New Year resolution:book

My main NY resolution is that I’m thinking of changing the topic of my book. Last semester, I gave a few public talks on particle physics to mark the opening of the LHC at CERN (see ‘My Seminars’ tab for slides). More used to giving talks on the Big Bang, I couldn’t help noticing that it is definitely easier to explain the physics of the universe than the physics of the sub-atomic. Also, there seems to be that bit more interest in cosmology..I guess this is because the study of the origin of the universe has implications for religion and philosophy and so has a wide appeal.

Everybody wants to know whether the Big Bang model is just theory or established fact. And what exactly happened at time zero? (good question). There are also all those sexy topics like Black Holes, Dark Matter, the Arrow of Time etc. Of course A Brief History of Time (Hawking) catapulted cosmology into the public imagination, but I think the interest was always there…

So possibly a change of direction in the New Year. Perhaps‘The Puzzling Universe”, a short, succinct book on the origin of the universe, might be a better seller than “The Story of Atoms”. (I have no interest in writing a popular book that is not popular). Also, I can imagine a spinoff newspaper column on the subject, always a good sign..It’s true there are now lots of books on this subject at the popular level, but that’s no harm. Anyway, many of them either cover far too much (Hawking, Bryson) or are by authors who have little experience of teaching the subject at elementary level. Must ask the students, see which subject they think will sell…

One thing that worries me is that some of the best science books for the public remain relatively unknown, not sure why this is.  For example, I really enjoy the books of Paul Davies, but they are not as wide selling as they should be. Another example is Marcus Chown – I read Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You over Christmas , a really excellent book. Really good explanations of quantum physics, general relativity and whatnot, all with highly original analogies. Hmm..we’ll see.


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16 responses to “New Year resolution:book

  1. Dear Cormac,

    Delighted you liked my book! It’s great to have someone appreciate what I do – that I try to come up with my own pictures and analogies.

    Thanks again. And happy new year!

    Best wishes,
    Marcus, London

    If you liked “Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You”, you might like “The Magic Furnace”(Vintage), which is my best-written book.

  2. cormac

    You’re welcome Marcus, and thanks for providing me with a great read over Christmas. I will defnitely put QTCHY on the reading list for my cosmology course, as it gives a very good and highly original overview of general relativity that the students will enjoy…

    I also read the Afterglow of Creation a few months ago, enjoyed it very much. looking forward to The Magic Furnace…
    Regards, Cormac

  3. dvd

    mr doubt you are running about in a blaze of new year zeal..may i call upon you to take a moment from the soup of your day and reflect upon this article you may find to be of some particle-ular interest.paul dirac he who titled your blog .kismet

  4. cormac

    Thanks for the link Dave. I must say, I found that review quite unstructured and a bit unsatisfactory…difficult to tell whether it is a good book or not from that review.

    First, there is far too much emphasis on the personal in the review ..does this reflect the book, one wonders. Second, it’s hard to tell whether Dirac’s scientific contribution is not well explained in the book, or whether the reviewer simply didn’t understand it..between antimatter, quantum field theory and the spin of the electron, Dirac’s contribution is a lot less abstract than many of his successors..

    I suspect this is either a poor review of a good book, or possibly a poor review of a poor book!

  5. dvd

    can u quantify that relatively or are you just putting spin on it..i’m sure that the subject matter was probably beyond the reviewer particularly if the subject himself was rather removed from commoner gardener reference points ..maybe its a modern complaint of looking for modern points of reference..the celebration of the self rather than the subject..

  6. James

    I’d give it +/- 1/2 marks for spin, and probably zero for gardening tips.

    It is a shame that Dirac is not better known by the general poplation. Only in the last month or so a statue to Maxwell was erected in Edinburgh much to the bewilderment of most of the general population. No doubt some of these people were outraged at this blatent waste of public money, and used their mobile phones to talk to their friends and local MPs to express their anger – ironic huh?

    I wonder how many people have heard of “Dirac” in the UK? Probably not may. Most likely they’d think it’s some brand of oven cleaner…

    “It shifts that grime, leaves a sparkle every time! DIRAC! – it’s positronically perfect!!!”

    (It just occurs to me that as the old joke goes, they probably also think that Plato is a washing-up liquid…)

    Mr Digital Versatile Disc, I don’t speak ‘Jive’ or whatever that gibberish is that you use, and Babel Fish does not fare much better – but as GWB said:

    “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”


  7. cormac

    Dave: you’re quite right – I too have noticed that reviews are more and more about the general opinions of the reviewer, and less about the book.
    I don’t like this trend, and hope I don’t fall into it – my review of Kumar’s QUANTUM will be in next month’s issue of Physics World, I’ll put a link to it when it comes out…

  8. James

    Dave (I now learn that it’s not ‘Digital’ after all) maybe the ‘Jive’ comment was a bit harsh so I withdraw it with apologies. However I have a dislike of pigin style mobile/’cyber’-speak. I also can’t stand rap, reality soaps, celery, or religion, but I am not aware of any involvment of yours in these dark enterprises. (I also hate any use of the prefix ‘cyber’ in situations not involving Dr. Who, but that was my doing)

    Cormac: That said, ‘pop-science’ has been a money-spinner for at least as long as ‘A Brief history of Time’ has been on the market. Are there any statistics on whether any of the non-physically trained hoi-polloi actually learn any thing from all this? My personal experience (talking to the heathens in their native tongues) is that the answer is NO. I don’t think people in general are any more aware of the concept of curved spacetime or the ideas of basic QM than before. (Of course, this is good financially: it means you can sell them more books…)

    People on the whole are religious. Religion is easy. Reponsibility is taken away from you. Just follow some simple rules and all will be well in the knowledge that you’re special and higher powers will take care of everyting (despite the suposd supreme being having a worse track record than George Bush so far…)

    I think a lot of the general population approach science with the same religious view and expect that there should be no effort involved (‘every equation halves book sales’…), and that they should find some special place for themselves and their loved-ones in the scheme of things. Well, as we know, it ain’t the case. And you do you DO need to work at it…

    For my money, Deutsch’s the fabric of reallity would be the best pop science book if you cut out that ridiculous last chapter.

  9. cormac

    James: re “Are there any statistics on whether any of the non-physically trained hoi-polloi actually learn any thing from all this? My personal experience (talking to the heathens in their native tongues) is that the answer is NO”

    More than ever, society is more continually confronted with questions that require a basic understanding of science, from the use of nuclear power to the dangers of global warming. We scientists can do our bit by endeavouring to explain both the central discoveries in our own areas, and more importantly, the use of the scientific method in acquiring them. With limited success perhaps, but I think scientists have a duty to inform the public as best they can – so that when society has to make difficult decisions on important issues such as global warming, the voting citizen can differentiate between random, uninformed opinion and the scientific facts as best we can establish them etc

  10. James


    In true Jeremy Paxman style, but hopefully with more respect, I would say that you did not answer the question…

    I asked whether popular accounts of science had actually raised the public understanding of science and, in true politician style, you gave answers to two other questions. You said that:

    1. It is necessary that this should be the case…
    2. Scientists have a duty to make this the case…

    But still, is it the case?

  11. James

    Thinking a little more about what you said, and the issues involved, this ties in with what I (and others) have come across, especially in my home country of the UK.

    To exaggerate the phenomenon: it would be a major faux-pas to admit to being ignorant of Shakespeare or dinning table etiquette, but confessing to being being rubbish at maths or science is not just acceptable, but something to be proud of.

    In recent years there have been some notable ground-breakers from the arty side: Melvyn Bragg and Steven Fry, for example, but not many.

    As you point out, now more than ever, the general population has to make choices and vote on important issues that require some degree of scientific knowledge (some of which you mentioned). How can they do this when they don’t know the difference between real science, CSI science, Hollywood film science, or the Koran (for a change), etc?

    If pop-science could change this then great – but, if string theory is widely condemned for not producing the goods in 20 years, then pop-science deserves much worse. criticism.

  12. cormac

    james: I see what you mean regarding the ‘how’as opposed to the ‘why’ of comminating science. It’s a ticky issue, I’m not sure anyone had come up with a good way of getting people genuinely interested in the subject…

    Re proud of being ignorant, I often come across this (even more so for maths). Yet I’m still hopeful – after all, Hawking’s book sold millions of copies, and I think this represents a latent curiosity we all have. Also children love science demonstrations – so perhaps it’s the specialisation and the way it’s taught in school that causes the disinterest

  13. James

    Well, we all have to be hopeful these days – that’s for sure! (I kind of wish I was religious seeing the state the world is in right now…)

    Hawking’s book sold millions of copies and graced thousands of coffee tables. But how often was it opened, and more importantly: was it read? (Sure, all pop-science books are read by many other scientists, and this produces lots of reviews ranging accross the whole spectrum of appreciation :-) , but that’s just preaching to the choir – what about the intended ‘lay’ audience?).

    It was published in 1988. Perhaps you were teaching around that time? Did you find a sudden increase in the cosmic background understanding of science then?

    I think the book (in the eyes of the general polulation) was just another ‘trophy’ of the 80’s era. In those days you could buy yourself anything: style, friends, influence, flashy cars, and now! look! you can buy instant intellectual kudos at $8.00 from the book store (but be sure to display it on that expensive coffee table).

    Kids like anything that is shiny, moves, or makes funny noises, so you can’t draw conclusions from that. They could still all end up being scientologists.

  14. cormac

    Was I teaching around that time? Excusez moi. How old d’ya think I am? I hadn’t even started postgrad.

    Re ‘A Brief History of Time’, there is another possibility: the interest was there, but the book is not that easy to understand (I may be excommunincated for saying this)

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