18 July 2011

Book Review: You Are Here by Christopher Potter

I was first made aware of this book some time ago by an article in the Guardian which interviewed him. I cannot find the link for the particular article in question, nor can I recall the details of it. What I do recall, however, is that it piqued my interest and sounded like the kind of casual science reading that is right up my street. So I bought it, and then it sat on my shelf for a couple of months, unread, while I got on with other reading (just hit the tag “book reviews” to see all the others I have done lately).

The opening chapter was a bit mixed, where he talks a little bit about his own history, plus a fairly random smattering of other things, with no real structure to it. It turns out that Potter had a very similar background to me, being as he did his undergraduate studies in maths, before going on to pursue other things for a career, while maintaining an interest in science. There did seem to be a metaphysic which he laid on top of what he regarded science to be which I have only ever come across in those who are entirely untrained in science and yet talk it about confidently as the answer to everything. However, the rest of the book showed that if were ignorant about science, that that was entirely hidden.

He does a whistle-stop tour of the major philosophical developments of science over the last 2,500 years or so, along with a brave and noble attempt to summarise quantum mechanics and general relativity for the lay reader; a task which he does with some aplomb and not a little dexterity.

From here, there was a slightly peculiar list of seemingly random things which were listed in order of size. Potter’s aim was to look at bigger and bigger scales, effectively zooming out from our world to look at the wider universe. From here, Potter takes on a parallel journey, though instead of going from the smallest size to the largest size, he wants to take us from the earliest time right through to the present day, taking in an overview of the developments in cosmology and high energy physics.

Overall, the book is very much at the lightweight end of science writing, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. It is spoilt a little by technical errors, though these are relatively minor (for example, he states that “Humans are often carnivorous” when he should have said omnivorous). The other drawback that is has, which is specific for his advocacy of the scientific method, is that he does not include references. All we have is a bibliography of further reading, where there is no linking between the books referenced and the relevant passages. The reader is left to work this out by the titles, I think. However, that would not stop me from recommending as a great book, especially a “starter” for someone not overly familiar with ‘pop science.’

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