Reviewed by: Aimee Whitcroft
Edited by: Jeremy Webb (New Scientist)
Profile Books Limited, 2013
I’ve read a great many science books over the years, and stacked up against the numerous tomes into which I’ve sunk myself of an afternoon, Nothing has to be one of my favourites. With chapters by 20 science writers – including such well known names such as Ian Stewart, Marcus Chown, Nigel Henbest, Michael Brooks, Paul Davies and David Fisher – this fascinating book revels in a subject that has intrigued the finest minds for centuries, showing there’s more to nothing than meets the eye.
We generally use the word ‘nothing’, with all its negative connotations, to mean the lack of something – lack of value, perhaps, or existence, or action. But nothing is actually an incredibly potent set of forces in our lives. For example, zero allows our numerical systems to function. The placebo effect has potent effects on people (as does the nocebo effect), even if they know what’s happening. And as for the quantum void? Well, best read Nothing for some great explanations around that!
The book takes the form of short article length, essays about cutting edge science written without the jargon – the same accessible style and stimulating content which has made New Scientist magazine so popular and successful. None of the articles delve into great depth (it’s difficult to do that with a short essay), but they do provide clear, compelling explanations of the intriguing concepts being explored. The occasional graphic helps illuminate some of the trickier concepts – the Casimir Effect springs to mind.
But for those who like a little depth in their science, have no fear! There are plenty of notes and references for those who might like to dig a little deeper.
The essays are cleverly structured, not as a series of topics – black holes, zero, that whole quantum thang, etc., but grouped together by theme: beginnings, mysteries, voyages of discovery, and more. It’s an extremely effective strategy for presenting a lot of interesting and diverse information so that you can quickly see the big picture, and also something a little bit different (which is always nice). Reading a tranche of facts about one subject can often mean being lost in an avalanche of detail and losing sight of what is important. Finding out more about the various subjects from completely different angles, written in different styles and about different characteristics – a 3D perspective – leads to a more satisfying understanding.
And I got to come across some fascinating concepts while I was at it! An excerpt, below:
“So what are your chances of surviving the cymbal-crashing big splat? Well, all the particles in any object would briefly become massless and fly apart at the speed of light, so you’d get rather scrambled, but it is possible that life could survive. ‘We would have to figure out how to preserve all our memories and information in the form of radiation’, says [Neil] Turok. ‘If you could imagine making a computer out of light, you could transmit it through the big bang and recover it on the other side’.”
At 229 pages, Nothing is not a long read; it’s a delightful afternoon’s worth of science goodness. But, judging by my marked-up copy of it, you’ll be lending it out, and going back to it again and again.
Aimee Whitcroft is constantly interested in (and trying to do) everything, and still occasionally finds time to do nothing. You can find her at @teh_aimee, aimee.geek.nz, or at the bimonthly Nerd Nite Wellington (wellington.nerdnite.com). Do get in touch!