Almost Everyone's Guide to Science: The Universe, Life and Everything (John Gribbin)

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John Gribbin is an astrophysicist by calling but (popular) science writer by choice. Most readers remember him through the book In Search of Schrödinger's Cat. Today (2007), his book count stands at 30, and he also wrote numerous articles in well known science magazines Nature and New Scientist.

In this book, he wanted to summarize science disciplines, and how they are all interrelated. Given that size of todays scientific knowledge could fill tomes of books, I've approached wearily to this 240 page booklet. At first it seems like it'll be a nice introduction to science disciplines in which reader isn't too familiar with. So people interested mainly in chemistry will get a clue about biology or cosmology, and vice versa. Great idea!

Book contents are as follows:

  • Introduction: If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong
  1. Atoms and elements
  2. Inside the atom
  3. Particles and fields
  4. Chemistry
  5. Molecules of life
  6. Evolution
  7. Our changing planet
  8. Winds of change
  9. The Sun and its family
  10. The lives of the stars
  11. The large and small
  • Further Reading
  • Index

Writer starts with a prelude to main content by describing what scientific model is. Simply said, if any scientific idea disagrees with experiment it's wrong. This is the main difference between religion (or other beliefs) and science.

First chapter describes history of atom discovery. From ancient idea that everything is made of small particles, to calculating atom's size and weight. Newton's Laws and principles of thermodynamics are also mentioned, as well as Einstein's general theory of relativity. After atom models are described, author describes basic chemical elements, mentioning Mendeleev periodic table of elements, and it's creation. Overall in 18 pages 27 scientists are mentioned (!!!), and quite a lot of theory.

In the next chapter, Inside the atom, atomic structure is further explained. Topic range from explaining internal structure of an atom, introduction to quantum physics and dual nature of electron as particle or wave.

You'll probably have a bit of trouble to follow most of beginning chapters if you're not physics savvy, but the third chapter is weird in it's own way. At the end of previous chapter author states: "... if you are not particularly interested in how things work at an even deeper level, you already know enough to skip on to chapter four ...". It almost gives you a clue this chapter is an afterthought :(. So far, author used electromagnetic force to describe world of atoms, and in this chapter explains how an atom can be stable even though it has, on a a first whim, unstable core of many positive protons which should repel each other. Main theme are fields, and all other but already mentioned electromagnetic are touched: gravity, magnetic, weak and strong nuclear force.

Chapter four switches from physics to chemistry, although knowledge from previous chapters helps (almost to the point I'd say it's required). Main theme is describing how atoms interact with each other, using covalent and ionic bondings, to make complex world of molecules. Description of the main difference between organic and inorganic molecules is made. Overall an interesting, though too short, introduction into the world of chemistry and how it relates to physics of small particles.

Chapter five, expands readers knowledge by bringing biology into context of just learned chemistry. Obviously organic molecules are further explained, and their tendency to make complex groups of elements. DNA molecule is the major topic here. Short history of how scientists discovered it's shape, as well it's importance in life forms we know today.

The sixth chapter, Evolution, marks the half of the book. Even if you haven't understood some stuff from previous chapters (which in my humble opinion is unfortunately quite expected), from now onwards the books content doesn't need that knowledge anyway. This chapter has nice description of how heredity and evolution works. Charles Darwin's natural selection is described and it really looks intelligent in a way, if we don't take into account huge time span it took for primitive organisms to evolve into what we see today around us.

Next chapter, Our Changing Planet, describes composition of Earth interior and how plate tectonics form continents and oceans. Author depicts how big landmasses cracked and separated over a very long periods of time. Those movements made big climatic changes, and thus effected lifeforms of various eras. Earth magnetic field is also touched, and how we know it reverses it's polarity.

Chapter eight, Winds of change, extends previous chapter, describing significance of atmosphere on Earth. Comparisons are made with Venus, our sister planet. Author describes how atmosphere stabilized temperatures enough for life to emerge. Using the context of previous chapter, it is further explained why ice ages are occurring.

Last two chapters concentrated on planet Earth, but the following chapter, The Sun and its family, quickly introduces our solar system. All planets are mentioned, as well as asteroid belt, Kuiper Belt, and Oort cloud. This chapter if filled with short interesting tidbits, like creation of Moon, or idea that asteroid belt was composed of a number of Mars sized bodies.

Chapter ten, introduces us to the stars. It describes their life, and depending on their sizes various way of how they die. Stars have lives measured in billions of years, so author describes how we know about various stages of star life by comparing vast amounts of observable stars. Also touched topics are composition of stars, measuring star distances and galaxies.

As can be seen, book content has progressed from the world of atoms, through molecules, lifeforms, planets, star systems to galaxies. In the last chapter, The large and the small, author continues describing galaxies. Author describes how Hubble and his contemporaries at the beginning of 20th century discovered other galaxies and their distances from us. The fact that we see all galaxies receding from us is explained with Big bang theory. But we still don't know how galaxies begun to form, so author decides to go back to small particles to the point where he has to immerse into speculative theories, and ends the book with description of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs). This closes the circle since WIMPs bound cosmology, science of creation of the universe, with particle physics, from which the book content begun.

This book tries to give a layman interested in science a big overview of science disciplines. I'm not entirely sure it does a good job at it for several reasons.

Many layman people can't understand really small or really big numbers very well, so analogies are needed to bring complex subjects closer to general understanding. Many times author uses physical constants and scientific notation of numbers to describe sizes or relations. It's nice to present those values as they are, but people are easily confused with them if they are not followed with down to earth analogies. Do you like (or at least understand) this kind of descriptions: "Because volume goes as radius (or diameter) cubed, this means that the proportion of solid matter to empty space in an atom is not 10^-5, but 10^-15. Only one millionth of a billionth of an atom is solid nucleus."

Next, book is text only, without one illustration! Illustrations of atom structure, or of various molecule formations, or tilt of earth when describing precession or temperatures would help immensely any layman. With no illustrations reader is given sometimes complex description inside just a paragraph or two, and is left wanting to see how described object really looks. If nothing else, illustrations would break the text and provide more pleasant reading experience.

Although chapters seem small, around 20 pages each, you'll find that complex topics are so condensed that they can't be described properly. More then anyone would like, you'll have to re-read paragraphs or a complete chapter. Failing that, if you really want to understand badly described topic, you'll have to put down the book, and search for better descriptions in encyclopedias or on the Internet.

Author does provide Further Reading recommendations to somewhat fix this problem, but in my opinion the book would really excel if it was 600-800 pages big instead of 240, and if it had at least moderate number of illustrations helping the reader understand described topics.

To conclude, you'll learn dozen or so interesting stuff and tidbits you didn't know before, but for it you'll have to endure sometimes not easily understandable descriptions. This book is therefore good, but I can't recommend it to anyone but most enthusiastic reader who has already read a few popular science books. Definitively not for teenagers or those just starting to learn science.