Read This: The Matchbox That Ate a Forty-Ton Truck


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.

Marcus Chown: The Matchbox That Ate a Forty-Ton Truck
Also known in the United Kingdom as We Need to Talk About Kelvin

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.

Image: Some rights reserved by the mad LOLscientist


    1. No, Heisenberg couldn’t kill you. Once he figured out how fast you were running, he wouldn’t be able to tell where you are.

    2. #1 • 7:04 PM Saturday, Sep 18, 2010
      Doran said,

      “I thought it was Heisenberg who would kill me.”

      That’s uncertain.

  1. I just read Eric Greene’s The Elegant Universe, and liked it a lot. I now know way more than necessary about String Theory. Gareth Branwyn recommended Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages so I have that on the way as well. I find the micro scale unpredictability of the universe quite comforting.

  2. Okay, I checked this out and it looks really interesting. Ordered a copy from Amazon. Gotta stock up on reading for those long winter months.

    1. your Kindle;s components were manufactured using materials and energy derived from dead trees and animals, and runs on electricity which was generated wholly or in part by burning dead trees.

  3. So here’s a question I have. Say a star 1 billion light years away emitted a photon in our direction 1 billion years ago. Ignore gravitational lensing & all that and the photon is just passing by as our star emits a photon right next to it going in the same direction. So one of these photons was emitted 1 billion years ago and one is brand new, but they’re the SAME AGE, right? The one from a billion light years away hasn’t aged a second in its travel because at the speed of light time does not pass. For both of these photons, wherever they go ‘now’ is indistinguishable from the instant of their creation?

    1. Age doesn’t really apply to photons, but then again, things like “individual identity” don’t apply either. All photons are identical, are interchangeable, and don’t have an identity. In that sense, they’re not physically real. What creates reality is the configuration the particles are in, that is, the arrangement of the particles.

    2. Well, the photon from the older star can be dated based on what you know about the star.

      And, any particular photon will redden somewhat on its way due to the expansion of the universe. So, if you knew what it looked like when it started its trip, then you could date it, yes.

      There’s also a weird action-at-a-distance problem. Keep in mind that photons are just carriers of an electric force. So, there was an atom in that far-off star whose transition was the initial cause of a different atomic transition in your eyeball. Maybe one could argue that Feynman-Wheeler says that photons do have ages–but certainly not measurable or predictable ones.

  4. I like the idea of this book, although knowing me it will still fly well over my head. It doesn’t matter though, I’ll give it a shot regardless. Eric Greene is the only person who has successfully connected some dots for me, but we’ll see how this goes!

  5. The first part of The Elegant Universe, is, in my opinion, the best popular-level introduction to General Relativity that I’ve read, and it’s a good popular-level introduction to Quantum Mechanics as well. However, as pedantic as it makes me feel, I must point out that it was written by Brian Greene, not this Eric fellow….

    Re: photons and what age they are, at some level asking what age they are is ungrounded philosophical angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin speculation unless you can propose a thought experiment that would measure it. There really isn’t a way you could measure the “age” of a photon directly. However, you can figure out how long it has been since that photon was emitted in the “consensus” frame of reference of the Universe (usually called the “CMB rest frame”). If this is a photon that we’re observing right now, you call that age the “lookback time”. But what age does the photon think it is? Answer: photons don’t think….

  6. — I can’t tell, is that line in favor of, or against “What The Bleep Do We Know”? It’s all kinds of ambiguous.

    1. What the Bleep Do We Know is a clever propaganda movie by a New Age religious cult. Some of the talking heads are scientists, one of them thinks she’s channeling Zoggus the Barbarian from the Hyborean Age.

      Any article about actual science that mentions Wt%DWK is mocking it. Don’t worry.

  7. i personally prescribe to the idea that everything in the universe operates like newtonian clockwork, we just can’t account for events occurring in higher dimensions. although this is a lot like prescribing to the idea that the universe rides on the back of a tortoise.

    1. no, chaos theory says that even simple, solid things are inherently unpredictable. Even up one level from quantum mechanics there’s molecular chaos to worry about.

      1. but that’s not saying those systems aren’t deterministic, it’s saying they’re absurdly complex. who’s to say that in a hundred years or so, when singularity kicks in and the terabyte is considered an almost indivisible unit of information, if three body problems etc. will really be so complex. one day i’m sure we’ll be able to handle data like Laplace’s demon.

        1. no, chaos theory says those systems are in principle nondeterministic. And any other retorts I’m just gonna ignore b/c this looks like a good book :)

  8. First, Maggie, nice TMBG reference there.

    teufelsdroch, not ALL photons will redden, though the majority will. Their source has to be overall receding from us for the red shift to be in effect. Most sources are, but not all. Some are overall approaching us (like Andromeda), so they’re blue-shifted.

      1. “Yes, all will redden. The fabric of the universe itself is expanding.”

        Yes, the universe is expanding, but uh, no. Just no. Look at Andromeda. Coming at us at around 300 km/s. Human astronomers on Earth can tell because the photons are blue shifted.

        (Let’s all read more science books! I mean I’m used to such blatant ignorance in political posts, but in science posts we should all be much closer to the same place.)

        1. I don’t buy quantum mechanics. I accept that it produces predictable, verifiable results. But I don’t buy it. Ptolemaic Astronomy also produces some verifiable results.

          1. For now, though, it is by far the best-supported, best-verified description of reality, ever. It will remain essential to physics, chemistry, and engineering until something better improves upon it.

            Unlike Ptolemaic astronomy, there are as yet no known observable phenomena that disagree with quantum mechanics. The equations are unchanged since the 70’s, and they still work. No new epicycles, no Mercurial precession, just “Yup, the Standard Model still holds at twice the energy scale as before.”

          2. Perhaps, but there is no underlying physical explanation for this statistical view of reality. Statistics can be used to model things even when you don’t understand them. It doesn’t mean that reality IS statistics. We may just be incapable of fully measuring those things which are causing those statistics.

          3. BTW, this is nitpicking the definition of an epicycle. Dark matter and dark energy, within a philosophical view, are not really all that different from epicycles. Nature doesn’t see the containers we set up in physics (quantum mechanics, Relativity, etc.), so doubt tends to trickle down — and even across.

        2. Me: “It’s a crowd of people! They’re coming this way!”

          You: “Dumbass, you should use ‘its’ and ‘there’. I’m sick of the blatant ignorance of simple grammer on the internet.”

          Me: “Before you call someone stupid, please do just one google search. Read the relevant wikipedia article.”

          1. yeah well it’s irrelevant if the universe is expanding if the net velocity is still heading towards you. also, you don’t have to be such a snippy asshole. i’ve been coming to this site since i was 12, how do you know you’re not being rude to some little kid?

            “And any other retorts I’m just gonna ignore b/c this looks like a good book :)”

            uh, what retort? and b) the smile does not defuse being you being a jerk sir/ma’am.

          2. Still can’t be bothered to read even the wikipedia article?

            Very well, I will quote it:

            “Describing the cosmological expansion origin of redshift, cosmologist Edward Robert Harrison said, “Light leaves a galaxy, which is stationary in its local region of space, and is eventually received by observers who are stationary in their own local region of space. Between the galaxy and the observer, light travels through vast regions of expanding space. As a result, all wavelengths of the light are stretched by the expansion of space. It is as simple as that.”

  9. Ok. The whole simultanious cat thing has been misinterpreted for a long time. Hugh Everett is the one for the whole multi-state universe and should be credited as such. Have a great one.

  10. Talking about the age of photons is a little like talking about the age of the individual cents in your bank account. It hasn’t much to do with the fact that in the photon’s reference frame, time ought to stand still (in a limiting sense), since you could say the same thing about electrons. You can talk about the time difference between when the photon was emitted and when it was absorbed, but to do that you’ll still need to pick a reference frame that you can reasonably inhabit. Therein lies the rub.

  11. >”Even the Universe itself might be just one of many, with every outcome that has ever been possible playing itself out somewhere.”

    I call this the FSM theory.

    F*cking Stupid Multiverse

  12. “……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.”

    When they pull that rug, you have to get serious. Throw away that TI and get an HP-50g. Or get out your physics textbook and the 30 year old 41cx.

    1. I’m so glad you said this, because I was wondering if I could send a letter to this guy at his home in /usr/sbin.

  13. Guys, people should be extremely wary with their views of cosmology. Cosmology is not a laboratory science. It’s inherently speculative. If cosmology seems too strange to be true, then rather than ONLY figuring out ways to make it more palatable, perhaps there also exists a burden upon the people to also cultivate interest in competing cosmologies.

    For instance, some skeptics might have recently noticed that the Sun’s sunspots are decreasing in magnetic field strength, per these observations …

    It’s worth pointing out that our current solar models do not depend upon solar cycles or even sunspots. There is nothing about the concept of a thermonuclear Sun which demands that these things exist at all. They are added to the model simply because they are observed.

    Is everybody really content with such a situation? If the magnetic fields of these sunspots decreases any further, there’s thought amongst some scientists that we could see another little ice age. But scientists don’t even understand why the sunspots exist to begin with, so how can we even make predictions about what is going to happen with these models?

    I would propose that by cultivating interest solely in the Big Bang Theory, we expose humanity to an inherent weakness in science: That the contextual framework which is assumed for every single scientific paper which is peer reviewed today in astrophysical and solar science journals may actually be in error. And by blinding ourselves to alternatives, we are possibly making an enormous mistake.

  14. My personal moment of appreciation for all things Quantum came upon reading that we’re all held together by Gluons.

  15. I’m thinking that the dark matter that makes up most of the mass of the universe is likely closely related to some hybrid of testosterone and ego…

  16. This sounds like a bunch of hoo-haw to me. I learned everything about science that I needs when I was in 7th grade already.

  17. Geek’d, more the pity. Too bad for you, you are losing a whole world of good information if thats the only way you face the written word.

    My take on Kindle (and other e-readers) is, if you accidentally tip a drink over on it, or it gets dunked while you are taking a bath, what then?

    It’s like swimming in a world of information with a viewer that has the bandwidth of a slit. Sorry for you.

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