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Jim Al-Khalili – Paradox

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Some paradoxes aren’t paradoxes at all.

Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
Pages: 292
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-98679-5
First Published: 12th April 2012
Date Reviewed: 1st November 2012
Rating: 4/5

Professor Al-Khalili demystifies a number of scientific paradoxes, aiming to make them understandable to the casual reader. As such the book will likely seem juvenile to a more experienced enthusiast and is recommended for those without a scientific background.

“One reason there are no time travelers among us today is simple: time machines just haven’t been invented yet.”

A welcomed element, albeit that you might expect it, is the laid-back writing style Al-Khalili has employed for the book. It fits the overall intention – making the descriptions clear (for the most part – sometimes explanations without large scientific descriptions are understandably difficult). The “narrative” if it can be called so, sometimes seems rushed, but if read with a dip-in approach this likely will not matter. The love and enthusiasm Al-Khalili has for his subject, and his wish to impart the information to the masses is obvious and one of the biggest draws of the book. Even when he falters, this wish remains, and it will keep you reading.

Because unfortunately there are times when Al-Khalili falters. The book is at once apologetic for geekiness (surely not needed if one has decided to read the book themselves) and a little elitist, and it is the elitism that causes the problem; Al-Khalili, whether meaning to or not, ends up belittling the reader. The first cases are forgiveable, for example, “in case you are nervously wondering what you’ve let yourself in for” – in which the author is obviously anxious that he keep your interest and trying to make up for the scientific terms he inevitably has to resort to. But as the book continues this effort to be understandable to the layman comes off as prejudice: “I should warn you now, though, that however carefully I try to explain it you will probably be left with a sense of it slipping from your grasp.” This is a nicer example, some are quite strong, but even here you can see the idea that is in Al-Khalili’s head, that his reader will not be able to understand what he says even if it has been explained clearly. If every instance was accompanied by a difficult scientific theory, it would not matter, but on so many occasions the concepts Al-Khalili hopes the reader will grasp are, in fact, described adeptly by the writer himself, and thus likely easy for anyone who has so much as heard of the word “science” before.

This means that sometimes Al-Khalili ends up sounding as though he were preaching to a reluctant scientist. It’s a case of him trying to teach people science without wanting to teach them anything for fear he’ll lose them.

However due to the very nature and complexity of science, the reader will inevitably come away having learned something. A bare basis knowledge of quantum physics will help, but it isn’t necessary. Assuming you are in the least bit interested in science, which is to be assumed really, since you are reading the book, you will likely find something in it to fascinate you, whether that is the dissection of the paradoxes or the extra knowledge Al-Khalili has added. The author does go off on a tangent sometimes, an aspect of his enthusiasm, but he always relates it back to the main question at hand and it is generally the case that the tangent he explores will aid comprehension of a later paradox to be discussed. It ought to be said that Al-Khalili’s tone is undeniably British and in a way stereotypical of the stereotype – he writes like you’d expect a scientist to write.

And although the subject matter of the book is limited, paradoxes in quantum physics, the discussion is broad. There are sections for those interested in astronomy, sections that relate to science fiction (time travel, for instance), as well as your standard physics ideas. Concepts such as the Theory of Relativity and the as-yet-to-be-overturned rule that nothing exceeds the speed of light, are included and ensure a well-rounded experience. If you’ve ever had the slightest interest in particles, you’ll find a friend in Al-Khalili. The subjects have clearly been chosen to satisfy both the general public as well as those with a little knowledge, and the obvious addition of Al-Khalili’s own interests.

There are times when the author will make statements that you might find yourself questioning the statement: “We can never defeat the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Always remember that.” This happens mainly because of the nature of the book; Al-Khalili will remind the reader that science is always developing, but at other times he will make a closed statement. This element may in fact prove to make the book a better read, as the layman (who somewhat relates to Al-Khalili’s suggestions of philosophers with unscientific backgrounds making brilliant suppositions) is free to disagree with the author within the confines of their own mind.

Albeit that there may already be numerous science books for the layman, the sheer amount of information, the casual style of writing, and the obvious benefits that come with having an author who teaches in person the very things he is writing, ensures that Paradox is one you’ll want to flick through and consider in your quest to learn more.

I received this book for review from Broadway Paperbacks.

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November 21, 2012, 4:38 pm

This sounds very interesting! It’s going on my wishlist. I love popular science books and I don’t run away from quantum physics. I usually forget the details of what I read about QP but in the end, something stays behind.

On of my favorite topics is time travel!


November 22, 2012, 7:25 am

I don’t have a huge interest in science, but I do like books written for the layman. I think it is a talent to be able to define or describe difficult concepts in a simple and clear manner, so I am always on the lookout for authors who are able to do this – as a librarian I try to choose books for our collection that the ‘popular’ reader will enjoy – this definitely sounds like something that would qualify.



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