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Ruth’s Reviews: We need to talk about Kelvin


Ruth Francis, Nature’s Head of Press, is reviewing all the entries shortlisted for the Royal Society’s science book prize. She’ll be reading one per week and is posting her thoughts on The Great Beyond every Friday between now and the prize ceremony on 21 October.

Cartoons on the cover, large font and a chatty, easy writing style belie a complex subject matter and the sheer amount of information in this volume.

In his introduction Chown says: “The idea of this book is simple: to take familiar features of the everyday world and show how […] they tell us profound truths about the ultimate nature of reality.”

Sounds simple enough? Despite the premise, this is a rather muddled investigation. Whether it’s how the everyday world is telling you about atoms, stars or the universe, the author divulges the history of the theory, the characters involved, wrong turns and layman’s examples.

Seeing both your face reflected and what’s on the other side of a window reveals something of the behaviour of light, explains the first chapter. And using a matchbox and a 40 tonne truck to illustrate the size difference between the wavelength of visible light and an atom is tangible too. But just how many examples and anecdotes are needed to get to the simple truth?

The early chapters are hard going the second half seems an easier ride – perhaps because the later chapters focus on newer subject matter with less history or because the groundwork is done and some basic concepts have been explained previously.

But it feels somewhat laboured – in last year’s Royal Society shortlist a couple of the books tackled tough subject matter in great detail but somehow more smoothly. Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, took on the 3.5 billion year old history of the human body, using the famous Tiktaalik fossil as a narrative thread running through the book, bringing readers back to a familiar focus with each chapter.

Instead, Chown zips through a series of theories without one unifying narrative. They say that you should never judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge this one by its title either – there are only three pages that mention Kelvin.


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