old boy identified and says: 'the truth will come out'
- 4 Johnny Depp facing 10 years in jail for illegally bringing dogs to Australia
- 5 Iran launches anti-Isis cartoon competition 'to expose true nature of Islamic State'
Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
Glastonbury lineup 2015: The Women's Institute to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
12 UK stores that sound like the hottest rappers of 2015
Suicide Squad: leaked footage gives us first look at Batmobile chasing Joker through city streets
Never Mind the Buzzcocks axed after 18 years
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote