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Review - Black Bodies & Quantum Cats - Jennifer Ouellette

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The subtitle "tales of pure genius and mad science" is only half right, because the science is anything but mad - but there are certainly plenty of tales of pure genius in Jennifer Ouellette's light hearted romp through the history of physics. The book consists of 38 articles (they're called chapters, but they feel much more like articles) on key aspects of physics, or pieces of technology, exploring their physical basis.

Taken on pure readability this is a solid, 5 star performer. Ouellette writes engagingly, the whole thing is great fun and has plenty of content. She is good at bringing in pop culture allusions to spice up the context of the science, from movies to music. Even though there was nothing new to me in the science itself, I still wanted to read on - it was a genuine page turner, in part because of the bite-sized chunks it presents the information in, but also because it simply reads very well. If you didn't know it all, it would be even more delightful.

So with all this good stuff going for it, why doesn't it have those five shiny stars at the top of the page? Ouellette flags up the problem in spades (that's a mixed metaphor, isn't it?) in her introduction. "The job of a science writer is largely one of artful translation. Inevitably something gets lost in the process. Richard Feynman, the 'great explainer' of physics once complained, 'many "popular" expositions of science achieve apparent simplicity only by describing something different, something considerably distorted from what they claim to be describing.' He is absolutely right. I have taken great pains to be accurate as well as engaging, and the science described in the chapters that follow is 'correct' as far as it goes..." Oh, no, it isn't, Ms Ouellette.

I have honestly never read a popular science book with so much "distortion from reality" in it. Every subject I know a reasonable amount about had something not quite right - I can only assume that this applies across a fair number of those I don't have any expertise in as well. Just take three examples. One big one: in describing the structure of the atom, Ouellette leaves us with the hoary old planetary model with electrons orbiting the nucleus like planets, without suggesting how wrong this is. At the other extreme, admittedly just a small point, she refers to Roger Bacon's Opus Majus as "published in 1268", but the Opus Majus was a (hand-written, of course) proposal for the pope, it was never intended to be a book and certainly wasn't "published" in the 13th century. The third example is in a section on the development of television, which would totally baffle any British reader, as it doesn't mention the person everyone in the UK "knows" was the inventor of the TV, John Logie Baird. Now admittedly this UK view is a little biased, but Baird did invent the first fully working TV system, which was used practically not just in a lab. If you believed Ouellette, electromechanical systems like Baird's never worked at all, and it wasn't until Philo Farnsworth came up with an electronic system in the US that TV was invented. But this is inconsistent with Ouellette's approach to computing, where she recognizes Babbage who also came up with a dead end mechanical technology (he never even got his fully built), but is still rightfully recognized as the father of computing. The omission of Logie Baird is simply bizarre.

I could fill a small volume with these points - which is why, even though I loved the book to read, it's hard to recommend it. Ouellette is a superb writer, but she should have had a good science editor check her facts.

Only in paperback.

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007