x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Paradox and It's Not Rocket Science: Putting it in laymen's terms

Approaching the task from different directions, Ben Miller and Jim Al Khalili attempt to demystify the big topics of popular science.

Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science
Jim Al Khalili
Bantam Press

It’s Not Rocket Science
Ben Miller
Sphere

Why is the night sky dark? Two new books – one by Jim Al Khalili, the other by Ben Miller – pose this seemingly straightforward question, which inevitably has a counterintuitive answer that includes proof of the veracity of the Big Bang theory.

That duplication should not be a surprise, because both Al Khalili and Miller are pursuing the same goal: to demystify the big topics of popular science, albeit approaching that aim from very different directions.

Al Khalili is a professor in theoretical physics at the University of Surrey in Britain and is also a prolific broadcaster and writer on popular science.

His writing style is exactly as one would imagine of him enlightening a lecture room full of bright undergrads on issues that have challenged everyone, from the Greek philosopher Zeno to those at the cutting edge of quantum physics.

His nine paradoxes range from a relatively trivial examination of hypothetical demons introducing entropy, to more weighty stuff that illustrates Einstein's theory of relativity and its predictions for how dimensions change when bodies are close to the speed of light.

Ben Miller's approach also reflects his own back story. He's a comedian (one half of the British comedy duo Armstrong and Miller) but was also once pursuing a doctorate in quantum physics at Cambridge's famous Cavendish laboratory, specialising in low-temperature quasi-zero dimensional mesoscopic electron systems.

Both facets of this history shine through in It's Not Rocket Science in the sense that it's not just clear that he actually understands this area of science, but also that his writing reads like a perpetual series of build-ups towards a punchline.

This latter trait grates somewhat, but fortunately mostly tails off midway through the book, which generally seems pitched at bright 15-year-olds rather than Al Khalili's undergrads, and still tackles meaty topics such as the Higgs boson particle, DNA, black holes, genetics and dark matter.

However, both authors also share the key attributes required in this genre: clarity of thought and the ability to write about complex subjects in an accessible way.

They share more than that, both also possessing that sense of wonder that gave rise to all these big questions being posed and eventually solved by humanity's greatest minds.

Reading these books will not only enlighten readers on the subjects traversed within, but also instil in them some of that sense of wonder and rigorous enquiry.