Jim Al-Khalili’s simple guide to science

Robert P Crease reviews The Joy of Science by Jim Al-Khalili


Cartoon rainbow
Simply does it To a scientist like Jim Al-Khalili, a rainbow is more than a pretty arc of colour. (Courtesy: iStock/colematt)

If you’re looking for a bed-time story to inspire your child, The Joy of Science is it. Written by the physicist, author and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili from the University of Surrey in the UK, the book is an uplifting fairy tale of how science can help us pierce through the veil of ignorance and discover “how the world really is”. A rainbow, for instance, is “so much more than a pretty arc of colour” but angles of reflection and refraction.

The good news, says the author, is that while we humans often deceive ourselves with prejudices and biases, “thinking scientifically is in our DNA”. What’s more, he continues, knowing what the world really is like does not just illuminate us; it also benefits humanity too – just contrast humanity’s response to the Black Death in the 14th century with our response to COVID-19.

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The book’s make-believe account of “the scientific method” paints it as all but fool-proof thanks to its reliance on evidence and testability. The book does not want to get into all the contortions that would be required to explain familiar but inconvenient cases such as the development of Yang–Mills theory – pronounced experimentally disconfirmed at the outset – and most of the steps that led to the concept of the Higgs boson and its discovery.

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The Joy of Science is not really a book for children, but has that tone. It presents science as the basic process through which we can come to know a “superior” and more real world than the one we experience in the here and now. If this book inspires people to look at the rainbow not for its rich palette of colours but for angles of reflection and refraction, it will have succeeded.

  •  2022 Princeton University Press 224pp £12.99/$16.95hb
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