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Christopher PotterChristopher Potter

For many years, Christopher Potter worked at the publishing house Fourth Estate. His first book, You Are Here: A portable history of the universe, was published in 2009. His second book, How to Make a Human Being:  A body of evidence will be published in March 2014. His literary agents are  Georgina Capel at Capel and Land, London +44 207 734 2414, and Michael Carlisle at Ink Well Management, New York,  +1 212 922 3500.

You Are Here
A Portable History of the Universe
You Are Here
A Portable History of the Universe

You Are Here : UK Hardback
Buy UK copy
Buy US copy

About the book

You Are Here is an exploration of the universe and our relationship to it.

It’s the story of how something evolved from nothing, and how something became everything. It is the story of science: the greatest story ever told.

Here, for the first time in a single span, is the life of the universe, from quarks to galaxy super-clusters, and from slime to Homo sapiens.

The universe was once a moment of perfect symmetry, and is now 13.7 billion years of history. Clouds of gas were woven into whatever complexity we find in the universe today: the hierarchies of stars, or the brains of mammals.

The author takes us on a voyage beyond even time and space, to present the state of scientific knowledge at its most up-to-date and exhilarating.

Reviews & Interviews

A well-executed, consistently readable layperson’s exposition of the state of scientific knowledge.

Read on →

Kirkus Review

This is all wonderful stuff, the most thoughtful pop science book of the last few years and, along with Richard Dawkins’s fine compendium, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, the most useful to the layman.

Read on →

The Sunday Times – by Rod Liddle

One of the best popular science books I have ever read. It fully lives up to the hype generated by the pre-publication reviews and by Stephen Fry’s blurb on the dustjacket.

Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian

Read more reviews

Read more reviews →

Publishers of You Are Here

Ayrinti/Turkey
Casa das Letras/ Portugal
CIS/Poland
Companhia des Letras/Brazil
Corpus/Russia
HarperCollins/United States
Het Spectrum/Holland
Hutchinson/UK
Kachi/Korea
Kinneret-Zmora-Dvir/Israel
Knopf/Canada
La maison d’éditions/France
Linking/Taiwan
Livanis/Greece
Longanesi/ Italy
Piper/Germany
Planeta/Spain

BlogBlog

Sunday Times review of How to Make a Human BeingSunday Times review of How to Make a Human Being

Sunday Times review0001

Permanent link to Sunday Times review of How to Make a Human Being

CrosswordsCrosswords

The Guardian crossword is taking over my life. My friend Seth today sent me this warning from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: in which the lone entry on the obscure planet Earth and its long-extinct inhabitants references its single (mildly) interesting feature:  “that the vast majority of its citizens spent the last decades of environmental habitability on Earth bickering over which incompetent leader should supplant the current incompetent leader, whilst, due to the bizarre historical, social and political conventions by which humans determined social status, rank, and political power, the lone group of individuals actually intelligent and free-thinking enough to save the planet found common cause only in the solving of an unusually complex linguistic puzzle printed weekly in a side column of a publication devoted to minute analysis of leaders and their incompetence….”

Permanent link to Crosswords

Parade’s EndParade’s End

The quote in the last entry continues as a great set piece. Wonderful:

Tietjens had walked in the sunlight down the lines, past the hut with the evergreen climbing rose, in the sunlight, thinking in an interval, good-humouredly about his official religion: about the Almighty as, on a colossal scale, a great English Landowner, benevolently awful, a colossal duke who never left his study and was thus invisible, but knowing all about the estate down to the last hind at the home farm and the last oak; Christ, an almost too benevolent Land-Steward, son of the Owner, knowing all about the estate down to the last child at the porter’s lodge, apt to be got round by the more detrimental tenants; the Third Person of the Trinity, the spirit of the estate, the Game as it were, as distinct from the players of the game; the atmosphere of the estate, that of the interior of Winchester Cathedral just after a Handel anthem has been finished, a perpetual Sunday, with, probably, a little cricket for the young men. Like Yorkshire on a Saturday afternoon; if you looked down on the whole broad country you would not see a single village green without its white flannels. That was why Yorkshire always led the averages… Probably by the time you got to heaven you would be so worn out by work on this planet that you would accept the English Sunday, for ever, with extreme relief!

With his belief that all that was good in English literature ended with the seventeenth century, his imaginations of heaven must be materialist – like Bunyan’s. He laughed good-humouredly at his projection of a hereafter. It was probably done with. Along with cricket. There would be no more parades of that sort. Probably they would play some beastly yelping game… Like baseball or Association football… And heaven?… Oh it would be a revival meeting on a Welsh hillside. Or Chatauqua, wherever that was… And God? A Real Estate Agent, with Marxist views… He hoped to be out of it before the cessation of the hostilities, in which case he might be just in time for the last train to the old heaven. . .

Permanent link to Parade’s End

Reading Parade’s EndReading Parade’s End

I thought Tom Stoppard did an excellent job with the TV, though at that point I didn’t know what he was making an excellent job of, not having read the novels. The TV series had tone, and a very unusual one. The novel has much the same tone, and I relish it. It’s something to do with the sense of humour perhaps, bathos and pathos woven together, bleakness and exuberance combined… I’m also enjoying how different the novels are from the TV. I read the first few pages of volume one – Some Do Not – and thought the writing seemed tired and dated and put to one side.  A few weeks later I picked up the same book and wondered if I was reading a later volume by mistake it made such a different impression on me. Now just thinking about reading this sequence of novels gives me pleasure in anticipation. I didn’t at first like the title Some Do Not, but by the end I did. It is a refrain that will now stay with me the rest of my days.

Now in volume two:

‘McKechnie from time to time essayed to define the communion according to the Presbyterian rite. They all listened to Tietjens whilst he dilated on the historic aspects of the various schisms of Christianity and accepted his rough definition to the effect that, in transubstantiation, the host actually became the divine presence, whereas in consubstantiation the substance of the host, as if miraculously become porous, was suffused with the presence as a sponge is with water… They all agreed that the breakfast bacon supplied from store was uneatable and agreed to put up half a crown a week a piece to get better for their table.’

Either you get the humour here or you do not. Some do, and some do not.

The scene reminds me of one of my favourite scenes in literature, it comes in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels where father and son, vicar and scientist, are talking about making supper out of leftovers. The conversation is really about something else but Fitzgerald leaves it the reader to work that out for herself.

Permanent link to Reading Parade’s End

Against living foreverAgainst living forever

‘To know everything about a person is to be bored … bored … bored!’

Sylvia Tietjens in  Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford, the first volume of the Parade’s End tetralogy. (What pleasure is there in the word tetraology, so much more arresting than quartet.)

The gods to each ascribe a differing lot:/ Some enter at the portal. Some do not!

Permanent link to Against living forever

On re-reading Mansfield ParkOn re-reading Mansfield Park

‘When I look out on such a night as this I feel as if there cold be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly wold be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended Read on →

Permanent link to On re-reading Mansfield Park

Anne CarsonAnne Carson

A philosopher told Anne Carson about the existence of a German phrase that means that which cannot be overtaken. The short phrase is das Unumgängliche. I wonder what cannot be overtaken. Physically of course I think of light. And the Read on →

Permanent link to Anne Carson

OmphalosOmphalos

is the Greek for beehive Read on →

Permanent link to Omphalos

Society of AtheistsSociety of Atheists

The Society of Atheists used to meet at the La Libre Pensée bookshop. One talk was on ‘bad moral examples from the Bible.’ Read on →

Permanent link to Society of Atheists

Harpo MarxHarpo Marx

At a lunch party thrown by Harpo Marx for Beatrice Lillie, Fanny Brice and Arnold Schoenberg, Fanny Brice asked Schoenberg what hits he had written, and perhaps because of his reluctance to elaborate, kept saying, ‘C’mon Professor, play us a Read on →

Permanent link to Harpo Marx

It meant something different thenIt meant something different then

‘The smutty maid came in with the tea things.’

Spoils of Poynton, Henry James Read on →

Permanent link to It meant something different then

The Spoils of Poynton/Henry JamesThe Spoils of Poynton/Henry James

‘Things,’ were of course the sum of the world; only, for Mrs Gereth, the sum of the world was rare French furniture and Oriental china. She could at a stretch imagine peoples’ not having, but she couldn’t imagine their not Read on →

Permanent link to The Spoils of Poynton/Henry James

Nothing and PoohNothing and Pooh

“…what I like doing best if Nothing.”

“How do you do Nothing?” asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.

“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going of to do it ‘What are Read on →

Permanent link to Nothing and Pooh

PoohPooh

‘Pooh!’ he whispered.

‘Yes, Piglet?’

‘Nothing,’ said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. ‘I just wanted to be sure of you.’ Read on →

Permanent link to Pooh

Winnie the PoohWinnie the Pooh

‘Yes,’ said Piglet, ‘Rabbit’s clever’

‘And he has Brain.’

‘Yes,’ said Piglet, Rabbit has Brain.’

There was a long silence.

‘I suppose,’ said Pooh, ‘that that’s why he never understands anything.’ Read on →

Permanent link to Winnie the Pooh

DroughtDrought

There was a ridiculous article in the Guardian yesterday urging each of  to do our bit during the drought. The journalist reports that it doesn’t rain over the UK as much as we think it does, informing us that it Read on →

Permanent link to Drought

David Hockney at the Royal AcademyDavid Hockney at the Royal Academy

At first sight, the room of paintings inspired by the Sermon on the Mount by Claude seemed out of place. There are no figures in any of the other paintings here. A notice tells us that Hockney was attracted to Read on →

Permanent link to David Hockney at the Royal Academy

Knocking on Heaven’s Door/Lisa Randall and The Magic of Reality/Richard DawkinsKnocking on Heaven’s Door/Lisa Randall and The Magic of Reality/Richard Dawkins

My review for the Sunday Times before it was cut in half.

 

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

How physics and scientific thinking illuminate the universe and the modern world

Lisa Randall

£20

Bodley Head

464pp

 

The Magic of Reality Read on →

Permanent link to Knocking on Heaven’s Door/Lisa Randall and The Magic of Reality/Richard Dawkins

Milky Way timelapseMilky Way timelapse

Milky Way

Amazing timelapse filming from Randy Halverson in South Dakota Read on →

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Henry James, The Coxon FundHenry James, The Coxon Fund

Not James at his best, but it has its moments.

I had to look up the word eleemosynary, which means supported by charity. I can’t help feeling James thought of the word first and built the story up from there. Read on →

Permanent link to Henry James, The Coxon Fund

Flannery O’ConnorFlannery O’Connor

‘his heart began to grip him like a little ape clutching the bars of its cage.’ It’s phrases like this that make the reading of Flannery O’Connor such a delight. I laugh out loud even as I shudder at the Read on →

Permanent link to Flannery O’Connor

Resurrection, Leo TolstoyResurrection, Leo Tolstoy

The philosophy of a political prisoner named Simonson.

‘The doctrine goes as follows: everything in the world is alive, and nothing can be described as ‘dead’; every object thought of as inanimate, or inorganic, is only part of a vast Read on →

Permanent link to Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy

Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book IVMiddlemarch, George Eliot, Book IV

We are all of us imaginative in some form or other, for images are the brood of desire; and poor old Featherstone, who laughed much at the way in which others cajoled themselves, did not escape the fellowship of illusion. Read on →

Permanent link to Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book IV

50 mysterious photographs50 mysterious photographs

I’m particularly fond of numbers 20 and 23.

50 mysterious photographs Read on →

Permanent link to 50 mysterious photographs

Octopus camouflageOctopus camouflage

Octopus

I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s excellent book You Are Not a Gadget. He refers to this remarkable footage, which is, of  course, to be found on youtube. An octopus’s camouflage is so extreme that the boundary between body and Read on →

Permanent link to Octopus camouflage

Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book IIIMiddlemarch, George Eliot, Book III

Quotations from Book III

Even much stronger mortals than Fred Vincy hold half their rectitude in the mind of the being they love best. “The theatre of all my actions is fallen,” said an antique personage when his chief friend Read on →

Permanent link to Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book III

SleepSleep

‘[Walter] Benjamin reports on the surrealist poet with that lovely, indeed surreal, name, Saint-Pol Roux. He retires to bed about daybreak and fixes a notice to his door:

POET AT WORK.’

From What Colour is the Sacred, Michael Taussig Read on →

Permanent link to Sleep

George Eliot, Middlemarch, Book IIGeorge Eliot, Middlemarch, Book II

Some of my favourite lines saved.

 

Mr. Bulstrode had also a deferential bending attitude in listening, and an apparently fixed attentiveness in his eyes which made those persons who thought themselves worth hearing infer that he was seeking the Read on →

Permanent link to George Eliot, Middlemarch, Book II

Anne Sexton reading The AddictAnne Sexton reading The Addict

3-12 The Addict 1968 Read on →

Permanent link to Anne Sexton reading The Addict

Ane Sexton, The AddictAne Sexton, The Addict

Sleepmonger,
deathmonger,
with capsules in my palms each night,
eight at a time from sweet pharmaceutical bottles
I make arrangements for a pint-sized journey.
I'm the queen of this condition.
I'm an expert on making the trip
and now they  Read on →
Permanent link to Ane Sexton, The Addict

George Eliot, Middlemarch, Book I (even more quotes from Book I)George Eliot, Middlemarch, Book I (even more quotes from Book I)

Has the theory of the solar system been advanced by graceful manners and conversational tact?

I.x

Mrs. Renfrew, the colonel’s widow, was not only unexceptionable in point of breeding, but also interesting on the ground of her complaint, which puzzled Read on →

Permanent link to George Eliot, Middlemarch, Book I (even more quotes from Book I)

Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book I (yet more quotes from Book I)Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book I (yet more quotes from Book I)

[Will Ladislaw]

Genius, he held, is necessarily intolerant of fetters: on the one hand it must have the utmost play for its spontaneity; on the other, it may confidently await those messages from the universe which summon it to its Read on →

Permanent link to Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book I (yet more quotes from Book I)

Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book I (more quotes from Book I)Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book I (more quotes from Book I)

More favourite quotes from Book I.

 

[Casaubon on music]

“I never could look on it in the light of a recreation to have my ears teased with measured noises,” said Mr. Casaubon.

I.vii

“He has got no good red Read on →

Permanent link to Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book I (more quotes from Book I)

Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book IMiddlemarch, George Eliot, Book I

Some favourite lines from Middlemarch saved.

 

Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable Read on →

Permanent link to Middlemarch, George Eliot, Book I

Middlemarch, George EliotMiddlemarch, George Eliot

‘What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?’

Chapter LXXII

A remark made by Dorothea Read on →

Permanent link to Middlemarch, George Eliot

Robert Frost reading The Star-SplitterRobert Frost reading The Star-Splitter

The Star-Splitter

Robert Frost reading one of his own. Read on →

Permanent link to Robert Frost reading The Star-Splitter

Paul Dirac’s article of faithPaul Dirac’s article of faith

‘[My] article of faith is that the human race will continue to live for ever and will develop and progress without limit. This is an assumption that I must make for my peace of mind. Living is worthwhile if Read on →

Permanent link to Paul Dirac’s article of faith

Paul DiracPaul Dirac

‘I don’t see how you can work on physics and write poetry at the same time. In science, you want to say something nobody knew before, in words everyone can understand. In poetry, you are bound to say something that Read on →

Permanent link to Paul Dirac

Middlemarch, George EliotMiddlemarch, George Eliot

From Chapter LIV.

Mrs. Cadwallader said, privately, “You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same Read on →

Permanent link to Middlemarch, George Eliot

St Matthew Passion, J S BachSt Matthew Passion, J S Bach

Play

A transcendent moment from Bach’s St Matthew Passion spotted by Karl Richter but missed by many other conductors. Read on →

Permanent link to St Matthew Passion, J S Bach

Princesse de PolignacPrincesse de Polignac

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/8303730/Princesse-Ghislaine-de-Polignac.html Read on →

Permanent link to Princesse de Polignac

NothingNothing

‘If less is more, is nothing too much?’

I don’t know who said it, or where I came across this remark, but I like it. I could claim it as my own. Read on →

Permanent link to Nothing

Philip Roth, I Married a CommunistPhilip Roth, I Married a Communist

‘the sanity of an expansive, disorderly existence.’

Philip Roth Read on →

Permanent link to Philip Roth, I Married a Communist

Craig Venter, Sargasso SeaCraig Venter, Sargasso Sea

We’re looking for life on Mars, and we don’t even know what’s on Earth Read on →

Permanent link to Craig Venter, Sargasso Sea

Arthur C Clarke, UniverseArthur C Clarke, Universe

Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case the idea is quite staggering.

Arthur C Clarke Read on →

Permanent link to Arthur C Clarke, Universe

Horizon, Paul Nurse, Climate ChangeHorizon, Paul Nurse, Climate Change

Sir Paul Nurse the President of the Royal Society spoke in defence of the scientific method on last week’s Horizon. Why did the program leave me feeling uneasy? Certainly he comes across as a likeable man; dedicated to what he Read on →

Permanent link to Horizon, Paul Nurse, Climate Change

Our Lives are Swiss/Emily DickinsonOur Lives are Swiss/Emily Dickinson

Our lives are Swiss --
So still -- so Cool --
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their Curtains
And we look farther on!

Italy stands the other side!
While like a guard between --
The solemn Alps --
 Read on →
Permanent link to Our Lives are Swiss/Emily Dickinson

Egyptian Book of the DeadEgyptian Book of the Dead

At death, in the afterworld, the heart was weighed in a balance. On the other side of the balance is a feather. A life well-lived would have made the heart light. Lighter than the feather.

After death the brain was Read on →

Permanent link to Egyptian Book of the Dead

Wedding ring fingerWedding ring finger

According to the ancients, a vein from this finger runs directly to the heart, which is how it came to be the wedding ring finger. I got this from The Finger: A handbook by Angus Trumble. It sounds suspiciously like Read on →

Permanent link to Wedding ring finger

Boswell’s London JournalBoswell’s London Journal

My favourite index entry, a long ago gift from my friend H, comes from Boswell’s London Journal. I thought I could find it on line to cut and paste, but no luck. I’m going to have to type the whole Read on →

Permanent link to Boswell’s London Journal

Gertrude SteinGertrude Stein

‘When you make a thing it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and Read on →

Permanent link to Gertrude Stein

Groucho MarxGroucho Marx

Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana

Groucho Marx

But then when I look on Wikipedia, I see that Groucho Marx probably didn’t say it. It’s a sentence used in linguistics to show how syntactically ambiguous sentences Read on →

Permanent link to Groucho Marx

New Scientist and MessaienNew Scientist and Messaien

The radio comes on around 8.15. Sometimes I notice and sometimes I do not. Certainly at that time on a  Sunday I’m a long way off getting up. I’ve never understood those who say, ‘I woke up so I got Read on →

Permanent link to New Scientist and Messaien

The QueenThe Queen

Front page story in today’s Sunday Times: ‘Middeltons won’t meet Queen until wedding.’ I’d happily see the monarchy nationalised.  We’d all feel much more grown-up, HMQ herself not excepted.  And yet I do find myself drawn to the performance. It Read on →

Permanent link to The Queen

BeckettBeckett

Beckett said of old age: ‘I’ve been waiting for it all my life.’ And on another occasion that it was ‘ not to be embarked on lightly.’ Perfect, as always. Where did I find these quotations? Perhaps in one of Read on →

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Talking about NothingTalking about Nothing

Read on →

Permanent link to Talking about Nothing

Talks about NothingTalks about Nothing

Read on →

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Guardian CrosswordGuardian Crossword

I wish I could stop looking at the comments underneath the day’s Guardian crossword, but I seem not to be able to look away; as if a crash had happened there. I’ve been waiting for nemesis to strike and today Read on →

Permanent link to Guardian Crossword

Middlemarch/ George EliotMiddlemarch/ George Eliot

Reading Middlemarch. Again. Why is re-reading so enjoyable? No anxiety? The author’s ability to sympathise is more apparent to me this second time round, or perhaps it is third time round; and if it is a third time, the first Read on →

Permanent link to Middlemarch/ George Eliot

And the Pursuit of Happiness/ Maira KalmanAnd the Pursuit of Happiness/ Maira Kalman

Have already bought nine copies and will surely buy more.  And if you haven’t already, there is her earlier book Principles of Uncertainty too. What is it about her work that it is so enlarging? She creates out of her Read on →

Permanent link to And the Pursuit of Happiness/ Maira Kalman

BucklandBuckland

I’m reading a mid-nineteenth century book titled Curiosities of History by Francis Buckland, alighted on in some second-hand bookshop. It must have been popular. This a condensed version of the eight volumes, published after the author’s death. Here you can Read on →

Permanent link to Buckland

On writing You Are HereOn writing You Are Here

I only knew why I’d been driven to write You Are Here some months after I’d actually completed it. At the time, I was too busy worrying if I could write at all.  And if not worrying about that, worrying Read on →

Permanent link to On writing You Are Here

Today’s Guardian crosswordToday’s Guardian crossword

One of the solutions was upas tree. Chambers defines upas as, ‘A fabulous Javanese tree that poisoned everything for miles around.’ Why are dictionary definitions often so satisfying? An art. Read on →

Permanent link to Today’s Guardian crossword

Thinking about the something beyond nothingThinking about the something beyond nothing

Here’s something I read in the current issue of the London Review of Books that took my fancy.

‘Yet it is the sense one has when faced with ancient or exotic things that there is something beyond what can be Read on →

Permanent link to Thinking about the something beyond nothing

ReadingReading

Here’s something from my reading of War and peace, actually from the very good introduction by Richard Pevear to the wonderful translation by the same and his wife: the shortest sentence in War and Peace is kápli kápali, which is Read on →

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War and Peace by Leo TolstoyWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Did I really manage to read the whole of War and Peace without making a single post. Looks like it. Read on →

Permanent link to War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Kim by Rudyard Kipling, and The Water Babies by Charles KingsleyKim by Rudyard Kipling, and The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

‘Will they kill thee?’

‘Oah, thatt is nothing. I am good enough Herbert Spencerian, I trust, to meet little thing like death, which is all in my fate, you know. But – but they may beat me.’

p319 in my Read on →

Permanent link to Kim by Rudyard Kipling, and The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

Peter Forbes’ review of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Masssimo Piatelli-PalmariniPeter Forbes’ review of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Masssimo Piatelli-Palmarini

I like this from Steve Jones: ‘philosophy is to science what pornography is to sex’. Quoted in Peter Forbes’ interesting review.

I met Steve Jones at the Dartington Festival last year, and I have to say I was rather terrified Read on →

Permanent link to Peter Forbes’ review of What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Masssimo Piatelli-Palmarini

Flannery O’Connor/Good Country PeopleFlannery O’Connor/Good Country People

‘as real as several grain sacks thrown on top of each other.’

‘Mrs Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.’ Read on →

Permanent link to Flannery O’Connor/Good Country People

Finishing Proust, and reading The Violent Bear It AwayFinishing Proust, and reading The Violent Bear It Away

I recently finished reading Proust (again). Wagner recommended a three-day diet of Bach canatas  coming down from his Ring Cycle. I’m reading Flannery O’Connor to come down from Proust. Certainly O’Connor shares with Bach a vision of the world that Read on →

Permanent link to Finishing Proust, and reading The Violent Bear It Away

The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’ConnorThe Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor

Hard to know what to read after Proust. The harsh, rock-hewn sentences of Flannery O’Connor have turned out to be an ideal contrast. Amazingly, The Violent Bear It Away doesn’t seem to be in print in a UK edition. I Read on →

Permanent link to The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor

Faulty memoryFaulty memory

Can memory ever be truly faulty given that it can never anyway be faultless? Rather as we have learned to live with the realisation (discovery?) that there is no absolute space and time, we have also learned to live with Read on →

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The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 NightsThe Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights

I’ve tried reading the Arabian Nights before, from a couple of selections that are around. Though the one selection started off promisingly (erotic and violent as we have been led to believe), I was soon bored, and the other volume Read on →

Permanent link to The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights

Quote for todayQuote for today

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us – and if we do not agree, seems to puts hands in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does Read on →

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Woolf and Joyce (and Dolly Parton)Woolf and Joyce (and Dolly Parton)

Virginia Woolf’s New Year resolutions for 1931 as noted in her diary:

Friday 2 January 1931:
Here are my resolutions for the next three months…
First to have none. Not to be tied. Second to be free and kindly with Read on →

Permanent link to Woolf and Joyce (and Dolly Parton)

Wagner’s Ring Cycle: a short synopsisWagner’s Ring Cycle: a short synopsis

DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN

A music drama performed over three days and a preliminary evening

Running time 14-16 hours (depending on the conductor: Keilbert ultra fast, Goodall ultra slow.

Synopsis

Wotan and Fricka are about to move into their lovely Read on →

Permanent link to Wagner’s Ring Cycle: a short synopsis

Life and artLife and art

In the Guardian the other day I read about Anthony Matthews aged 20 a trooper in the Light Dragoons who survived a grenade hit. He was quoted as saying that the experience had been ‘like a scene from Saving Private Read on →

Permanent link to Life and art

More at DartingtonMore at Dartington

Salley told me afterwards about her friend Brian and what happened as he was sitting down to take his place in the audience. The man next to him lent over and said: ‘I don’t hold with all this Big Bang Read on →

Permanent link to More at Dartington

Arriving ProvincetownArriving Provincetown

I  wish I could say that I when I travel I am perfectly happy cocooned in a cashmere shawl (no one should travel without one the smarter magazines tell us), absorbed in the penseés of some French philosopher or other, Read on →

Permanent link to Arriving Provincetown

To blog or not to blogTo blog or not to blog

One of the reasons I had to give up ashtanga yoga was I getting too competitive, which is hardly the point; looking around to see how deep my neighbour’s down dog. My friend Jane has taken to blogging like the Read on →

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The Waves (1931) and Cold Comfort Farm (1932)The Waves (1931) and Cold Comfort Farm (1932)

THE WAVES (1931) and COLD COMFORT FARM (1932)

‘…that pleasure [of reading] is so great that one cannot doubt that without it the world would be a far different and a far inferior place from what it is. Reading has Read on →

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Wikipedia entry of the dayWikipedia entry of the day

Temenos (τέμενος,[1] from the Greek verb τέμνω “to cut”; plural: temene) is a piece of land cut off and assigned as an official domain, especially to kings and chiefs, or a piece of land marked off from common uses and Read on →

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‘Ida’ 20 May 2009‘Ida’ 20 May 2009

Today the world’s press is dominated by news of Ida, who if nothing else, is an astonishingly well-preserved fossil. Of course she is claimed to be more than that: what the popular media still wants to name THE missing link, Read on →

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Easter Monday 13th April 2009Easter Monday 13th April 2009

I was intrigued by a brief editorial comment in this week’s New Scientist. Apparently ‘There is now a CCTV camera that monitors people who are employed to watch CCTV footage… This, though, raises the question of who is monitoring this Read on →

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Easter Sunday 12 April 2009 (ii)Easter Sunday 12 April 2009 (ii)

I like curious words, and/or curious definitions. It was my friend Hazel who first alerted me to the word ‘mallemaroking’ as defined in Chambers dictionary. It is a curious word and has a curious definition. Mallemaroking: the carousing of seamen Read on →

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Easter Sunday 12 April 2009 (i)Easter Sunday 12 April 2009 (i)

Thanks (I think) to quickiebooks for the blog review

http://quickiebooks.blogspot.com/2009/04/you-are-here.html

I’m not quite sure what to make of the statue of Christ posed next to my book, but I like the photographic composition.

It’s obviously a day for surreal blogs, Read on →

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Presidential AddressPresidential Address

In his inaugural address, President Obama told us that his administration ‘will restore science to its rightful place’. If we can agree that former-President Bush’s administration sowed confusion about the nature of science, and confounded its free pursuit, we might Read on →

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EventsEvents

Reviews & ArticlesReviews & Articles

Higgs bosonHiggs boson

My article in the New York Post, Sunday July 8th 2012
 

All week, in bars across the country, men and women, young and old, have been caught up in heated arguments about fundamental scalars and neutrino oscillations.

Well, perhaps not, but higgsteria was certainly in the air. There’s even a Higgs joke doing the rounds.* And though most of us came away with little more than the idea that “they” have discovered something called a Higgs boson, that somehow creates a Higgs field, that somehow — wave of magic wand here — turns light into matter, even this level of understanding is quite something. I mean, how often do we get to talk particle physics? On how many days are mysteries of the universe solved? Plus we got to see what scientists look like when they get excited — whoops and high fives and air punches — weirdly just like the rest of us after a touchdown.

The discovery of the Higgs boson fills in a key part of our great modern creation story. In the beginning there was pure light held in perfect symmetry. But the symmetry broke — for reasons we don’t yet fully understand — and within a tiny fraction of a second the universe was born as light and matter inexorably expanding into time and space.

Fourteen billion years later, the universe is still expanding and here we are: what that light became. Many of the stages of this extraordinary story have been filled in, and this last week a cornerstone: how a universe made entirely of massless particles became a universe of matter. No wonder the Higgs is affectionately known as the “God particle.”

THE $10 BILLION EXPERIMENT

However much or little of the detail we may have grasped, and no matter that the announcement was hedged by probabilities — 1 in 35 million against will do for me as proof thank you very much — it is clear that something momentous has happened. Physicists tell us that a long quest has come to a close, and all because a shy Higgs particle has at last been coaxed into view, on at least a couple of occasions, and to two teams working separately on the most expensive experiment ever conducted in the history of the world (universe?) so far.

These teams are among more than 7,000 scientists working deep under mountains on the borders of Switzerland and France. The Large Hadron Collider experiment has so far cost an estimated $10 billion, most of it going on the construction of the collider itself — 27 miles of tunnel, 4 meters wide, containing 1,232 magnets each weighing 30 tons, all useful ammunition for the barroom nerd.

Though America is not part of CERN — the European organization that runs the LHC project — it still contributes considerable funds. Someone is bound to ask — even if in these days of trillion-dollar deficits, when 10 billion dollars looks like chicken feed — is it worth it?

It’s clear what scientists will get out of it. The LHC is to be shut down at the end of the year. Not because the job is done, but because a new era of high-energy physics is about to begin. And that requires, you’ve guessed it, higher energy. The LHC will be upgraded and once back online, protons can be pounded into each other at speeds even more decimal places closer to the speed of light. And, whoopee, we might find out whether this is the Higgs boson, or one of five possible Higgs bosons, or, indeed, discover some unexpected new particle.

Less than 100 years ago, it looked as if there were only three particles in the universe: the electron, proton and neutron. Now there are hundreds of fundamental particles, the Higgs boson the latest addition to what some physicists refer to as the particle zoo. An honored addition: a kind of giant panda perhaps.

It may frustrate the average person, but the brilliance of science is that as soon as it answers a question it discovers more questions. Just when you think you’ve found the most basic ingredients, there’s an entire world underneath.

ASKING THE BIG QUESTIONS

It’s among this particle zoo that scientists are looking for a model that explains the fundamental laws of the universe, including the four forces of nature — the strong and weak nuclear forces, the electromagnetic force and gravity.

The current best model is called the Standard Model and it describes three of these forces. Gravity will have to wait its turn. Now that Higgs is discovered, the Standard Model is pretty much experimentally confirmed. But new models are required to account for everything the Standard Model doesn’t describe – not just gravity, but the dark matter and dark energy that makes up 96% of the universe. There are a lot of missing pieces to the puzzle. Physics is not likely to come to an end anytime soon.

But physics has needed the shot in the arm that the Higgs discovery has given it. Particle physics hasn’t made a quantum leap maybe since the quantum, and though Higgs may not be such a leap forward, it may lead to such a leap.

Physics has found itself at several possible dead-ends in recent decades, one of them being string theory, the only real quantum theory of gravity in town, but which has yet to be elevated out of conjecture to experimentally tested theory.

All the recent scientific excitement has been in biology. But it is worth remembering that biology, even 30 years ago, was seen as a soft observational science, not a proper down-and-dirty discipline like physics or chemistry. All that changed, gradually, with the discovery of the gene molecule, and now, among other innovations, with the first discoveries of how the neural circuitry of the brain works.

The Big Question of biology used to be: What is life? Today the unanswered question glimmering on the horizon is: What is consciousness?

But physics retains its grandeur. What could be more thrilling than discovering that if we look closely enough into the tiniest regions of space we find the conditions that existed when the universe was less than a billionth of a second old? Or that by sending a space observatory, like the Planck telescope launched in 2009, to look in the other direction, out into the deepest regions of space, we end up at the same place, recording the dimmest echoes of the Big Bang?

The poet W. H. Auden once said: ”When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.” These days science is not only aristocratic but has also invaded the territory once guarded by the church. Today much of what passes for religious discourse looks small-minded, shabby even, put next to the rarified debates taking place in science. Organized religion has lost its sense of the cosmic — as if God cared only about our sexual proclivities.

HOW WE BENEFIT

Cosmology is all very well I hear you cry, but what more tangible benefits justify the arcane adventure that is particle physics?

It was once jokingly said that the only clear technological advances that came out of the space race, and that benefitted the general public directly, were the pen that could write upside down and the coating used on non-stick frying pans.

A more realistic list might include improved techniques for kidney dialysis, energy-saving building materials and better rescue equipment, but to make such a profit-and-loss analysis is to miss the point. The space race defined an age, as technology continues to do. It’s just that we can’t predict how it is going to do it.

Particle accelerators generate a huge amount of data. At the LHC today, a billion collisions are recorded every second and the experiments can run for months. The results are produced as complex statistical patterns of energy, the results of cascades of decay products decaying into yet other particles. Out of this data scientists must look for evidence, which may be just one or two collisions of the right sort.

It was because CERN was generating such vast amounts of data even in its early days that Tim Berners-Lee wondered if there was a way that the data could be shared and worked on by scientists across the globe. The benefit to us is the World Wide Web, and if sometimes we might wish to escape it, no one could have guessed in what ways it would change the world.

A more obviously beneficial innovation is the superconducting magnet that, in serried ranks, guides and accelerates the particles around the circular tunnels of the LHC. It led directly to the development of the magnetic resonance imaging technology that is used in all major hospitals.

The answer to the question, “Will the discovery of Higgs lead to some tangible benefit for humankind?” has to be yes, eventually, but it isn’t possible to say when or what form that innovation might take, or even perhaps what steps connect the one to the other.

A PEEK INTO THE FUTURE

But I’ll stick my neck out and look into a crystal ball. I see that some time in the far distant future there are teleportation devices just as predicted in “Star Trek.” I can see, faintly, humans looking back at me, into what is their dim past, to that day when the discovery of the Higgs boson was first reported — July 4, 2012 — acknowledging it as an important step towards the discovery of how to translate matter into light energy and back to matter again.

At some point between now and this distant future, we worked out how to switch off the Higgs field. Without mass, all particles must travel at the speed of light. Dissolving objects into light was a huge task, but nothing compared to the problem of working out how to turn the light back into matter, and matter in the same form that it had had before. But now that we can, the universe has opened up in ways unimaginable in the 21st century.

In those days, it seemed likely that humans might not travel even to the edge of the solar system, but now that we can transport ourselves as light itself the possibility has opened up of travel to distant galaxies. Of course in order to travel to the farthest reaches of the universe we’ll need to travel faster than the speed of light, or control wormholes in space, but these possibilities lie in an even deeper future.

We won’t know if teleportation or distant space travel are possibilities unless we investigate.

It is fortunate that science benefits us, but it isn’t the main motivation for most scientists. There is an unspoken agreement that it is OK for the National Institutes of Health to fund molecular biology or the exploration of the brains of flies, so long as everyone involved pretends that the goal is to improve the health of the population. But many scientists, most of them perhaps, do not turn up to work because of some unpredictable medical benefit down the road; if they are lucky, they turn up to worry away at some precisely defined problem that once solved will take its place as a cog in the large machine that is scientific progress.

At its most reductive, physics searches for the fine stuff out of which the material world is woven. The history of physics is one of increasingly subtle and refined measurement of a reality that is captured by increasingly ingenious and indirect means. Out of the same stuff, we have constructed the material world we live in of smart phones and sat navs. Without quantum theory there would be no transistors; without general relativity no global positioning systems.

CIRCLES AND STRAIGHT LINES

Four hundred years ago, Galileo lifted a telescope to the skies and recorded what he saw there. Ever since, technology has been in a dance with experiment and theory. Together they make up what we call the scientific method. Better theories lead to better measurements, but to make better measurements we require better equipment; better experimental results lead to better theories and so the dance starts all over again.

The very idea of progress was alien to the ancients. Life and history moved in circles. What went around came around. We may look to the past for wisdom, but who among us wants to live there? However uncertain, we’d rather live here, on the edge of the future, drawn on by the enticement of greater understanding. Forward.

Christopher Potter is the author of “You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe” (HarperCollins).

Read more: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/does_this_higgs_boson_make_me_look_gf7ID0vz9DRXS6vDgCBo8H#ixzz201AeJhyu
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Survival of the Beautiful/David RothenbergSurvival of the Beautiful/David Rothenberg

My review in the Sunday Times Sun Mar 4th 2012

Survival of the Beautiful

Art, science and evolution

David Rothenberg

£14.99

320pp

Bloomsbury

 

There are meant to be two drivers of evolution: natural selection and sexual selection. But sexual selection, as David Rothenberg puts it in his engaging, chatty, and important new book, ‘was a slap in the face of natural selection, a challenge, a contrasting force working its own wily ways against the doctrine of efficiency and adaptation.’ Darwin elaborated his thinking about sexual selection in his second great book, the Descent of Man, to account for something that troubled him greatly and which he believed could not be explained by natural selection alone, why there is so much beauty in the world. The male peacock’s tail clearly does not make it fitter for its environment, but it may make him fitter in the eyes of a female peacock. In sexual selection the female decides, not the environment, which genes will make it to the next generation. But Darwin’s second dangerous idea has proved to be unpopular. Most biologists are convinced that natural selection is the one true mechanism and that sexual selection can be folded into it. A purely adaptive explanation of the peacock’s tail tells us that the female peacock chooses the male with the most elaborately useless tail because such excess is a sign of power and health to spare. One biologist has suggested that extravagant displays of sea-shells and berries in a bowerbird’s nest indicates bounty and health in the male architect, while another wonders if the complexly woven nests are some kind of anti-rape structure meant to put the female at ease. Such contorted adaptive story-telling has encouraged a few biologists to raise their heads above the parapet and question whether natural selection is enough to explain all the forms we see in nature.

Rothenberg accuses adaptationists of scouring nature looking only for species that confirm an adaptationist model, and ignoring the rest. When it comes to songbirds, for example, there is only spotty evidence that females choose the longest or most complex songs. The female sedge warbler does, but the female marsh warbler does not. By insisting on natural selection as the sole driver of evolution, biologists are forced to ignore the most interesting aspect of what they are investigating, the artefacts themselves – the art.

It was Darwin’s contention that when females are in control beauty evolves. Could it be that what the female chooses is simply what most delights her mind? Accept this and something transformative takes place:  the feathers and the songs are elevated out of the external world and into ‘the mind of an appreciating individual female’. Taking Darwin seriously on sexual selection turns the biology of communication into a branch of aesthetics.

Rothenberg wants scientists to take beauty seriously: ‘scientists don’t enjoy their own sense of joy and beauty enough.’ And not only scientists, nor do critics of art. Rothenberg admits that he is ‘more attracted to things that are beautiful…than those that only realize concepts or solve problems.’ He prefers Klee to Warhol.

Much of Survival of the Beautiful is a series of digressions into topics as various as camouflage, cave paintings, paintings made by captive elephants, and the contemporary art scene, but out of this variousness Rothenberg comes to an inspired conclusion. Aesthetic selection introduces a new kind of randomness into nature that unites art and nature, man and beast: ‘Perhaps what people like depends, as does aesthetic evolution, on the whims of the possible that arbitrarily catch on.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Science round-up for the Sunday Times 2011Science round-up for the Sunday Times 2011

My science round-up of the year was in the Sunday Times dated November 27th 2011, not quite in this form, but these were my overall choices from the year almost past:

 

Science book of the year:

 

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

How physics and scientific thinking illuminate the universe and the modern world

Lisa Randall

464pp

Bodley Head

£20

 

The book that impressed me most this year is Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall, a professor of theoretical physics at Harvard.  Written to vent her frustration about ‘the way science is currently understood and applied,’ it is, in part, the story of the world’s largest and most expensive piece of experimental equipment – the Large Hadron Collider. But more than that, and what makes this book essential reading for anyone interested in science, is Randall’s subtle understanding of how science works. This is an insider’s story. Science is not all about the Big Idea. In fact scientists are much more likely to become obsessed by some small question that they then worry at tenaciously, sometimes for years. Single-minded concentration makes great science, and great art.

 

 

 

The best of the rest:

 

Emperor of All Maladies

A biography of cancer

Siddhartha Mukherjee

592pp

Fourth Estate

£25

 

 

The Beginning of Infinity

Explanations that transform the world

David Deutsch

496pp

Allen Lane

£25

 

 

The Immortalization Commission

Science and the strange quest to cheat death

John Gray

288pp

Allen Lane

£18.99

 

 

Moonwalking with Einstein

The art and science of remembering everything

Joshua Foer

320pp

Allen Lane

£14.99

 

 

Incognito

The secret lives of the brain

David Eagleman

304pp

Canongate

£20

 

 

Science writing just seems to get better and better. This has been another bumper year. Many familiar names have offered new, sometimes very fine, books – Brian Greene, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Richard Fortey, and Brian Cox have all pitched in – but the very best writing I’ve found elsewhere. Perhaps the finest written of all science books published this year– and remarkably his first book – is The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, a practising oncologist who has somehow also found time to write a moving and personal history – he calls it a biography – of cancer. ‘To confront cancer,’ Mukherjee writes,  ‘is to encounter a parallel species, one perhaps more adapted to survival than we are.’ Spanning several millennia, this is a narrative filled with heroes – male and female, patients and doctors – and it grips like fiction from the first page.

Oxford professor David Deutsch is a theoretical physicist’s theoretical physicist. He may well be one of the most intelligent beings in the universe. In his latest book – a superb investigation of scientific explanation – Deutsch often comes to what at first feel like counterintuitive conclusions. It is commonly said, for example, that there is nothing particularly special about our earth, an argument meant to bolster the idea that there is life profligately spread across the universe. Deutsch wittily shows us what a typical place in the universe really looks like:  ‘The nearest star would be so far away that if it were to explode as a supernova, and you were staring directly at it when its light reached you, you would not see a glimmer. That is how big and dark the universe is. And it is cold…cold enough to freeze every known substance except helium…And it is empty: the density of atoms out there is below one per cubic metre. That is a million times sparser than atoms in the space between stars.’

I know I’m in the grip of exceptional minds when I find myself moving seamlessly between opposing views as I switch from one science writer to another. Utterly convinced by Deutsch’s scientific optimism when I’m in his company, I find myself equally entranced by John Gray’s exhilarating nihilism when I’m in his. In the Immortalisation Commission, Gray is at it again, this time exposing the dangers of science’s curious obsession with eternal life: ‘In this materialist Rapture the dead will be resurrected as “pure thought,”’ he tells us, and all lower forms of life will be left behind.  ‘The resurrection of the dead at the end of time is not as incredible as the idea that humanity, equipped with growing knowledge, is marching towards a better world.’ ‘No form of human behaviour is more religious than the attempt to convert the world to unbelief…’ As grim as they usually are, Gray’s brisk, provocative, and beautifully written assertions often make me laugh out loud with delight.

The most entertaining science book of the year is another first book, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Though he claims to have an average memory, Foer became America’s Memory Champion after just a year in training. Memory techniques, it seems, haven’t changed much in 2,500 years. The best way to recall an array of disparate objects is to place each object within some bizarre visual narrative. The more bizarre the better, hence the title. Fantastical erotic associations seem to work best.  Foer’s personal story frames a history of memory from early hunters needing to find the way home, through oral traditions of poetry and religion  (the Buddha’s teachings were passed down orally for 400 years) to modern-day investigations – still very much in their infancy – of memory’s neural underpinning.

I also very much enjoyed Incognito by neuroscientist – and bestselling fiction writer – David Eagleman. We have known we are not at the physical centre of the universe for centuries, now brain science threatens to remove us even from the centre of ourselves. Our conscious self is underpinned by many unconscious selves doing all the hard work; which explains, apparently, why we are statistically more likely to pair up with someone whose first name begins with the same letter as our own.  Eagleman’s book is full of the latest research. It’s breezy, fun and optimistic. John Gray would hate it.

 

 

 

 

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The Quantum Universe/ Brian Cox and Jeff ForshawThe Quantum Universe/ Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

My review in the Sunday Times 30th November 2011

 

The Quantum Universe

Everything that can happen does happen

Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

£20

??pp

Allen Lane

 

Professor Cox’s northern burr, floppy hair, boyish charm, and infectious enthusiasm have made him the poster boy for popular science.  But popular science is a broad church. Writing with Andrew Cohen, Brian Cox has produced two unashamedly popular books that tie in to his TV series: Wonders of the Solar System, and Wonders of the Universe. For tougher intellectual assignments he calls on the assistance of fellow professor of physics, Jeff Forshaw. As a double act they wrote Why Does E=mc2?, an engaging investigation of the famous equation that underpins Einstein’s theory of special relativity, a book which judged the aspirational end of the popular science market well. In the Quantum Universe, the duo take on an even tougher challenge: to explain quantum physics to a lay reader.

Quantum physics – the theory that describes the forces and particles that make up the physical world – is famously challenging. Richard Feynman once claimed that no one understands quantum mechanics, Einstein famously refused to believe in it (‘God does not play dice’), and Niels Bohr wrote that ‘those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum mechanics cannot possibly have understood it.’ It was Heisenberg who realised that it was necessary to abandon the idea of commonsense when describing the world of small things. As Cox and Forshaw point out: ‘The physics as understood by Newton emerges out of the quantum description, and it is important to realise it is not “Newton for big things and quantum for small,” it’s quantum all the way.’  This doesn’t mean that our world of large things isn’t real, just that the reality that underpins it is quite different from how it appears to be. This kind of thinking, the authors acknowledge, is ‘a doorway through which all sorts of charlatans and purveyors of tripe can force their philosophical musings.’ Cox and Forshaw, needless to say, are not big on philosophical musing, though they do pause, now and again, to throw in something mind-blowing. It is wrong, they tell us, to think that definite things are happening in our world, such a view is  ‘a consequence of our crude perceptions of the world. It really is conceivable that, at some time in our future, something can happen to us which requires that in the past we did two mutually opposite things.’ To understand why, in the event, this hardly matters, you will need to read the book.

There are many ‘popular’ books on quantum physics, but what makes this attempt novel is that the writers take an intellectual rather than historical approach, reducing the world not just to elementary particles, but to the faces of clocks. Quite why this is possible is hard to say in a few words. In quantum physics, elementary particles are no longer separate things, but are, instead, waves of probability that unfold in time. It is the undulating, phase-like nature of these waves rolling forwards in time that can be related to clock faces. It’s a surprisingly rich idea that allows the authors to avoid using too much mathematics, but it does make for a generally rather dry read. Profuse apologies for sections that come with the whiff of ‘tweed and chalk dust’ aren’t quite enough to expel either. The nice Professor Cox shows a sterner side when writing with Professor Forshaw: ‘That should be no surprise,’ they warn us, ‘If if is, then you’d better start reading the book again from the beginning.’ I felt like I was being sent to the back of the class. The authors protest too often that this is not a text book. It would make a great text book. It’s hard going as entertainment.

 

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Knocking on Heaven’s Door/Lisa Randall and The Magic of Reality/Richard DawkinsKnocking on Heaven’s Door/Lisa Randall and The Magic of Reality/Richard Dawkins

My review in the Sunday Times, 11th September 2011

 

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

How physics and scientific thinking illuminate the universe and the modern world

Lisa Randall

£20

Bodley Head

464pp

 

The Magic of Reality

How we know what’s really true

Richard Dawkins

Illustrated by Dave McKean

£20

Bantam Press

272pp

 

 

Lisa Randall – a professor of particle physics and cosmology at Harvard – needed to vent her frustration about ‘the way science is currently understood and applied.’ Knocking on Heaven’s Door – written with dry wit and ice-cool clarity – is the result. Modern science, as Randall tells it, is the story of how humans have used technology to extend the reach of their senses.

Four hundred years after Galileo placed a couple of lenses in a tube and swung the crude device up into the night sky, the telescope has become the space observatory. Galileo was the first human being to see clearly the mountains on the moon. The Planck satellite, launched in 2009, was sent out to look for the faintest evidence of radiation left over from the Big Bang.  It is not due to deliver its best data for several more years yet.

The microscope has become the particle collider, which, by injecting and concentrating large amounts of energy into tiny regions of space, occasionally and fleetingly calls into existence the tiniest constituents of the fabric of reality. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, will not be operating at full power for a year or two yet, and produces so much data that it may take several more years before any discoveries can be claimed definitively.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by Big Science, but, as Randall points out, scientists don’t usually set out to answer the Big Questions, they more likely become obsessed about some small question that they then worry at tenaciously, sometimes for years. The irony of the LHC is that although it is enormous – 27 kilometres of tunnel 4 metres wide built deep underground housing 1232 magnets each 30 tonnes and 15 metres long – what is truly jaw-dropping is the fineness of the measurements being made. Individual proton collisions carry no more kinetic energy than two mosquitoes flying into each other, and even then most of the energy of the collision is carried forward with the rest of the beam as it makes its 11,000 circuits of the tunnel every second.

Out of years of data – the accumulated record of a billion collisions every second – evidence from just a handful of collisions of the right sort may be all that is needed to point current theory in a completely new direction. The history of physics is one of increasingly subtle and refined measurement made by increasingly ingenious and indirect means. Fortunately, the game is likely to be never-ending. The universe is subtlest.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door is a book anyone at all interested in science must read, and which everyone ought to read. This is surely the science book of the year.

Richard Dawkins’ latest book is a surprise. The man who is fast becoming the nation’s irascible teddy bear has written a delightful book for children (that may tempt parents, too, after lights out). The Magic of Reality is a charming and free-ranging history of science. Go back through the family photo album and meet your 170,000,000-greats grandmother, or learn how we come down with flu.  Imaginatively chosen detail – did you know that there’s an Alaskan frog that spends winter frozen into a block of ice? – keeps the narrative lively. I wish there had been such a book when I was a schoolboy.  I would have devoured it, and pored over the beautiful illustrations. I would probably even have enjoyed Dawkins’ re-telling of various ancient myths that he has collected from cultures around the globe and throughout history. As an adult these sections feel like mild propaganda. But that’s OK; as a teenager I loved the Narnia books and they’re propaganda too.

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Shooting Angels, Christopher HopeShooting Angels, Christopher Hope

My review in the Sunday Times, Sunday 14th August 2011.

 

Shooting Angels

Christopher Hope

Atlantic Books

272pp

£17.99

 

 

 

Christopher Hope’s latest novel – his ninth – is certainly ambitious. It is set in an archetypal and Read on →

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The Death of the Adversary, Hans KeilsonThe Death of the Adversary, Hans Keilson

My review in the Sunday Times 15/5/2011.

 

The Death of the Adversary

Hans Keilson

Vintage Classics

£12.99

224pp

 

Anne Frank’s diary and Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, two classics of Holocaust literature, were both published in Read on →

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Physics of the Future, Michio KakuPhysics of the Future, Michio Kaku

My review in the Sunday Times, 1st May 2011

In 1899 the commissioner of the US Office of Patents declared that “everything that can be invented has been invented”. The founder of Warner Brothers wondered in 1927 “who the hell Read on →

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A Man of Parts, David LodgeA Man of Parts, David Lodge

My review in the Sunday Times April 9th 2011.

 

There are five pages of source notes at the end of this long and puzzling novel. They list the many and various reference materials David Lodge has drawn on to Read on →

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A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer EganA Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

My review in the Sunday Times 27th March 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan

Corsair

£14.99

288pp

One of the pleasures of good writing is being taken to a world we might otherwise have no experience of, Read on →

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The Book of Universes, John Barrow, and The Hidden Reality, Brian GreeneThe Book of Universes, John Barrow, and The Hidden Reality, Brian Greene

My review in the Sunday Times 6th March 2011.

Unfortunately in the printed review what should read as 10500, comes out as 10,500, which rather dilutes my point.

The Book of Universes

John D Barrow

368pp

£20

Bodley Read on →

Permanent link to The Book of Universes, John Barrow, and The Hidden Reality, Brian Greene

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah LehrerProust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

My review in the Sunday Times, 6th February 2011

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Jonah Lehrer

Canongate

£16.99

256pp

Science writing today is a broad Church. It has its engaging popularisers (Marcus Chown, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh spring to mind), Read on →

Permanent link to Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

Drawing the Map of Life, Victor McElhenyDrawing the Map of Life, Victor McElheny

My review in the Sunday Times/July 2010

Drawing the Map of Life:

Inside the Human Genome Project

Victor K McElheny

Basic Books

UK price not on jacket, says £16.99 on Amazon

376pp

The Human Genome Project  (HGP) was the name Read on →

Permanent link to Drawing the Map of Life, Victor McElheny

Things We Didn’t See Coming, Steven AmsterdamThings We Didn’t See Coming, Steven Amsterdam

My review in the Sunday Times July 2010

Things We Didn’t See Coming

Steven Amsterdam

Harvill Secker

£12.99

208pp

For over a century now, the dystopian novel has often proved itself to be both a commercial and literary success. From Read on →

Permanent link to Things We Didn’t See Coming, Steven Amsterdam

The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard MlodinowThe Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

My review in the Sunday Times/September 2010

The Grand Design

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Bantam Press

£18.99

208pp

‘When I find myself in the company of scientists’, the poet W H Auden once wrote, ‘I feel like a shabby Read on →

Permanent link to The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Cycles of Time, Roger PenroseCycles of Time, Roger Penrose

My review in the Sunday Times/September 2010

Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe

Roger Penrose

Bodley Head

£25

300pp

In 1988, Stephen Hawking, the most famous living physicist, and Roger Penrose, the most famous living mathematician, Read on →

Permanent link to Cycles of Time, Roger Penrose

The Finger, Angus TrumbleThe Finger, Angus Trumble

My review in the Sunday Times/31st October 2010

The Finger: A Handbook

Angus Trumble

Yale

320pp

£18.99

We’d be nothing without our fingers, and yet most finger expressions are pejorative: pull your finger out, get your fingers burned, be light-fingered, Read on →

Permanent link to The Finger, Angus Trumble

Hand Me Down World, Lloyd JonesHand Me Down World, Lloyd Jones

My review in the Sunday Times/7th November 2010

Hand Me Down World

Lloyd Jones

John Murray

£14.99

320pp

In capable hands – I’m thinking of, say, Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita or Read on →

Permanent link to Hand Me Down World, Lloyd Jones

Sunday Times science round-up 2010Sunday Times science round-up 2010

My review for the Sunday Times Xmas round-up of science books 2010.

Alex’s Adventures in Numberland: Dispatches from the Wonderful World of Mathematics

Alex Bellos

Bloomsbury

£18.99

448pp

Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe

Roger Penrose Read on →

Permanent link to Sunday Times science round-up 2010

How to Read the Air/Dinaw MengestuHow to Read the Air/Dinaw Mengestu

My review in the Sunday Times 9th January 2011

How to Read the Air

Dinaw Mengestu

Jonathan Cape

320pp

£16.99

Dinaw Mengestu’s acclaimed first novel, Children of the Revolution, was in part the story of an Ethiopian refugee living in Read on →

Permanent link to How to Read the Air/Dinaw Mengestu
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