Marcus Chown's guide to the universe

Last updated 05:00 21/11/2012

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There’s always something special about a writers and readers festival, hearing a new author and then buying her/his latest book and wondering whether it matches how the author came across in interview.

British cosmologist and writer Marcus Chown is a case in point. His laconic but enthusiastic view of the scientific world drew me to the book he was promoting, with the unlikely title Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You – A Guide to the Universe, at a recent Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. In his book, Chown starts from the smallest part of the world around us - an atom – and, in describing the basis of quantum theory, works his way through to big bang theory and life, the universe and everything, quoting everyone of relevance, either for support or outrageous irony - from Einstein, Newton and Ernest Rutherford, through to Douglas Adams (of course).

His argument, for example, for the nonexistence of gravity in the The Force of Gravity Does Not Exist - at least, gravity as we know it - is a convincing chapter of discovery. Not surprisingly, Chown regards this as his favourite part of the book, though it competes with adroit explanations for the weight of sunshine and revealing why we age faster at the top of a tall building than if we lived our life on the ground floor.

Chown's easy-to-read prose and his lucid descriptions of oft-overlooked aspects of the world around us, supported by the detail and concepts you'd imagine he would reference (from Einstein's theory of relativity to the concept of space-time, the existence of black holes, dark matter, wormholes and white stars), are plausible, fascinating, entertaining and readable. In fact, the book stands up to regular and consistent re-reading.

With an informed but engaging writing style, Chown presents ideas and concepts in a transparent and easily digestible manner. Those without a great depth of knowledge of the atomic world will nevertheless find plenty to enjoy and contemplate. Others will be delighted at the ease with which Chown stacks together, in one compelling book, the building blocks of the quantum world.

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