The Goldilocks Enigma by Paul Davies (Book Review)

Why is the universe just right for life? Paul Davies spends the duration of his book ‘The Goldilocks Enigma’ answering this relatively open ended question. What is particularly interesting about this book is the fact that much of the questions that are asked are questions that are usually associated with Philosophy and Theology. These questions would then usually be answered with more questions or extremely open ended statements that ultimately lead the reader nowhere. However what is different about Paul Davies is that he is in fact a Physicist who decided he would ask these questions but try and answer them with Physics based theories and concepts.

If you like your space-y type stuff and your astrophysics then this is the book for you, but be warned, if you are a newbie physicist then I would advise you to take this book slowly, very slowly. Davies does not hesitate to dive straight into the theories and explanations of our universe at a reasonably high level from as early as the second chapter. A section I personally found quite interesting was the actual theory of Multiverse and the possibility of multiple (or even infinite) universes explained in a way that was actually reliable and disregarded incorrect misconceptions.  However Davies also ranges from the enormously large to the ever so petite, by explaining what our universe is actually made of down to the smallest of the small, Leptons and Quarks. The metaphors and common day examples he uses to illustrate the most mind boggling of concepts is phenomenal and is a feature that one may struggle to find in other books.

I highly recommend The Goldilocks Enigma to anyone who is looking to broaden their knowledge of general physics but in particular the vast open abyss that surrounds our tiny little rock of a planet.

Live Long and Prosper Yo

‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ is basically a book which, as the title would suggest, covers the fundamentals of science- namely physics. From the formation of the universe to mankind’s slow grasping of its workings, Bryson covers about as much material as he physically (pun intended) could in 500 pages.

The amount of ground covered is impressive: Bryson explores our own planet and get to grips with the ideas, first of Newton and then of Einstein, that allow us to understand the laws that govern it. Then biology holds centre-stage (unfortunately), discussing the appearance of big-brained bipeds and Charles Darwin’s theories as to how it all came about. Despite the fact that both physics and biology are discussed, they are not dealt with separately but for the most part, explored together.

One aspect I particularly enjoyed was that unlike other science books I have previously read, Bryson (who is primarily a travel writer) manages to weave humour into the book so as to break up the information overload. His informal tone also means that it’s never boring (not that physics ever is) but engaging and entertaining throughout.

Whilst discussing difficult concepts, Bryson discusses the history of how they came about, often making the ideas themselves easier to grasp. We learn, for example, of the Victorian naturalist, Francis Trevelyan Buckland, whose scientific endeavours included serving up mole and spider to his guests; and of the Norwegian palaeontologist who miscounted the number of fingers and toes on one of the most important fossil finds of recent history and wouldn’t let anyone else have a look at it for more than 48 years.

Another interesting aspect of the book was Bryson’s quashing of famous scientific myths. The nonsense of Darwin’s supposed “Eureka!” moment in the Galapagos, when he spotted variations in the size of finch beaks on different islands, is swiftly dealt with. As is the idea that palaeontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott made the extremely lucky discovery of the fossil-rich Burgess Shales after his horse slipped on a wet track.

The physics in the book is actually almost glamorous: the sheer improbability of life, the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos, the overwhelming smallness of elementary particles, and the mysterious counter-intuitiveness of quantum mechanics. He tells us, for example, that every living cell contains as many working parts as a Boeing 777, and that prehistoric dragonflies, as big as ravens, flew among giant trees whose roots and trunks were covered with mosses 40 metres in height. It all sounds very impressive. The book is fairly content heavy so is tough going at parts, but I find it hard to imagine a better simple guide to the universe and its infinite mysteries. The problem: it’s only five sixths physics.

‘Paradox; The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics’ by Jim Al-Khalili

Paradoxes are notoriously hard to understand but in his book, ‘Paradox; The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science’, Jim Al-Khalili attempts to describe and explain some of the most common problems that are thought of as paradoxes. This is done on the whole successfully, with Khalili explaining some of the most difficult concepts in modern physics, such as elements of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, in a way that is relatively easy to understand, although rereading is often required.

One ‘paradox’ that I particularly enjoyed reading about was Olbers’ paradox. This is one way to prove that the universe had a beginning. It starts with a seemingly simple question: why does the sky get dark at night? When this questions different theories were put forward to explain why the night sky wasn’t brighter than the day’s sky as light should be coming from stars in all directions. Some scientists thought that the darkness was the wall of the universe, others thought that the further away stars were too faint to see with the naked eye. The conundrum can only be resolved when you consider the possibility that the universe had a beginning (when the problem was solved the big bang was only a theory, as it still is). The universe is expanding and so the light that is travelling from the most distant stars has not reached us yet and the stars themselves are travelling further away from us. Therefore light does not reach us from all directions, and the night’s sky is dark.

‘Paradox’ is a very good and very interesting physics book and it is mostly understandable. Some passages do need to be reread in order to grasp some of the more complex theories and concepts but the language is both clear and simple. I would recommend this book to almost anyone who wants to learn more about physics in order to broaden their knowledge, rather than just learning in the classroom. Having said this I would recommend having a basic knowledge of quantum physics, even if it is just knowing what Schrödinger’s cat is.