One of the weird-but-cool things about being C-list famous on the Internet is that some publishers now send me unsolicited review copies of forthcoming books about science. These aren’t always the books I would really like to get free copies of, but, hey, free books.
Among the books I’ve received in the last year or so is Anil Ananthaswamy’s The Edge of Physics, which I got as an ARC several months ago– I read a bunch of it in Houston at the Sigma Xi meeting back in November– but I just realized that it’s due out next Tuesday, and I really ought to post a review of it.
As you can guess from the subtitle, “A Journey to Earth’s Extreme to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe,” this is a book of Extreme Physics Tourism. Not in the Garrett Lisi sense, though– rather, it’s a book about visiting the remote and inhospitable places where a lot of groundbreaking physics and astrophysics experiments are conducted. Ananthaswamy, a consulting editor for New Scientist, goes around the world from Mount Wilson to the remote desert of South Africa, from CERN to a mountaintop in Chile. He drinks vodka with Russians working a neutrino observatory in Lake Baikal, descends into the Soudan mine to look at the CDMS dark matter search, and watches balloon launches in Antarctica.
Each chapter finds him visiting a new place, and looking at a different problem in physics, by which he, like most writers, means “particle (astro)physics.” Stories about the history of the experiments and locations he visits are mixed together with short and readable explanations of the physics problems being studied, and why the experiments demand to be done in the odd places where they’re located.
For the most part, this is a very enjoyable read. The historical and other anecdotes are well done, the travelogue bits are fun and exotic, and the physics explanations are very good (if a little New Scientist-ish). The book really has only one glaring weakness: It needs pictures.
this may be something that will be fixed in the final edition, but in the ARC that I have, each chapter comes with a single, grainy black-and-white picture of some place or thing related to the experiment described in the chapter. Given that half of the attraction of the book is the idea of seeing physics done in exotic locations, it’s kind of a shame that there are so few images. You can get most of what you would like to see on the book’s website, but it would be nice to have more images, and higher-quality imgaes, in the actual book.
It’s also a little awkward to read about some of these experiments without a picture to refer to. Physics is a very visual discipline, in a lot of ways, and you can pack a whole lot of information into a few diagrams that end up explaining things a whole lot more clearly than you can do with words alone. Many of the explanations of what’s going on would benefit enormously from a picture illustrating the basic set-up.
I’m not sure why there aren’t more pictures. The ARC I was sent has a glossy color cover on it, which means somebody spent some money to promote it, and you wouldn’t think some diagrams would break the bank. Maybe they think non-scientists would find diagrams too intimidating or something.
Anyway, if you’re looking for an engaging read about the exotic places and ways people study particle astrophysics, this is a fun read. It doesn’t go too much into depth about any of the physics topics, but that’s not really the point. It covers just enough to give you a sense of how weird and cool the universe we live in is, and the exceptionally weird and extremely cool things scientists have to do to learn more about it.