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Review: What A Wonderful World, By Marcus Chown


Reading a well-written popular science book is one of the great pleasures of modern times, and this guided tour through life, the universe, and everything affords that pleasure in abundance. Marcus Chown takes us by the hand and leads us through the labyrinthine mysteries of the origins of life, evolution, the cells of the body, the brain-boggling brain, electricity (I’ve never understood what that stuff is; I still don’t, but my ignorance is now better-defined), the crazy truths of quantum theory, gravity, time, stars, and black holes. You can get drunk on the sheer strangeness of the theories – for instance, you have an infinite number of doppelgangers, and the nearest one is 10^10^28 metres away. And we may all be holograms.

One caveat: there is a certain amount of repetition. We are told twice that atoms are 99.9999999999999 per cent emptiness, and several times that light is the cosmic speed limit. On page 313 there’s a reference to “American physicist Richard Feynman” as if it’s his first mention ... it’s the seventh.

But that’s a small price to pay for so much marvel and mystery. The truths of science are stranger and more beautiful than the myths of religion. It’s nice to read a book about the wonders of the Universe where Gödel, but not God, appears in the index.