origins

This is from a netgalley copy. Origins is due out Oct 8, 2015, Oxford University Press.

I love origins stories. Especially ones that don’t involve super heros intights. I mean origins of the universe, life and everything. I’m also a huge fan of all those tv shows even through the wormhole with Morgan Friedman but there is a problem with the other popularizers of science.

This book I think is a correction to those television shows. These shows feature the more outlandish science that is purely speculation. Baggott leaves that out. By that I mean the science without the science fiction. so you get general relativity but without wormholes. You get quantum mechanics but without time travel. Basically get rid of the fantastical science and use merely the agreed upon science and a tiny bit of speculation thrown in when he can’t help it especially about the origin of life itself which we don’t really understand yet.

But there’s a small problem when you do this. Because all the interesting stuff is in what we don’t know. If you only talk about what we do know how do you present it? My favorite way to present something that science in general does know is to go deep. Present it, yes but give the general public more than just a metaphor. So for instance for general relativity, give them the loretnz factor itself. I know equations are scary but what can you do?

If you don’t give the public something which even the scientists don’t know than the other option to keep it interesting is to give them what the scientists do know but force the public to learn. It can be a difficult kind of reading.

The only other option if you want to re-hash all of the universe from beginning to end is to make it so beautifully written that every sentence is a pleasure to read.

Unfortunately none of those apply to this book. It is simply a primer, a beginner edition of physics chemistry and biology, absolutely no equations but no wormholes either nothing fantastical. It’s true that quantum mechanics is really fantastic but it’s only fantastic if you are able to actually explain enough of what it really is.

For instance here Baggott describes wave particle duality:

“Bohr [and] Heisenberg … argued … it makes no sense to speculate what photons or electrons really are, better to focus on how these quantum particles appear” and that is pretty much the end of it.

I like how he resists metaphors for instance the “molassas metaphor” of the higgs. But he keeps every explanation so simple that I feel that you don’t really get a sense of just how ridiculous things are at the lowest level.

I can’t resist comparing this book to Stephen Hawking’s “A brief history of time”. Both hawking’s book and this one by Baggott are aimed at the someone who has finished perhaps high school education and but the sentences in Hawking’s book are just so well written.

The difficultly of this book varies a bit, some places it is quite easy to read in other places it becomes a bit more difficult.

But you would be wrong to think I judge the book poor. I am giving it a 5 out of 5. Because the science is correct, it is accurate and it is being taught without bad metaphors. The electron orbitals for instance are correctly given out as standing waves and then you get to see their exact placement around the nucleus. It’s very difficult stuff to explain all this without resorting to equations. When he gets to topics that don’t require math for instance the solar nebula disk model and the hayashi henyey is wonderfully exact and clear and from this chapter to the end of the book Baggott gains his stride.

It is just a horrible awesome task to explain the entire universe without using any math, a very difficult thing to do, so I am going to give Baggott full marks. Well worth reading especially you can’t read the differential quantum equations or einstein equations directly.

What is more he explains nearly everything, plate tectonics, DNA, origin of life, the great extictions, the evolution of man the foxp2 language gene and the rise of consciousness. I was almost expecting to see the “War of the Roses” in there somewhere but that’s where he stopped. This is a ridiculous achievement and as far as I can tell not a single scientific error in the entire book.

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