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Review - 25 Big Ideas - Robert Matthews

 

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Once upon a time it was possible to know pretty all there was to know in science. Even someone with a general interest could have a good overview of all that science had to offer. But over the last 100+years, everything has changed. The subject has blossomed out of all proportion; individuals haven't a hope of keeping up, and scientists are confined to a tiny area of speciality.

What Robert Matthews has done very effectively is to take 25 of the most significant areas in modern science ("the science that's changing the world" as the subtitle puts it) and explains them. Each section has a general description, a time line, a "jargon buster" definition of a few key terms (not always the most obvious ones), a couple of comment boxes, some notes and further reading - each chapter is like a condensed book. We meet in breathless fashion everything from game theory to GM crops, from the selfish gene to plate tectonics and relativity.

In a way that's the problem here - although this is well written, it feels too like a textbook because it's almost entirely focused on the science and there's not enough of the people and context, an inevitable consequence of that condensation. Even the science itself can be a little clipped and dry.

Taking a more detailed look at the area this reviewer knows most about - quantum entanglement - it's generally well handled. Matthews doesn't slip into the common mistake of saying that Einstein's anti-quantum theory EPR paper of 1935 was based on challenging the uncertainty principle (though he does say that Einstein was wrong in it, which is slightly misleading). He also ascribes the idea of quantum computers to David Deutsch, who certainly took the concept a stage further, but was pre-dated by Richard Feynman. But that's a minor moan - it's mostly a good summary.

All in all, it is a useful taster when you want to know where to head off. It's not a bad idea to get hold of this book to get a quick background in the topics, before diving in more deeply to the ones you find most interesting. Matthews' suggestions for further reading aren't necessarily the best - come back to this site for some recommendations - but the book will give you a chance to pick out those aspects of science that excite your imagination.

Only in paperback

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007