Book Review: ‘Infinity In The Palm Of Your Hand: Fifty Wonders That Reveal An Extraordinary Universe’ By Marcus Chown


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Today I would share my views on the book Infinity In The Palm Of Your Hand by Marcus Chown. This is the first popular science book that I am reviewing on this blog and the second book by Marcus Chown that I have read. I got acquainted with Marcus Chown through his book We Need To Talk About Kelvin, which explained the scientific concepts behind everyday events and processes that we take for granted. I was so impressed with that book that when Infinity In The Palm Of Your Hand was offered to me for review, I grabbed it with both hands.

OK. Without wasting any more time, let’s go straight to the review. The first strong point of the book is its scope. This is a risky and bold step as no scientist can claim to have a thorough and deep understanding of all streams of science. Besides, communicating about any subject in science requires complete understanding of the subject so as not to misguide the readers or audience. But Chown has attempted just that, and I can say that he is fairly successful. I can testify to that, because in spite of being a physicist, I was able to understand nearly all the content on life sciences. So, I do not see any reason why any layperson would not understand or appreciate all the content of this book.

The second strong point of this book is its plan. Chown has organized his book very logically — life sciences, geology, physics and cosmology, and so on. There is no jumping back and forth; the content is organized in such a way that the flow is natural, and in case need arises, Chown is able to refer to content presented earlier in the book.

Third, the language is easy, simple and very interesting. There are sentences scattered throughout the book, and especially in the last paragraph of every chapter, which would make you feel surprised, sad, happy or contemplative. Such sentences, whenever given, are an added bonus, real gems, and demonstrate Chown’s genuine love for science communication. Consider the following example:

However, there is a twist to the story. It turns out that up to 2 percent of the DNA of people living outside of Africa is Neanderthal. So, Neanderthals did not become entirely extinct: they interbred with humans. At this moment, they are walking among us.

The fourth and strongest point of the book is its editing and formatting. Chown has a perfect idea of length and knows when to stop talking. He ends the chapter before you get tired of heavy dose of information, or lose concentration, or simply get bored. He knows how long can he expect to hold a reader’s attention and certainly remains within his limits. But that does not make him sacrifice rigour or depth. He does present all the aspects of a subject, but only that much as you would require to acquaint yourself with the subject, instead of flooding your mind with concepts and theories. Every chapter starts with a one-liner which is aimed at arousing your curiosity and immediately sit upright in your chair. Some examples:

Babies are powered by rocket fuels.

You are born 100 percent human but die 50 percent alien.

This is followed by a celebrity quotation, not necessarily from a scientist, which is somewhat related to the subject to be discussed in that chapter. For example, he starts the discussion of why time moves forward with the following quotation:

Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold.— John Milton.

This is merely meant to bring a smile on your face so that you may start the chapter on a positive note. I could not understand some of these quotations, and simply ignored them, instead of scratching my head over them. Then he starts his discussion by picking up from the one-liner at the beginning of the chapter, explaining what he meant by that, presents basic background, and takes you to heights of scientific knowledge on that subject. The book is very fresh — it discusses and presents latest results, data and discoveries wherever applicable, so you can be sure that you are not merely re-reading the old school textbook stuff which mentioned “… was discovered in the year 1895 …”. Recent results from Lunar Reconnaissance Observer imaging of Lunokhod 1 landing site (2010), and study by National Institute of Standards and Technology (USA) on effect of gravity on time (2010) are presented and discussed. You would also find mention of LHC work on Higgs particle (2012), as also the Human Microbiome Project (2012), and the observation of cosmic rays and high-energy particles by Voyager 1 (2012).

One thing which is often ignored by popular science writers is references and citations. However, Chown has given ample footnotes and references wherever required. The ebook is carefully linked and there are no issues while moving between citation and reference. Finally, there are absolutely no typographical errors.

The only serious limitation and drawback of this book is a complete lack of figures and images. Page after page of text does strain the reader and unless you have patience, are fascinated by the science that is being discussed, are able to appreciate the beauty and charm of the written word, you may find the book tiring. Presenting a cartoon could have lightened the mood. There are several occasions such as interference, and Davisson-Germer experiment, when the need of images is really felt. If nothing else, the photographs of scientists whose work is being discussed could have given a personal touch to the text, and the reader could have felt a human connection with the book.

Recommendation to the reader — treat this book as your daily required dose of science. Make use of its careful formatting as mentioned earlier, and read one chapter each day, swallow and digest it first before moving ahead. Do not try to take in too much at once thereby cramming your mind with loads of unrelated information, though on several occasions you might be tempted to do precisely that. As the content is meant only to arouse your curiosity and instil love for science in you, and also to acquaint you with the thrilling world of science, you cannot expect it to be complete. Once Chown has introduced you to a particular concept and given you a good start, make every effort to expand your newly acquired knowledge. Read additional books on that subject, discuss with people working in that field or school or college students, tell your friends and family about what you have learnt, and surf the web, especially Wikipedia, for additional information. This book will certainly serve as a springboard for diving into the depths of scientific discoveries. Highly recommended!

Title: Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand: Fifty Wonders That Reveal an Extraordinary Universe
Author: Marcus Chown
Publisher: Diversion Books
Print Book Length: 224 pages
Price (Paperback): $11.59
Price (Kindle): $3.20
My rating: 4-star

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Infinity In The Palm Of Your Hand: Fifty Wonders That Reveal An Extraordinary Universe’ By Marcus Chown

  1. Mayank Arora

    Very thought-provoking review. I agree with you that “A picture is worth a thousand words” and many images should have been included in the book. On the contrary, reading text really lights up unused and unknown areas of our mind, and expands our imagination and visualization abilities. So, a harmonious balance between text and images is an ideal to strive for.

    1. Amit Misra Post author

      Images are used mostly in two ways. First, to illustrate or explain some concept, especially in sciences and arts, which could be difficult to accomplish using words alone. Secondly, they are used as aesthetic measure to enhance the visual appeal and charm of the work. Based on these factors, we can assess their role in different genres. For example, fiction nearly always encourages imagination, and there presenting figures or images would act contrary to the stated objective. In non-fiction works also, mostly figures are a distraction, unless they are essential for the discussion, e.g., historical maps, photographs, artworks. In all branches of science, they are absolutely essential because without them it becomes very difficult to follow the discussion. These could be in the form of experimental set up, plots, images of samples or devices. But in popular science books, like this one, their role is to add glamour and charm to the book, in addition to the aforementioned role as study aid. Few people carry interest in science, and even they get turned off by thick volumes of plain text. The objective of popular science books is to share the excitement and joy of science with general audience. But before that, those potential readers have to be drawn/attracted/persuaded to make the effort, and for that it becomes necessary to make the presentation glamorous and charming.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: ‘Your Brain, Explained: What Neuroscience Reveals About Your Brain and its Quirks’ By Marc Dingman | Pradyot

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