Thursday Book: A little learning in a vast world

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The Independent Culture
POPULAR SCIENCE writing is a paradoxical business. Science today brings news of the unimaginably large and the inconceivably small. It deals with entities about which human-sized creatures have no worthwhile intuitions. Yet the reader must be made to believe in these strange things indirectly, with words. One sees no experiments or demonstrations. The core language of science, mathematics, is unusable. Often, there is not so much as a diagram. The whole universe must be rendered using nothing more than letters on the page. Putting several hundred billion galaxies into a book is the kind of tall order which made Primo Levi write that "the trade of clothing facts in words is by its very nature bound to fail".

Yet people keep trying. As with scientists, it seems that 90 per cent of all the popular science writers who ever lived are alive today. John Gribbin is one of the more prolific practitioners, and his latest offering is an attempt to produce a popular science book for people who don't normally read them - to convey an outline of the scientific world view to "anyone who is vaguely aware that science is important, and might even be interesting, but is usually scared off by the technical detail".

His aim is to sample key findings from all the sciences, and demonstrate how they fit together into a coherent picture of the workings of nature. Some books like this go through the disciplines, starting with physics as the study of fundamentals. Some tell a chronological story, an evolutionary epic from the big bang to the origins of consciousness. Gribbin's organising principle is size, beginning with the smallest entities, and working up to the whole cosmos.

He begins slightly out of sequence, with atoms. This is because, although atoms are well beyond the realm of the senses, the experiments which demonstrate that they are real are easy to grasp. If we believe them, and his oft- repeated summary of scientific method is that if an idea disagrees with experiment it is wrong, it will be easier to credit the tales which come later, of relativistic space-time and the possible origins of the universe in an enormous quantum fluctuation.

In between, there are chapters on subatomic particles, the modern physics of fields and forces and, beginning to climb back up the scale again, simple chemistry. Then there are brief reviews of living molecules - DNA and all that - evolution, the geology of the Earth, and the history of its atmosphere. Finally we are taken into space, to consider the origins of the solar system, the lives of stars, and the beginning of the universe.

This last returns the story to fundamental physics, and shows how our understanding of the dauntingly large cosmos which we now believe we inhabit rests on our ideas about the infinitesimally small.

No book like this can be comprehensive. Gribbin's overall selection is defensible, though pretty light on the life sciences. But he works hard to justify his conviction that all these different ideas hang together. Our own existence, as entities somewhere in the middle of the size range, depends on the forging of heavy elements in the stars as well as the chemical properties of a few kinds of atoms, on the geology of ice ages as well as the life-span of the sun.

The take-home message is that we have come an extraordinarily long way in piecing together a coherent picture of a universe which extends farther from the human scale than we ever dreamt 100 years ago. Whether all that picture will be understood, I am not so sure. There are accounts of an enormous range of topics, from the schoolroom science of Newton's laws and simple thermodynamics to the exotica of quantum interactions and black holes. Many of them probably need more explanation than they can be given here, more time to teach the reader how to build a mental model of what is going on.

And, wondrous though the power of words may be, diagrams would make the going a lot easier. Being expected to follow an explanation of molecular geometry with no drawings, a history of the Earth's continents with no maps, even a description of the periodic table with no table, will tax the patience of the most committed. It does no favours for anyone who has never come across these things before.

So Gribbin's book has both the virtues and vices of much popular science. It is conscientiously and carefully written and strives to convey complex ideas clearly and simply. When the ideas really are simple, this works fine. When they are not, it promises more than it delivers. Not so much a guide to science, more a series of impressions - but still well worth having.

The reviewer's book `Frankenstein's Footsteps' is published by Yale University Press