Grand theories on physics, the brain and geneticsby Prospect Team / December 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in Mid-winter (Jan-Feb) 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
The life of Stephen Hawking, who died in 2018, has been much mythologised. But as well as an icon, he really was a great scientist, whose mind-expanding work has inspired countless curious young people. His posthumous Brief Answers to the Big Questions (John Murray) does exactly what the title says, in Hawking’s customary pithy, thought-provoking popular style. It seems we like it when physicists get straight to the point. The Italian Carlo Rovelli’s bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics was followed up in 2018 by his The Order of Time (Allen Lane), a short book about why this most familiar of concepts is more complicated than we think.
Even Richard Feynman, who had an equally brilliant capacity for communicating difficult ideas to the general public, admitted that “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum physics.” This daunting theorem requires you to suspend your intuition about the way things behave—particles can be in two places at the same time. As good a place to start as any is Beyond Weird (Bodley Head) by Philip Ball, a gifted science writer familiar to readers of this magazine.
But what if the grand elegant theories—string theory, cosmic multiverses—are a little too elegant? Sabine Hossenfelder’s punchy Lost in Math (Basic) argues that too many physicists have been tempted into constructing beautiful theses, ignoring the lack of empirical evidence for them. Hossenfelder has confessed that her book may well be career suicide. Let’s hope not.
The most complex structure in the Universe—we know of—is the human brain and neurological writing is going through a boom. Suzanne O’Sullivan’s Brainstorm (Chatto & Windus) casts doubt on the idea that shiny new brain scans can really tell us why we behave the way we do. As a practising neurologist writing about epilepsy, she is cautious about the promise of instant cures: “We are as bad at curing brain disease as we ever were. Almost.”
The dangerous power of science when not under proper human control is demonstrated by Serhii Plokhy’s Chernobyl (Allen Lane), winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize.
Genetics was once a deeply unfashionable—even suspect—area of scientific research. But the subject produced some fine works in 2018, the best of which is the remarkable She Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer (Picador). Zimmer, who teaches at Yale, argues that while we must acknowledge the power of heredity, we need to have a deeper understanding of what that word means: genes are important, yes, but we’re much more than the sum of our inheritances.