»  The American Spectator

May 2013

  The Vast and the Tiny

The Milky Way: An Insider's Guide
        by William H. Waller
A Palette of Particles
        by Jeremy Bernstein

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The British philosopher J.L. Austin coined the handy phrase "medium-sized dry goods" to describe the world of everyday phenomena that the human nervous system is best suited to cope with, phenomena ranging in size from a grain of dust to a landscape. Within that range our senses and cognition are at home. All our intuitions about how objects move, change, and interact arise from our dealings with "medium-sized dry goods."

Much beyond that size range in either direction our senses and understanding are at sea. How we can say anything at all — anything coherent, with predictive power and technological application — about the invisible constituents of matter, or about the universe at large, is a considerable mystery. We certainly can say such things: the device I am using to write this review would not exist if we did not know true facts about the atom and its parts. The only language we have for expressing those true facts, however, is the language of mathematics: a tower of abstractions of abstractions of abstractions, in which everyday intuitions recede in a fog of wave-particle duality and twisted spacetime.

To master that language takes years of specialized training, but citizens who have taken different paths through life, or youngsters wondering whether to take that path, are naturally curious to understand as much as they can of what the specialists know. For those purposes we have popularizers of the physical sciences — heroes of our intellectual culture, in my opinion, though of course sometimes more, sometimes less skillful in the presentation of their material.

Here are two such, working at opposite ends of the size zone, one with the vast, one with the tiny. Both deliver very satisfactory products, although with differences of style and approach.

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[Read the entire review in the May 2013 issue of The American Spectator.]