Physics can seem a lot like a dirty trick. You spend most of junior high and high school being told that there are rules to this thing, that the Universe functions in predictable and rational ways. Apples always fall down from the tree onto Newton's head. Cars traveling at different speeds crash into each other with a force that you can sit down and calculate on a TI-86.
And then they pull the rug out from under you.
Suddenly, it's all photons, antimatter, and cats that are simultaneously alive and dead. Even the Universe itself might be just one of many, with every outcome that has ever been possible playing itself out somewhere. It's confusing. And into that gap in popular knowledge tumbles everybody who bought into What the Bleep Do We Know?
If you're lost, Marcus Chown can help. His book, The Matchbox That Ate a Forty-Ton Truck, explains how science got from the macro, everyday world of Newtonian Laws to the far-out, quantum reality we know today. More importantly, he makes the latter relevant, piecing together science history, sub-atomic particles, physical cosmology and everyday life. If you read one physics book after graduating from high school—hell, if you read one physics book while in high school—this should be it.
When I say that Chown makes quantum physics relevant, I mean more than simply praise for his ability to connect complex theory to brilliantly simple real-world analogies and mental pictures. Although, that's awesome.
One of the frustrating things about the way physics is taught in school is the way it disconnects Point A from Point Z. You learn to draw a model of the atom in some random lower-level science class.
Somewhere, and some when, else, you learn that the sun is 93 million miles away from us, a miasma of incandescent plasma burning at temperatures of millions of degrees.
Completely separate from the first two, you learn about nuclear energy and E=mc^2
Chown connects those dots—and adds in the fascinating history of generations of scientists trying to explain how the sun could possibly keep itself burning hot enough, long enough, for us to exist at all. Mix it all together and you come away with not only an intensely improved understanding of the structure of atoms and how nuclear fusion works, but also why it matters ... and what a wonder it is that we know any of this.
That's just one example. Chown has a real knack for creating, "Oh, I get it now!" moments, and The Matchbox That Ate a Forty Ton Truck is full of them, building up from the basics of quantum theory, to the fire at the heart of the sun, to the Big Bang and the apparent absence of alien life. In fact, it's hard to pick one simple fact from the book to tell you about, precisely because Chown does such a good job of tying everything together and making physics understandable as a system, not just separate parts.
And if that's not enough to make you want to read it, I'm not sure what else to say.
Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the author. That said, I receive a lot of free review copies of books. I only tell you about the ones I think you really need to read.
Published 6:43 pm Sat, Sep 18, 2010