Having just read this fine book, closely preceded by the equally excellent Frontiers of Astronomy
, I'm beginning to feel that the 40s and 50s were not just the Golden Age of science-fiction; they may also have been the Golden Age of popular science writing, a genre which certainly is not unconnected to SF. I have read a fair number of pop science books over the last year, and most of the modern ones are miserably unsatisfying. They are stylistically weak, the authors alternate between patronising you and boring you with anecdotes from their dull lives, and above all the science isn't well done: they can't find good ways to explain abstract concepts in familiar terms, and they fail to distinguish between fact and speculation. A particularly egregious offender is Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape
, which I read a couple of weeks ago; other typical examples are Hawking (The Grand Design
), Guth (The Inflationary Universe
) and Krauss (A Universe from Nothing
Compared with these dull, pompous fantasists, George Gamow is a breath of fresh air. Despite not even being a native speaker of English, he writes better than any of them. He doesn't clutter up the narrative with stories about his personal life, and it's not exactly because he's short of material: he lived through the Russian Revolution and once tried to escape from the Soviet Union in a small boat. And I was impressed to see how many things he got right. He was one of the first people to see that the Big Bang made sense (he made large contributions to the theory), and he explains it well in the final chapter. He comes close to predicting DNA. He does a nice job of covering Relativity in semi-technical terms. And he's got lots of really pretty, original angles on all sorts of scientific and mathematical problems: visualizing the strength of the strong force, seeing the role neutrinos play in causing supernovae, getting an intuitive understanding of what a hypersphere is like.
More than 60 years after its initial publication, this is still a fun read, even if some parts have inevitably been overtaken by more recent discoveries. Check it out and see what pop science ought
to be like!