Books : reviews

Jim Baggott.
Perfect Symmetry: the accidental discovery of buckminsterfullerene.
OUP. 1994

In 1966, it was an amusing idea. In September 1985, it was a ball of paper and sticky tape, the result of six days of intense scientific discussion and one moment of inspiration. Five years later it was finally real: a perfectly symmetrical soccer-ball shaped molecule composed of 60 carbon atoms and called buckminsterfullerene.

This new molecule—one of a large family of carbon cage molecules called ‘fullerenes’—represents a new form of carbon in addition to diamond and graphite. Its discovery has revolutionized our understanding of this once most familiar of all elements. It has heralded a new chemistry, a new range of high-temperature superconductors, and some marvellous new concepts in the architecture of large carbon structures. Carbon will never be the same again.

In Perfect symmetry, prize-winning science writer Jim Baggott tells the story of the accidental discovery of buckminsterfullerene, from its origins in the cold chemistry of interstellar clouds to the development of the fast-growing field of fullerene science. It is a story full of surprises.

Jim Baggott.
Beyond Measure: modern physics. philosophy and the meaning of quantum theory.
OUP. 2004

Quantum theory is one at the most important and successful theories of modern physical science. A fact all the more remarkable because quantum theory is a theory that few understand.

Most academic textbooks on the subject are written for specialists, filled with complex jargon and dense mathematics. In contrast there are many popular presentations of the inherent ‘weirdness’ of the quantum world that are light on jargon and contain no mathematics. Together these different presentations serve to create the impression that there are two theories—the ‘serious’ one with its abstract mathematical formalism that all students of physical science must learn how to apply without worrying overmuch about what it all means, and the ‘weird’ one guaranteed to provide much pointless debate for the less serious or downright foolish and naïve.

Beyond Measure successfully bridges the gulf between these presentations by grounding the discussion of the theory's profound problems directly in its mathematical formalism in a way that undergraduate students and interested individuals can follow. It brings the reader up to date with the results of experimental tests of quantum non-locality and complementarity, and reviews the latest thinking on alternative interpretations—pilot waves, decoherence, consciousness, many worlds and God—and the frontiers of quantum cosmology, quantum gravity and potential applications of quantum entanglement in computing, cryptography and teleportation. Quantum theory emerges largely unscathed, only serving to reinforce the point that the theory remains the most powerful framework for explaining observations of the quantum world, but that its orthodox interpretation continues to offer little in the way of understanding in terms of underlying physical processes. Quantum theory remains a mysterious theoretical black top hat from which white rabbits continue to be pulled. Students are usually advised not to ask how this particular conjuring trick is done.

Jim Baggott.
Farewell to Reality: how fairytale physics betrays the search for scientific truth.
Constable. 2013

Modern physics is heady stuff. It seems that barely a week goes by without some new, astounding science story; some revelation about hidden dimensions and multiple universes. But is any of this true?

In Farewell to Reality, science writer Jim Baggott outlines the currently accepted or ‘authorized’ scientific version of physical reality. This description is astonishing in its scope and accuracy, but it is also full of problems. Baggott argues that in seeking to resolve these, contemporary theorists have crossed a boundary. They are suffering a ‘Grand Delusion’ – a belief that they can describe reality using mathematics alone, with no foundation in scientific fact. The result is ‘fairytale’ physics.

A string of recent best-selling popular science books has helped to create the impression that fairytale physics is established science. Farewell to Reality provides a timely and much-needed antidote.