A tenner buys the secrets of the universe

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Almost Everyone's Guide to Science
By John Gribbin.
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, #163;9.99, #163;12.99 after December 31

I am at the Royal Festival Hall in London for a piano recital of Beethoven sonatas. I love Beethoven, but that in itself is insufficient to explain why I am here. A trip to the South Bank involves an 80-mile return journey, to say nothing of the expense. There has to be a truly compelling reason. And tonight there is. The pianist is Alfred Brendel. Beethoven or no Beethoven, without Brendel I would not be here.

Victor Weisskopf, the former director of the CERN high energy physics laboratory in Geneva, once wrote: "It is regrettable that among scientists the presentation of ideas is not as highly valued as the creation of ideas.This is in stark contrast to music, where the performer is a partner equal to the composer."

He was writing at a time when it was commonly reckoned that any first-rate scientifically trained person would subsequently become engaged in academic research. If you did not quite make the top grade, then you had to settle for a job in industry. If you were not really much good at all, you ended up in teaching - or, worse still, became a populariser of science.

Happily the situation has now changed. Partly this has occurred out of enlightened self-interest on the part of the academics. They can no longer take it for granted that there will be a steady supply of would-be undergraduates and research students eager to pursue the study of science. This is particularly true in my own subject of physics which over the years has witnessed an alarming decline in popularity - only partly off-set by a modest upturn in this year's A-level results.

Increasingly it is recognised that teachers and writers capable of presenting scientific concepts in an understandable and fascinating way have a vital role to play in stimulating interest among the new generation.Not only that, taxpayers expect to know what they are getting for all the money they pour into academic research.

All this apart, is there not something amiss with a culture in which it is commonplace for a scientist untrained in music to enjoy a recital at the Festival Hall, but it is thought odd when a non-scientifically trained person enjoys reading a science book?

Why is it that people are often heard passing off their lack of understanding of science as though it were of no consequence (or, indeed, something to be proud of), yet they would be ashamed to reveal a comparable ignorance of literature, music or history?

Until recently it could be argued that, whereas one could with comparative ease dip into the latter subjects and pick up an understanding of sorts, science was impenetrable to all but those formally trained in its study. This is no longer true. Any decent bookshop has a section devoted to popular science. Such books are of variable quality, of course. Some, though well-intentioned, remain too difficult for the general reader.The successful presentation of scientific ideas demands of the writer both flair and a high level of disciplined skill.

As in any other field, there are elite practitioners. Among their number one must rank John Gribbin. His latest in a long line of books does not disappoint.

In the past Gribbin has taken a fairly well-defined area of science - quantum physics, evolution, astrophysics and so on - but here he spans the lot. What we get is a breathtaking overview of physics, chemistry, earth sciences and biology, put together with consummate skill, with Gribbin carefully explaining each new idea and defining each new term, as and when it arises. (Here he has been ably assisted by his wife and fellow science writer, Mary Gribbin. ) The text is full of memorable insights. For instance, in getting across the counterintuitive idea that gravity is the weakest of the forces, he points out that any two-year-old is able to pick up a fallen apple against the gravit-ational force exerted by the entire Earth.

Then there is the helpful use of analogy. I found the one about the cash dispenser particularly telling: it issues money only in multiples of Pounds 10, much like electromagnetic radiation dispenses energy in quantised multiples of the photon energy.

If I have one criticism to make, it is that there are times when the ideas come at such a furious pace that those readers with little or no previous scientific background to draw upon might start to feel overwhelmed (especially, for example, in the section to do with particle physics). Even so, the science novice can skip over these sections at a first reading if necessary, without impairing too much their understanding of what comes later in the book.

One final comment: Don't be fooled into thinking that because this book is a fairly easy read, it must also be superficial. It is not. Recall Alfred Brendel. His playing sounds effortless. But this is only because of the hours spent every day, every year in practice. Such mastery is hard-won; it is the art that conceals art.

Or, in the case of John Gribbin and other successful popularisers of science, the art that reveals science.

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