“Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”
Since Niels Bohr said this many years ago, quantum mechanics has only been getting more shocking. We now realize that it’s not really telling us that “weird” things happen out of sight, on the tiniest level, in the atomic world: rather, everything is quantum. But if quantum mechanics is correct, what seems obvious and right in our everyday world is built on foundations that don’t seem obvious or right at all—or even possible.
An exhilarating tour of the contemporary quantum landscape, Beyond Weird is a book about what quantum physics really means—and what it doesn’t. Science writer Philip Ball offers an up-to-date, accessible account of the quest to come to grips with the most fundamental theory of physical reality, and to explain how its counterintuitive principles underpin the world we experience. Over the past decade it has become clear that quantum physics is less a theory about particles and waves, uncertainty and fuzziness, than a theory about information and knowledge—about what can be known, and how we can know it. Discoveries and experiments over the past few decades have called into question the meanings and limits of space and time, cause and effect, and, ultimately, of knowledge itself. The quantum world Ball shows us isn’t a different world. It is our world, and if anything deserves to be called “weird,” it’s us.
From Egyptian wall paintings to the Venetian Renaissance, impressionism to digital images, Philip Ball tells the fascinating story of how art, chemistry, and technology have interacted throughout the ages to render the gorgeous hues we admire on our walls and in our museums.
Finalist for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award.
With the recent landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, it seems safe to assume that the idea of being curious is alive and well in modern science—that it’s not merely encouraged but is seen as an essential component of the scientific mission. Yet there was a time when curiosity was condemned. Neither Pandora nor Eve could resist the dangerous allure of unanswered questions, and all knowledge wasn’t equal—for millennia it was believed that there were some things we should not try to know. In the late sixteenth century this attitude began to change dramatically, and in Curiosity:How Science Became Interested in Everything, Philip Ball investigates how curiosity first became sanctioned—when it changed from a vice to a virtue and how it became permissible to ask any and every question about the world.
Looking closely at the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, Ball vividly brings to life the age when modern science began, a time that spans the lives of Galileo and Isaac Newton. In this entertaining and illuminating account of the rise of science as we know it, Ball tells of scientists both legendary and lesser known, from Copernicus and Kepler to Robert Boyle, as well as the inventions and technologies that were inspired by curiosity itself, such as the telescope and the microscope. The so-called Scientific Revolution is often told as a story of great geniuses illuminating the world with flashes of inspiration. But Curiosity reveals a more complex story, in which the liberation—and subsequent taming—of curiosity was linked to magic, religion, literature, travel, trade, and empire. Ball also asks what has become of curiosity today: how it functions in science, how it is spun and packaged for consumption, how well it is being sustained, and how the changing shape of science influences the kinds of questions it may continue to ask.
Though proverbial wisdom tell us that it was through curiosity that our innocence was lost, that has not deterred us. Instead, it has been completely the contrary: today we spend vast sums trying to reconstruct the first instants of creation in particle accelerators, out of a pure desire to know. Ball refuses to let us take this desire for granted, and this book is a perfect homage to such an inquisitive attitude.
Two summers ago, scientists removed a tiny piece of flesh from Philip Ball’s arm and turned it into a rudimentary “mini-brain.” The skin cells, removed from his body, did not die but were instead transformed into nerve cells that independently arranged themselves into a dense network and communicated with each other, exchanging the raw signals of thought. This was life—but whose?
In his most mind-bending book yet, Ball makes that disconcerting question the focus of a tour through what scientists can now do in cell biology and tissue culture. He shows how these technologies could lead to tailor-made replacement organs for when ours fail, to new medical advances for repairing damage and assisting conception, and to new ways of “growing a human.” For example, it might prove possible to turn skin cells not into neurons but into eggs and sperm, or even to turn oneself into the constituent cells of embryos. Such methods would also create new options for gene editing, with all the attendant moral dilemmas. Ball argues that such advances can therefore never be about “just the science,” because they come already surrounded by a host of social narratives, preconceptions, and prejudices. But beyond even that, these developments raise questions about identity and self, birth and death, and force us to ask how mutable the human body really is—and what forms it might take in years to come.
If offered the chance—by cloak, spell, or superpower—to be invisible, who wouldn’t want to give it a try? We are drawn to the idea of stealthy voyeurism and the ability to conceal our own acts, but as desirable as it may seem, invisibility is also dangerous. It is not just an optical phenomenon, but a condition full of ethical questions. As esteemed science writer Philip Ball reveals in this book, the story of invisibility is not so much a matter of how it might be achieved but of why we want it and what we would do with it.
In this lively look at a timeless idea, Ball provides the first comprehensive history of our fascination with the unseen. This sweeping narrative moves from medieval spell books to the latest nanotechnology, from fairy tales to telecommunications, from camouflage to ghosts to the dawn of nuclear physics and the discovery of dark energy. Along the way, Invisible tells little-known stories about medieval priests who blamed their misdeeds on spirits; the Cock Lane ghost, which intrigued both Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens; the attempts by Victorian scientist William Crookes to detect forces using tiny windmills; novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s belief that he was unseen when in his dressing gown; and military efforts to enlist magicians to hide tanks and ships during WWII. Bringing in such voices as Plato and Shakespeare, Ball provides not only a scientific history but a cultural one—showing how our simultaneous desire for and suspicion of the invisible has fueled invention and the imagination for centuries.
In this unusual and clever book, Ball shows that our fantasies about being unseen—and seeing the unseen—reveal surprising truths about who we are.
Though at first glance the natural world may appear overwhelming in its diversity and complexity, there are regularities running through it, from the hexagons of a honeycomb to the spirals of a seashell and the branching veins of a leaf. Revealing the order at the foundation of the seemingly chaotic natural world, Patterns in Nature explores not only the math and science but also the beauty and artistry behind nature’s awe-inspiring designs.
Unlike the patterns we create in technology, architecture, and art, natural patterns are formed spontaneously from the forces that act in the physical world. Very often the same types of pattern and form – spirals, stripes, branches, and fractals, say—recur in places that seem to have nothing in common, as when the markings of a zebra mimic the ripples in windblown sand. That’s because, as Patterns in Nature shows, at the most basic level these patterns can often be described using the same mathematical and physical principles: there is a surprising underlying unity in the kaleidoscope of the natural world. Richly illustrated with 250 color photographs and anchored by accessible and insightful chapters by esteemed science writer Philip Ball, Patterns in Nature reveals the organization at work in vast and ancient forests, powerful rivers, massing clouds, and coastlines carved out by the sea.
By exploring similarities such as those between a snail shell and the swirling stars of a galaxy, or the branches of a tree and those of a river network, this spectacular visual tour conveys the wonder, beauty, and richness of natural pattern formation.
After World War II, most scientists in Germany maintained that they had been apolitical or actively resisted the Nazi regime, but the true story is much more complicated. In Serving the Reich, Philip Ball takes a fresh look at that controversial history, contrasting the career of Peter Debye, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin, with those of two other leading physicists in Germany during the Third Reich: Max Planck, the elder statesman of physics after whom Germany’s premier scientific society is now named, and Werner Heisenberg, who succeeded Debye as director of the institute when it became focused on the development of nuclear power and weapons.
Mixing history, science, and biography, Ball’s gripping exploration of the lives of scientists under Nazism offers a powerful portrait of moral choice and personal responsibility, as scientists navigated “the grey zone between complicity and resistance.” Ball’s account of the different choices these three men and their colleagues made shows how there can be no clear-cut answers or judgement of their conduct. Yet, despite these ambiguities, Ball makes it undeniable that the German scientific establishment as a whole mounted no serious resistance to the Nazis, and in many ways acted as a willing instrument of the state.
Serving the Reich considers what this problematic history can tell us about the relationship of science and politics today. Ultimately, Ball argues, a determination to present science as an abstract inquiry into nature that is “above politics” can leave science and scientists dangerously compromised and vulnerable to political manipulation.
From the Yangtze to the Yellow River, China is traversed by great waterways, which have defined its politics and ways of life for centuries. Water has been so integral to China’s culture, economy, and growth and development that it provides a window on the whole sweep of Chinese history. In The Water Kingdom, renowned writer Philip Ball opens that window to offer an epic and powerful new way of thinking about Chinese civilization.
Water, Ball shows, is a key that unlocks much of Chinese culture. In The Water Kingdom, he takes us on a grand journey through China’s past and present, showing how the complexity and energy of the country and its history repeatedly come back to the challenges, opportunities, and inspiration provided by the waterways. Drawing on stories from travelers and explorers, poets and painters, bureaucrats and activists, all of whom have been influenced by an environment shaped and permeated by water, Ball explores how the ubiquitous relationship of the Chinese people to water has made it an enduring metaphor for philosophical thought and artistic expression. From the Han emperors to Mao, the ability to manage the waters ― to provide irrigation and defend against floods ― was a barometer of political legitimacy, often resulting in engineering works on a gigantic scale. It is a struggle that continues today, as the strain of economic growth on water resources may be the greatest threat to China’s future.
The Water Kingdom offers an unusual and fascinating history, uncovering just how much of China’s art, politics, and outlook have been defined by the links between humanity and nature.