You’ve gotta love a book that follows “Chapter One: Matter” with “Chapter Two: Quantum Theory.” The Instant Egghead Guide: Physics by Brian Clegg and Scientific American does just that, and then continues on through chapters about Light, Relativity, Forces and Energy. The cover calls it “60-Second Science,” and each subject is a two-page spread that takes about a minute or two to read. The chapter about matter, for instance, is broken down into subjects such as atomic structure, various phases of matter, string theory and the big bang.
Each subject has three short sections: The Basics, On the Frontier, and Cocktail Party Tidbits. The Basics is just that: a very simple, straightforward explanation of the topic at hand. On the Frontier is usually a little extra information, sometimes but not always about the current state of knowledge on a subject, or perhaps an example of how this bit of information is used in practical applications. Cocktail Party Tidbits is the fun stuff: little trivia about Einstein or a snarky remark Feynman once made.
My main complaint: the book tends to shy away from using formulas, probably to make things more accessible for the “Math is hard!” contingent, but I ran into this sentence which I had trouble parsing until I realized they were using the parentheses as in math, rather than as in English:
As mechanical work is the force applied times the distance moved, and power is work divided by time, then power is also force times (distance over time)—that is, force times velocity.
(The other potential source of confusion is spelling out “times” in a formula which also includes “time.”) I don’t know if avoiding mathematical notation really does anyone any favors or just muddles things a bit. Fortunately, this sort of thing didn’t occur too often but this particular case stood out for me.
Also, I think this is the first time I’ve read an entire physics book without a single diagram in it, which is a shame. I think a few well-constructed diagrams would have gone a long way toward making some key concepts easier to understand and remember.
Those of you who are physics geeks most likely won’t learn anything new from this book (except some nifty trivia that will come in handy next time you’re at a cocktail party, whatever that is). But if you need a refresher course—if, say, your high schooler starts asking you about things you haven’t studied since you were in high school—this is a handy book to have around. With a little over 100 topics, you can spend just a few minutes a day and get a pretty good overview of physics in a short period of time. At the very least, it’ll help you get a few more of the jokes on The Big Bang Theory.
The Instant Egghead Guide: Physics is available from Amazon or other fine booksellers.
Wired: A broad overview of physics in bite-sized, easy-to-swallow chunks.
Tired: Some diagrams and mathematical formulas would have been nice.
Note: St. Martin’s Press provided a review copy of the book for GeekDad.