The Ascent of Gravity: The Quest to Understand the Force that Explains Everything by Marcus Chown

The Ascent of Gravity: The Quest to Understand the Force that Explains Everything

Gravity is the weakest force in the everyday world yet it is the strongest force in the universe. It was the first force to be recognized and described yet it is the least understood. It is a "force" that keeps your feet on the ground yet no such force actually exists.Gravity, to steal the words of Winston Churchill, is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." A...

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The Ascent of Gravity: The Quest to Understand the Force that Explains Everything Reviews

  • Brian Clegg

    Marcus Chown is one of the UK's best writers on physics and astronomy - it's excellent to see him back on what he does best. Here we discover our gradual approach to understanding the nature of gravity - the 'ascent' of the title - which, though perhaps slightly overblown in the words 'the force that explains everything' (quantum physics does quite a lot too, for example), certainly makes us aware of the importance of this weakest of fundamental forces. Chown's approach to gravity is a game of t

    Marcus Chown is one of the UK's best writers on physics and astronomy - it's excellent to see him back on what he does best. Here we discover our gradual approach to understanding the nature of gravity - the 'ascent' of the title - which, though perhaps slightly overblown in the words 'the force that explains everything' (quantum physics does quite a lot too, for example), certainly makes us aware of the importance of this weakest of fundamental forces. Chown's approach to gravity is a game of three halves, as they say, broadly covering Newton, Einstein and where we go from general relativity.

    As far as the first two sections go, with the exception of the 2015 gravitational waves detection, there's not much that's actually new - if you want a popular science exploration of these aspects of the topic with more depth there are good alternatives - but no one has covered the topic with such a light touch and joie de vivre as Chown.

    Although Chown doesn't give us too much character detail on his two key figures, we get good mental sketches of them, enough to get a feel for what kind of personality produced the remarkable work that each was responsible for. There has been a lot written of late criticising science writers for putting too much focus on the 'heroic lone individual' in the history of science. And we certainly get a full power portrayal of this pair as solitary geniuses. But though you can quibble about how original calculus was or whether Einstein should have given more credit to others in his work on special relativity, it's hard to imagine two people in the history of science who more deserve this treatment - and it is far and above the best approach for the kind of storytelling that Chown excels at.

    The third section has its highs and lows. It gives what I think is the best introduction to string theory at this basic descriptive level I've ever seen, going considerably beyond the basics of vibrating strings and rolled up dimensions. However, I was rather surprised at the total dismissal of string theory's main rival, loop quantum gravity, which literally only appears in an end note. In one sense this was refreshing. I had read so much pointing out the flaws in string theory and how it arguably wasn't even science because of its inability to make useful predictions that I had pretty much mentally dismissed it. It seemed very reasonable that the only thing that kept it alive was the large number of careers that had been dedicated to it. Chown, however, gives it a spirited defence which, while not necessarily clinching, certainly made it possible to understand why so many physicists found it attractive.

    Overall, then, a very readable exploration of humanity's gradual realisation of what gravity was about with all of Chown's usual sparkle. It would have been good if we had seen a little more of the points where things aren't set in stone - for example the alternatives to dark matter or that elusive loop quantum gravity - but what we get is a delight.

  • Kerry Slade

    Great book very intresting

  • Lawrence

    Might be interesting for someone more of a novice in physics, but for me NBD.

  • Sam

    From Newton to Einstein to the present theories of cosmology. Chown takes us through a universe which shows itself to be a dichotomy of truths. Everyone knows that gravity is an attractive force..right? Well it appears that it also has a dark side which is helping the universe to expand and which may lead to a deeper theory of the universe. This is a great book for those like me who looked into space (pun intended) with glazed eyes in physics. For the first time i was engaged reading this book.

    From Newton to Einstein to the present theories of cosmology. Chown takes us through a universe which shows itself to be a dichotomy of truths. Everyone knows that gravity is an attractive force..right? Well it appears that it also has a dark side which is helping the universe to expand and which may lead to a deeper theory of the universe. This is a great book for those like me who looked into space (pun intended) with glazed eyes in physics. For the first time i was engaged reading this book. It's enjoyable, informative and at times witty.

  • Sara

    Very accessible science history. Chapters are nicely organized in 3 Sections: Newton, Einstein and Beyond Einstein.

  • Liuhh

    Some concepts required further reading, but otherwise, this is a splendid book that presents a perceptive view into what gravity really is. Highly recommended to anyone who is curious about the major developments and seeking basic explanations regarding this topic - from Newton to Einstein to the development of Quantum Mechanics, the language is easy to grasp and scientific jargon is explained clearly when used.

  • Rachel Parrott

    Review to come

  • Douglas Lord

    Growing up in rural Connecticut presented some difficulties, namely, finding anything to do. Reading proved a dependable pastime and mostly I scrounged through whatever books were left laying around by my six older siblings.

    , comic books,

    , and lots of

    ’s science titles. Like Asimov’s books, Chown’s title is wild—informative, intelligent, and blessedly clear. It does for gravity what Robert Penn did for wood in

    Growing up in rural Connecticut presented some difficulties, namely, finding anything to do. Reading proved a dependable pastime and mostly I scrounged through whatever books were left laying around by my six older siblings.

    , comic books,

    , and lots of

    ’s science titles. Like Asimov’s books, Chown’s title is wild—informative, intelligent, and blessedly clear. It does for gravity what Robert Penn did for wood in

    : a lot. Topically Chown covers the remarkable work of Newton, Einstein, and those “Beyond Einstein” in an engaging conversational and readable manner with an eye to explain that gravity, for as weak a force as it is, still governs everything. Along the way, the bucket of awesome overfilleth with mind-blowing explanations of dope-ass gravity-related stuff, such as that Newton invented integral calculus so that he could explain what was going on inside his head about the universe, that Einstein figured out that “the Sun creates a valley on space-time in its vicinity around which the Earth circles like a planet-sized roulette ball,” and Planet Nine, the recently discovered object ten times the mass of Earth that orbits the sun about every 15,000 years.

    For general readers, not true gravity nerds, who enjoy a good read.

    Find reviews of books for men at Books for Dudes,

    , the online reader's advisory column for men from Library Journal. Copyright Library Journal.

  • John Kaye

    Not the first time I've read through to the end of a Marcus Chown and realised that, though there are some good stories and some nice linking of events and people, I'm not much better educated about the subject matter than when I started. Perhaps I should stop reading the author!

  • Dan Graser

    Gravity is one of those concepts everyone thinks they understand, only occasionally discovering that their notions of gravity are identical to those held in the time of Newton. Curiously enough, just as in every other area of scientific inquiry, there have been significant new discoveries and developments in our understanding of this force on huge and infinitesimally small scales.

    Where this book succeeds is in providing the curious reader with a context to understand the current ways gravity is

    Gravity is one of those concepts everyone thinks they understand, only occasionally discovering that their notions of gravity are identical to those held in the time of Newton. Curiously enough, just as in every other area of scientific inquiry, there have been significant new discoveries and developments in our understanding of this force on huge and infinitesimally small scales.

    Where this book succeeds is in providing the curious reader with a context to understand the current ways gravity is being studied. Beginning the the journey with Newton, venturing through Maxwell and Einstein and up to early developments of string theory, Chown writes very accessibly and vividly on the history of this study. Perhaps the primary disappointment is that there is little in the way of contemporary accounts of quantum gravity. He does a remarkable job setting the stage but once we get to the past couple decades the book ends abruptly which is a bit disappointing.

    However if this is a topic you're interested in and haven't thought about much beyond the very earliest theories then Marcus Chown has written a very eloquent introduction here.

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