Book Review: “We Need to Talk About Kelvin” by Marcus Chown

February 8, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

[To read my eye-opening Q&A with the author please click here]

When I was a baby, the first ‘thing’ I wanted to be when I grew up was a scientist.  I think Return of the Jedi had just come out or something and whatever cartoons that were on TV had cool space stuff.

Sadly, that dream was obliterated when I commenced science in the 7th grade.  It was just soooo boring and soooo bloody difficult to understand.  Much of the fault has to go to my science teachers (Dr Mario, Fat Cow and The Pirate), who just couldn’t explain anything without putting me to sleep or giving me a headache.  This culminated in a sad incident where my friend and I traced rays of light on the workbench (as opposed to our workbooks) during an optics experiment and were sentenced to a long stint facing the corners of the classroom.  Fat Cow had called us “idiots”, and she was right.  But it was still her fault for making us zone out and chat rather than listen to the experiment instructions.

So what does any of this have to do with the new book We Need to Talk About Kelvin by award-winning author Marcus Chown?  Well, if I had read this book when I was in school or had Chown as my science teacher, maybe I wouldn’t have dropped out of science the first chance I got.

We Need to Talk About Kelvin is Chown’s valiant attempt to teach us science stuff in a way that normal people can understand, and more importantly, find interesting.  More specifically, the book is about what seemingly mundane, everyday things tell us about the nature of the universe and reality as we know it.

(To read on, click on ‘more…)

For example, did you know that the reflection of your face in a window tells you that the universe at its deepest level is orchestrated by chance?  Or that the iron in a spot of blood tells you that out in space there must be a furnace at a temperature of 4.5 billion degrees?  Or that the static on a badly turned TV screen tells you that the universe had a beginning?

Didn’t think so.

But thankfully, Marcus Chown does, and he gives you the answer to these fascinating questions without making your brain hurt (well, not a lot, anyway).  This is because Chown uses casual, everyday language to describe some of the most complex things known to man.  He uses apt analogies involving things normal people can understand.  He gives you the relevant background, history and development of complicated theories.  He even throws in the occasional joke or pop culture reference.

Consequently, We Need to Talk About Kelvin is fun to read.  Don’t get me wrong, the science stuff is still really hard to understand, but Chown has done his best to mitigate the damage and keep things interesting.  There’s just not many simpler ways to explain some of this stuff, that’s all.  So don’t think this is the type of book you can casually skim and become a guru of all the mysteries of the universe so you can show off at parties or pick up nerdy babes at sci-fi expos.  You’ll still need to read it carefully, think about it, and digest it.  But if you do, just imagine how much more impressive you’ll be in a conversation!

I’d be lying if I said I understood every little thing in We Need to Talk About Kelvin, but I feel like I know so much more about the world and our existence in it having read the book.  I was astounded by our vast knowledge of the universe, but even more amazed by how much more we don’t know about it.

There were some things before that I just didn’t bother even trying to learn because I thought it was too much trouble.  Now I not only know these things, I could probably explain it ten times better than Fat Cow (and a hundred times better than The Pirate, Ar!).

[PS: By the way, this is not an anti-religion book in the vein of Richard Dawkins.  This is just about science and any conclusions will have to be drawn by the reader and the reader alone.]

[PPS: Thanks to Allen & Unwin for a copy of the book]