Atomic don's world of dreams;Subject of the week;Science

10th September 1999 at 01:00
Russell Stannard on why he was honoured to update Gamow's classic 'Mr Tompkins'.

Children older than their parents? A ridiculous idea. But hold on. According to relativity theory, time slows down for moving objects. If a parent's work involves much high-speed travelling, they will age less quickly than their stay-at-home children - allowing the latter to catch up and overtake them in age. Indeed, travel fast enough, and you could live for ever.

Another consequence of relativity theory: time passes more quickly upstairs than downstairs - an effect due to gravity. A school child running late with an assignment should consequently study upstairs where they can work faster.

Not that I am seriously advocating such strategies. Although these relativistic changes to the passage of time do take place, for everyday purposes they are too minuscule to be noticeable. They become important only under conditions of extremely strong gravity, or of high speeds close to that of light (300,000 kilometres per second) - the kinds of speed encountered when accelerating tiny sub-atomic particles.

Equally bizarre are the consequences of quantum theory. For instance, what would you think if, having safely locked your car in the garage for the night, you were to awake next morning to discover that it had somehow, of its own accord, popped out of the garage and was now sitting in the middle of a neighbouring field? Such quantum fluctuations are possible. But again this effect is only noticeable when dealing with sub-atomic particles. These and other ideas of modern physics appear to defy common sense. Most people assume themselves to be quite incapable of ever understanding them - which is not the case.

That, at least, was the view of the Russian-born physicist, George Gamow, one of the founding fathers of Big Bang cosmology. Back in the early 1940s, he hit on a brilliant idea. He examined what life would be like if all the effects we have described were BIG - if one's day-to day existence had to take account of quantum fluctuations and of differences in time. He wrote a remarkable story about a mild-mannered bank clerk, Mr Tompkins, who begins attending a professor's course on modern physics. The lectures trigger off a series of dreams in which Mr Tompkins finds himself transported to just such a fantastical world.

In this way, Gamow produced a story that was not only entertaining and intriguing, but helped the layperson - anyone above mid-teens - to learn what modern physics was all about.

An especially clever feature of Gamow's approach was the way he took verbatim extracts from the professor's formal lectures and interleaved them with the descriptions of Mr Tompkins' dream sequences. In this way he enabled student readers to explore the ideas in somewhat greater depth.

The book became an immediate best-seller. It proved popular not only with the public but also with professional scientists. More than half the physicists taking part in a recent straw poll declared they had, at some time in their lives, read Mr Tompkins. Indeed, Gamow's tale had influenced many of them to take up a career in science. Stephen Hawking, himself author of the best-selling A Brief History of Time, has always admired Mr Tompkins: "a great book".

What do we learn from this? In the first place, Gamow demonstrated that it is possible to convey even the most difficult and abstract ideas to the lay person, provided one does it in a concrete manner. He lets us discover what it would be like to experience the effects at first hand. This stress on the concrete is wholly in line with the strategies advocated by today's educational psychologists.

Second, Mr Tompkins brought home the sheer power of modern physics to excite the imagination and inspire readers to further study of physics - even to the point of many taking up a career in science. I find myself wondering how much further the numbers opting to study physics at school have to decline before the national curriculum takes note of this. Is it not time to put modern physics in its shop window as an enticement to further study of physics in general?

Third, he demonstrated the enduring strength of presenting ideas in story form. Ancient civilisations passed on the fruits of their wisdom to future generations in the form of stories. One has only to think of the great myths of Genesis and other sacred writings. The power of the story in our own day has been amply demonstrated by books such as George Orwell's Animal Farm or William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Yet, by and large, we eschew the use of stories in the teaching of science, preferring instead to go for the straight "textbook" style of writing. Why?

In all this, Gamow was a pioneer. Sixty years after its first publication Mr Tompkins still sells well - an enduring tribute to its qualities.

But in the course of time, there inevitably arose a problem: the book was becoming more and more outdated. Gamow died in 1968, and it has been more than 30 years since he made the last revision.

In that time there have been huge advances in cosmology and in our understanding of the ultimate structure of matter. The publishers, Cambridge University Press, had to face the fact that if Mr Tompkins was to continue to serve future generations, it would need to be revised and updated. New chapters would have to be written in the style of Gamow. In fact, one ought really to talk of the two styles of Gamow - the formal lecture notes of the professor being presented in a "voice" quite distinct from that adopted for the narrative dream sequences.

But who should do it?

At first they engaged the well-known populariser of science, Isaac Asimov. Stephen Hawking and American Nobel Laureate, Murray Gell-Mann, were to act as consultants to him. Unhappily, Asimov died before he could begin work, and the project went into abeyance for a number of years.

The publishers eventually approached myself. This was largely because, like Mr Tompkins, my own Uncle Albert trilogy aims to get modern physics across in story form - although I was aiming at a younger, pre-teenage reader.

Having myself been a life-long enthusiast of Mr Tompkins, I felt delighted and honoured to be asked to assume responsibility for its rewrite. I also felt a sense of trepidation. There are those who believe any tinkering with this text amounts to sacrilege!

Happily, the Gamow family gave me the green light to carry out a wholesale revision of the book so as to tailor it to the needs of today's readers. That new version is now out. I await reactions with interest.

'The New World of Mr Tompkins' Cambridge University Press pound;14.95 and pound;7.95

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