'This is the book I wish I could have written but am very glad I've read' Jim Al-Khalili
‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.’
Richard Feynman wrote this in 1965 – the year he was awarded the Nobel prize in physics for his work on quantum mechanics.
Quantum physics is regarded as one of the most obscure and impenetrable subjects in all of science. But when Feynman said he didn’t understand quantum mechanics, he didn’t mean that he couldn’t do it – he meant that’s all he could do. He didn’t understand what the maths was saying: what quantum mechanics tells us about reality.
Over the past decade or so, the enigma of quantum mechanics has come into sharper focus. We now realise that quantum mechanics is less about particles and waves, uncertainty and fuzziness, than a theory about information: about what can be known and how.
This is more disturbing than our bad habit of describing the quantum world as ‘things behaving weirdly’ suggests. It calls into question the meanings and limits of space and time, cause and effect, and knowledge itself.
The quantum world isn’t a different world: it is our world, and if anything deserves to be called ‘weird’, it’s us. This exhilarating book is about what quantum maths really means – and what it doesn’t mean.
Selected as a Book of the Year by The Times and The Economist
China's history is an epic tapestry of courtly philosophies, warring factions and imperial intrigue. Yet, over five thousand years, one ancient element has so dramatically shaped the country's fate that it remains the key to unlocking China's story. That element is water.
In The Water Kingdom Philip Ball takes us on a grand tour of China's defining element, from the rice terraces and towering karts of its battle-worn waterways, to the vast engineering projects that have struggled to contain water's wrath. What surfaces is the secret history of a people and a nation, drawn from its deep reverence for nature's most dynamic force.
If you could be invisible, what would you do? The chances are that it would have something to do with power, wealth or sex. Perhaps all three.
But there's no need to feel guilty. Impulses like these have always been at the heart of our fascination with invisibility: it points to realms beyond our senses, serves as a receptacle for fears and dreams, and hints at worlds where other rules apply. Invisibility is a mighty power and a terrible curse, a sexual promise, a spiritual condition.
This is a history of humanity's turbulent relationship with the invisible. It takes on the myths and morals of Plato, the occult obsessions of the Middle Ages, the trickeries and illusions of stage magic, the auras and ethers of Victorian physics, military strategies to camouflage armies and ships and the discovery of invisibly small worlds.
From the medieval to the cutting-edge, fairy tales to telecommunications, from beliefs about the supernatural to the discovery of dark energy, Philip Ball reveals the universe of the invisible.
Serving the Reich tells the story of physics under Hitler. While some scientists tried to create an Aryan physics that excluded any ‘Jewish ideas’, many others made compromises and concessions as they continued to work under the Nazi regime. Among them were world-renowned physicists Max Planck, Peter Debye and Werner Heisenberg.
After the war most scientists in Germany maintained they had been apolitical or even resisted the regime: Debye claimed that he had gone to America in 1940 to escape Nazi interference in his research; Heisenberg and others argued that they had deliberately delayed production of the atomic bomb.
In a gripping exploration of moral choices under a totalitarian regime, here are human dilemmas, failures to take responsibility and three lives caught between the idealistic goals of science and a tyrannical ideology.
There was a time when curiosity was condemned.
Through curiosity, our innocence was said to be lost. Yet this hasn't deterred us. Today we spend vast sums trying to recreate the first instants of creation in particle accelerators, out of pure desire to know. There seems now to be no question too vast or too trivial. No longer reviled, curiosity is now celebrated.
By examining the rise of curiosity from the dawn of modern science to today, we can examine how it functions in science, how it is spun, packaged and sold, and how the changing shape of science influences the kinds of questions it may ask.
Can we make a human being?
The question has been asked for many centuries, and has produced recipes ranging from the clay golem of Jewish legend to the mass-produced test-tube babies in Brave New World. Unnatural delves beneath the surface of the cultural history of 'anthropoeia' - the artificial creation of people - to explore what it tells us about our views on life, humanity, creativity and technology, and the soul.
Philip Ball traces the threads that link the legendary inventor Daedalus, Goethe's tragic Faust, the automata-making magicians of E.T.A. Hoffman and Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein. He argues that these old tales and myths are alive and well, subtly manipulating the current debates about assisted conception, embryo research and human cloning, which have at last made the idea of 'making people' into flesh and blood reality.
Why have all human cultures - today and throughout history - made music?
Why does music excite such rich emotion?
How do we make sense of musical sound?
These are questions that have, until recently, remained mysterious. Now The Music Instinct explores how the latest research in music psychology and brain science is piecing together the puzzle of how our minds understand and respond to music. Ranging from Bach fugues to nursery rhymes to heavy rock, Philip Ball interweaves philosophy, mathematics, history and neurology to reveal why music moves us in so many ways.
Without requiring any specialist knowledge, The Music Instinct will both deepen your appreciation of the music you love, and open doors to music that once seemed alien, dull or daunting, offering a passionate plea for the importance of music in education and in everyday life.
All human cultures seem to make music - today and through history. But why they do so, why music can excite deep passions, and how we make sense of musical sound at all are questions that have, until recently, remained profoundly mysterious. Now in The Music Instinct Brain Shot Philip Ball provides the first comprehensive, accessible survey of what is known - and what is still unknown - about how music works its magic, and why, as much as eating and sleeping, it seems indispensable to humanity.
BRAIN SHOT: Byte-sized survey of what is known - and what is still unknown - about how music works and why it is indispensible to humanity
In the twelfth century, Christians in Europe began to build a completely new kind of church - soaring, spacious monuments flooded with light from immense windows. These were the first Gothic churches, the crowning example of which was the cathedral of Chartres: a revolution in thought embodied in stone and glass, and a bridge between the ancient and modern worlds.
In Universe of Stone, Philip Ball explains the genesis and development of the Gothic style. He argues that it signified a profound change in the social, intellectual and theological climate of Western Christendom. As the church represented nothing less than a vision of heaven on earth, this shift in architectural style marked the beginning of the argument between faith and reason which continues today, and of a scientific view of the world that threatened to dispense with God altogether.
Philip Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim - known to later ages as Paracelsus - stands on the borderline between medieval and modern; a name that is familiar but a man who has been hard to perceive or understand. Contemporary of Luther, enemy of established medicine, scourge of the universities ('at all the German schools you cannot learn as much as at the Frankfurt Fair'), army surgeon and alchemist, myths about him - from his treating diseases from beyond the grave in mid-nineteenth century Salzburg to his Faustian bargain with the devil to regain his youth - have been far more lasting than his actual story. Even during his lifetime, he was rumoured to travel with a magical white horse and to store the elixir of life in the pommel of his sword.
But who was Paracelsus and what did he really believe and practice? Although Paracelsus has been seen as both a charlatan and as a founder of modern science, Philip Ball's book reveals a more richly complex man - who used his eyes and ears to learn from nature how to heal, and who wrote influential books on medicine, surgery, alchemy and theology while living a drunken, combative, vagabond life. Above all, Ball reveals a man who was a product of his time - an age of great change in which the church was divided and the classics were rediscovered - and whose bringing together of the seemingly diverse disciplines of alchemy and biology signalled the beginning of the age of rationalism.
Philip Ball writes regularly in the scientific and popular media and worked for many years as an editor for physical sciences at Nature. His books cover a wide range of scientific and cultural phenomena, and include Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads To Another (winner of the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books), The Music Instinct, Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, Serving The Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Science Under Hitler, Invisible: The History of the Unseen from Plato to Particle Physics and The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China.