I will admit I am entirely convinced that I was drawn to this book because of the pretty cover, so kudos to the designer for grabbing my attention. When I realised it was a book by Brian Cox though, I was almost tempted to just keep walking past. That is not a reflection on him (or his co-writer), or on science as a discipline. It is entirely to do with the fact that trying to read another one of Prof Cox’s books was particularly painful.
I have always been interested in physics, and some years ago I tried to read ‘The Quantum Universe: Everything that can happen does happen’, by Prof Cox and Jeff Forshaw. I understood bits of it, but because I never studied maths beyond GCSE I found a lot of it incomprehensible and frustrating. I actually gave up trying to read the book, which isn’t something I’m particularly proud to admit, simply because I just felt too stupid. It was heartbreaking.
I know I’m not stupid though, but it is why I nearly walked past ‘Forces of Nature’. The cover though intrigued me enough to at least read the back. That is when I learned at least one section of this book is about ‘colours’. I am particularly fascinated by colour, hence my interest in the cover. While most of what I have read over the years comes from a historical and/or linguistic background, I am also interested in the scientific progress made in the area of optics. It was promising enough to get me to try another book by Prof Cox.
It is a decision I have not regretted. The book isn’t all about colour, there are four sections: Symmetry, Motion, Elements and Colours. I will admit that there are some equations in this book, but the subject of this book is about exploring the fundamental laws that form and govern our world, explored via the four themes. It is a great deal more approachable to someone coming from a non-scientific background to read.
And it is very much from a non-scientific background that I have to recommend this book, because I genuinely don’t know how much of the subject matter discussed is something that is common knowledge to people more engaged with science on an everyday basis than I am. It is interesting and engaging, and I learnt a great deal. You might not learn as much as I did from it, but if you are interested already you certainly won’t be bored.
I’ve been able to take away from the book several quite simple ideas that Prof Cox has managed to explain to me, namely the physics behind tidal forces and why the sky is actually blue. Knowing that, and being able to explain it to someone else has really boosted my self-esteem, because I know I’m not too stupid to understand it. I would argue that everyone can, if given the proper encouragement, which you get in bucket loads from Prof Cox.
Having this boost in confidence from this book has also made me wonder why I ended up having the reaction I did to ‘The Quantum Universe’. I will admit there might have been some underlying mental health issues I didn’t know I had at the time that wouldn’t have helped my opinion. I have unfortunately though come to a much more horrid conclusion; I had that reaction because I’m female, and I wasn’t encouraged in either science or maths at school.
In fact, my education practically killed my love of science and maths. I’ve even been able to remember the precise moment that I became completely demotivated by one of my teachers in science and had a flashback of the look of relief on a teacher’s face when I made the decision to not carry on studying maths (and advanced maths) at A-Level like I had been planning. An English teacher made a convincing bid for me to do English Language at A-level rather than chemistry; I naturally headed in the direction that was eager to have me learn with them.
And it is a shame, because I love science a great deal, however I’ve only been able to appreciate its benefits over the years, rather than be passionate about it like I had been a child. Years of doing it in school just ended up making it boring and the ‘it’s not for you dear’ attitude that I didn’t recognise at the time as blatant sexism, wouldn’t have helped. It would have made me think I just wasn’t good enough, which was likely as not the underlying factor that resulted in my harsh self-assessment of my intelligence.
I am going to have to try and read ‘The Quantum Universe’ again for one very simple reason; having read ‘The Forces of Nature’ I have re-discovered just how much I love science, and the book as given me back that passion. I don’t think I could ever thank Prof Cox or Andrew Cohen enough for that really.