By Stephen Blundell; Oxford University Press, 2009; 144 pp.; US $11.95; ISBN 978-0-19-954090-7
If the coffee-table book had an opposite, it might be one of the Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions series. Only 17 centimeters tall, these diminutive tomes may go completely unnoticed by visitors you want to impress with your familiarity with Nash equilibria and 11-dimensional string theory.
There are 200 in the series now, but the first one I read was Superconductivity: A Very Short Introduction, and I found it surprisingly satisfying. University of Oxford physics professor Stephen Blundell has a knack for rounding out, with surprising depth and clarity and yet a refreshing economy of words, concepts that you didn’t know you didn’t know. His simple and elegant explanations, pithy and accessible, make the book a pleasure.
But there’s an extra treat: delightfully humanizing gossip about legendary scientists who’ve become as impersonal as the devices and laws to which their names are attached: van der Waals, Kirchhoff, Cailletet. At times the book reads like a spectacularly nerdy issue of Us Weekly. Even the godlike Faraday is found engaged in Real-Housewives-of-Heidelberg-style petty catfights and intrigues. I can’t recommend this book enough!