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« FROM THE ARCHIVES: singing sands | Main | snowball fight in saturn's f-ring »


I've heard similar complaints about Roach's Bonk before, and from people who are pretty far from the "humourless feminist" stereotype. Chacun a son gout, I guess, in sex and in writing -- and what goes for one goes quadratically for the combination of the two.

And I think the pompous pedant with the physics PhD has a point -- well, something of one, though he's poking it in the wrong direction. Without the mathematics to tie ideas together, learning physics from pop books about it can be an intensely frustrating experience. I speak from experience here: one of the confusing conundrums which perplexed me in my teenage years was how the different "explanations" of quantum mechanics I'd read fit together. This book talks about a cloud around the nucleus of the atom, that one about particles taking every path from A to B, another about blackbody radiation and the "quantizing" of light . . . what I would have given for a thread of logic which tied it all together! Many of the other things which left me confused in junior high continue to boggle me now, but on the quantum physics front, what I know now could have helped my younger self out.

The problem isn't that we have books which try to explain quantum electrodynamics or general relativity without using mathematics (or with less than the full apparatus employed by workaday physicists). The problem of my adolescence was, "Now that I've read these books, where do I go next?" Unlike some folks, I was lucky enough to realize that there was this great big body of knowledge, beyond what the paperback in my hands got into, but I had no way of exploring it myself, no signposts to point into the wilds of university physics. I had a few more serious books lying about the house -- a luxury many kids don't, I'm sure -- like my father's old calculus textbook, a monster which beat out the dictionary in thickness and weight. But what in that massive book did I need to study in order to handle, say, the Schroedinger Equation? I know now that if I'd finished the whole darn thing, I would have had the mathematical background I needed for a quantum-mechanics course on the level of, e.g., David Griffiths' textbook; however, there were plenty of sections I wouldn't have needed at all.

I knew there was more, and I wanted to learn it. I had the leisure and perhaps even the drive to do so, but the science shelves at our local Barnes-and-Borders-a-Million could only help me so far.

A while back, I set about writing the book I wished I had in ninth grade, though for the past few months, I've had to shelve that project in favour of hacking away on the book I wished I had when I was a senior in college.

Thanks for further proving my point. :)

But it does demonstrate one way to approach anonymous Amazon reviews: look for those that reinforce your own personal pet peeves and subjective tastes/biases. Chances are, you'll feel the same about the work in question. But that won't invalidate anyone else's very different assessment -- because reading is not just fundamental, it's highly subjective. And thus, you can't please everyone.

This struck a chord with me, so I wrote a blog post :-)

I've offered a positive consolation for writers: some of us (e.g. me!) exploit the mistakes of reviewers to help better work out what the book is not. (Of course, these really ought to be covered in the publishers material or the better reviews, but I treat it as an independent confirmation :-)

(In fact, just for the record: while Newton used his snazzy new tool, calculus, in deriving the ideas contained in the Principia, he didn't formally publish anything on calculus until the publication of Opticks, many years later.)

No he didn't

At the risk of being accused of proving your point, I wanted to object to the inclusion of this quote reviewing A Short History of Nearly Everything:

"I have looked at sections which are related to things I work on, or have worked on. This book has more errors than any pop science book I have seen in a long, long time."

I don't know as there were more errors than any pop science book I had read "in a long, long time", but there were more than average, and it was annoying. Criticizing the errors is not the same as criticizing popularization. That said, I did enjoy the book and would recommend it.


One to add to your list, a review of Street Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving by Sanjoy Mahajan:

The title implies that this book might contain remedial activities for street kids. It contains nothing of the sort.

It's not just scientists who are prone to such intemperate critique. All England was agog a while back at the antics of orlando@birkbeck as he slashed and burnt his way through recent academic offerings in the historical field. And who was this fellow? None other than Orlando Figes (A People's Tragedy, Natasha's Dance etc.) Once he started denying his authorship of the reviews things went from silly to sad, and don't bear recounting. Maybe he should have used a less obvious nom de clavier

I am actually quite shocked that Bill Bryson's wonderful book received such ire. I genuinely consider it to be one of, if not the, best popular science books I have ever read. I generally give journalists a hard time when writing popular physics, but I think Bryson did a pretty excellent job (I've certainly seen physicists be more inaccurate than he was). I've recommended his book to practically everyone I know who has an even passing interest in science because I think it is really top-notch. Maybe all of the exciting natural science history was flawed and I just didn't know it, but what I did know, I think he did a wonderful job of presenting to the general public.

Haven't read Bryson, myself, but my aunt has, and called me up when she got to the section on X-ray crystallography, just to let me know that she recognised the word.

Pretty amazing and somewhat depressing. I wonder if many of those reviewers are the same ones that comment on on-line news stories. It is incredible to me that every news event is the fault of Obama and the liberal socialists. With very few exceptions, we seem to have entered the age of idiots on line. Maybe the authors of the above mentioned books are at fault for expecting an intelligent audience.

I guess Don Marquis was right when he wrote: "If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that’s read by persons who move their lips when they’re reading to themselves."

Posted for Tom Levenson, who's been having trouble, for some reason:

Many thanks for the kind words above. (I know I'm a little slow getting here, but it's summer, and I'm hot and slow. My reptilian past catching up with me, I guess.)

A quick thought: Much though I enjoy Blake's stuff, and our carbon-carbon interactions, I don't follow his comment here. I've popularized (or attempted to) special and general relativity and the pre-history of quantum mechanics in one book, and the birth of mechanics in another. I don't think any of my readers were under the illusion that "Einstein in Berlin" and "Newton and the Counterfeiter" (or my Einstein film, for that matter) were going to teach them how to do physics -- though I was certainly pleased when the the-then head of MIT's physics dept., Marc Kastner asked me where I had done my formal studies in the discipline. (Nowhere.)

Rather, my goal, and that of the others I know on your list (you, of course, Lisa and Brian, for two more), is to come up with a grasp of concepts, and an understanding of the process of scientific thinking.

Richard Feynman is the patron saint of this activity in some ways. (Though you could point to Einstein, with his volume "Relativity"...or even, in a way, Newton's "Opticks," in parts, among others as ur-texts. Hell, if I recall correctly, and ThonyC can correct as needed, Newton himself prepared a gloss of the Principia for John Locke, free of mathematics, to convey what the great Isaac saw as the essential ideas to an intelligent but mathematically unsophisticated reader.)

Anyway, Feynman: he said once something on the order of if you can't explain what you are thinking about in physics at a level a Caltech freshman will don't understand it. Clearly Caltech first years have a leg up on the true lay audience, and Feynman was here thinking about the training of physicists, not communicating to the public. But he pursued the logic of his thinking into that realm in some very approachable books. Most physics minded readers have heard, I think (and hope) of his "The Characteristic of Physical Law"and there are other good ones. In none of them does Feynman try to teach you physics as physicists do it; rather, his interest, and mine when I wander onto this turf, is to convey at least something of physics as physicists understand it. Even more I try as our hostess does, and many more besides, to place such thinking, not just about physics but the other sciences as well, in the context of place and time, the cultures and societies and human concerns out of which individual scientific ideas emerge.

More simply: I try to convey how scientists work, something of what science means or implies, and not just to the particular discipline under scrutiny, and, if I do my job right, something of the beauty and wonder, the "grandeur of this view of life." That's so that my readers, if they happen to be like the 9th grade Blake Stacey, might be moved to pull down from the shelf the kind of books they need to go deeper into the technical elements of science, and those other readers, who may not be driven to a life doing science, may still take pleasure, and perhaps something more, from a non-technical story told in which the thinking and the discoveries and the broader significance of science are given their due.

Whew. Glad that's off my chest.

Hell, if I recall correctly, and ThonyC can correct as needed, Newton himself prepared a gloss of the Principia for John Locke, free of mathematics, to convey what the great Isaac saw as the essential ideas to an intelligent but mathematically unsophisticated reader.

Unfortunately Tom this time your memory has not served you well. Locke was still living in exile in Holland as the Principia first appeared and he could not cope with the mathematics, so he asked Christian Huygens whether the mathematics was correct or not. Upon being informed by Huygens that it was indeed correct he proceeded to read the philosophical parts of the book ignoring the mathematics, even writing a review that was published anonymously in the Bibliothèque universelle in the Netherlands. In 1689 Locke returned to England and he and Newton became friends and Newton presented Locke with a special edition of the Principia. However this was not a simplified version but one into which Newton had inserted all of the correction to the text that he had made up until then.

On your theme of scientists producing semi-popular versions of their work I would include both Galileo’s Diologo and Discorsi as scientific texts that were written for the well-educated layman.

Actually, the review of Longitude makes a good point. The book doesn't really discuss the chronometer and how it worked. What little is said is rather vague. Nothing is really said as to why this particular clock worked so much better than other clocks at the start of the art. (On the other hand, I read a history of gear making machines - did you know that modern gears have involute teeth? - that spent so much time discussing the details of improvements that it took a leap of perspective to remember that gears are expected to mesh with other gears.)

Thanks for reminding us. Bill Bryson's book should be available everywhere, like the Gideon Bible as a way to introduce science literacy to needy audience.

As a physics teacher I know that I have a wide variety of students to reach in some fashion. From where I sit as an educator there are scientific books for all students, no matter their scientific maturity. And what would be perfect for some would be unlikely to reach others...or disastorous in helping further a students curiosity about a scientific concept. And why would anyone think that there is 'one' right way to dissiminate scientific subjects? Or that there is a correct writing style that would resonate with all readers? I say the more the better! And have an educator, or librarian, help guide a student to an appropriate book for them!

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    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
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      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
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      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
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