Book Review: Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson

Cover of the book Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
Frequently Asked Questions about the Universe
by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
Riverhead, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2021.

Cham, a robotics scientist, and Whiteson, a professor of physics and astronomy, are cohosts of the podcast, Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe. In their new book, they attempt to answer the most frequently asked questions they receive from their listeners. In twenty chapters, interspersed with tongue-in-cheek comic illustrations, they tackle topics ranging from the origin of the universe, time travel, warp drives, black holes, how the world will end, the predictability of human behavior, and even whether we’re all living in a giant computer simulation. These are some of the biggest questions humanity has ever asked and the authors tackle them with wit, humor, expertise, and humility. The chapters are just the right size to mull over and digest one at a time, but the book also reads quickly enough that it can completed cover-to-cover in one or two sessions. It can also be read out of order, picking the chapters that are of the greatest interest. This is an excellent, easy-to-understand resource for curious people who want to start learning about cosmology.

This title has been recommended for young adult readers:

YA/General Interest: The format and style make this especially well-suited for inquisitive teens.

Book Review: Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World: How Physicists Transformed Everyday Life by Brian Clegg

Cover of the book Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World: How Physicists Transformed Everyday Life by Brian Clegg
Ten Days in Physics That Shook the World: How Physicists Transformed Everyday Life
by Brian Clegg
Icon, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2021.

Science writer Clegg argues that physics and engineering have shaped our world in profound ways. He identifies ten developments which he believes have had the greatest influence on our daily lives, each dated to the publication of a work, the date of patent, or a specific event. Newton’s Principia, harnessing electricity, steam engines, the discovery of radium, Einstein’s most famous equation, LEDs, transistors, and the first connection of the modern internet are all foundational to the modern world. Chapters contain a historical summary of the time period, brief biographical details of the individuals involved, a summary of the event, and an exploration of how it affected—and continues to affect—our lives. Some are discoveries which revolutionized our fundamental understanding of physics. More recently, the focus shifts to engineering and the application of physics to technology. He concludes with an exploration of what day 11 might bring. Despite the title, this isn’t quite a worldwide view of the subject since all ten events took place in Europe or America, but it is a good addition to popular science collections.

Book Review: Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving by Peter Norton

Cover of the book Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving by Peter Norton
Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving
by Peter Norton
Island, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2021.

Autonomous vehicles promise to eliminate congestion on our roadways, reduce traffic accidents to near zero, and end greenhouse gas pollution. But as Norton points out, we’ve heard these promises before, many times. Car manufacturers have been proclaiming solutions to traffic problems since the 1930s, always by adding more roads and putting more cars on them. Autonorama is a deep dive into the history of our car dependency and the ways automotive manufacturers have strung along American consumers with promises of “just over the horizon” solutions to the problems cars themselves have caused. Norton argues the goal of car manufacturers has never been to satisfy mobility needs but to promote ever-increasing car dependency: Charles Ketterings’ famous maxim to keep the customer dissatisfied. Autonomous vehicles offer more of the same: empty promises of imminent solutions which can only increase our dependence on cars. Car dependency itself is the problem and cars can’t solve that. This is a bracing challenge to the dogma of autonomous vehicle enthusiasts and a clarion call for more varied and humane mobility solutions.

Book Review: Life Is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe by Johnjoe McFadden

Cover of the book Life Is Simple: How Occam's Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe by Johnjoe McFadden
Life Is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe
by Johnjoe McFadden
Basic, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2021.

Occam’s razor, “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity,” is more than just a useful tool. McFadden believes it’s the key that unlocked the potential of modern science. More than a search for truth, science is a search for simplicity, where every major paradigm shift leads to a simplification of our understanding of the cosmos. McFadden places the Franciscan friar William of Occam in the historical context of the fourteenth century, exploring the religious and intellectual culture that gave rise to his philosophy. He then traces how his eponymous razor, ideas of nominalism, and his insistence on the separation of science from religion influenced the subsequent course of science in the Western world. From Copernicus, Galileo, and da Vinci to Darwin, Einstein, and Planck, encompassing mathematics, physics, statistics, and biology, Occam set us on a path to seek simpler solutions. As it turns out, simplicity appears to be a bedrock of our universe. This is a compelling assessment of an idea many of us know but few deeply understand. William’s legacy is one for the ages.