By Paul Callaghan and Kim Hill
Penguin, $NZ29.95 | Reviewed by Amy Brown

I WAS SORRY to miss many of the conversations on National Radio between Kim Hill and Paul Callaghan about “science, life and the universe”. The snippets I did manage to tune in for, I don’t think I properly absorbed; it’s not easy to do Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle justice while driving to the supermarket. Luckily, the transcripts of these fascinating discussions have now been edited into a book, fittingly illustrated by Dylan Horrocks, which one can dip into at leisure.

The way that As Far As We Know imparts information is leisurely. Hill plays the role of an intelligent, inquisitive novice, who has done her homework, well. Callaghan, the Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria University, is equally good as the patient expert. Between them, daunting subjects such as “Nanotechnology” or “What is life?” or “Quantum Mechanics” are clearly and entertainingly explained. From the lack of footnotes to the inclusion (parenthesised) of Hill’s dog barking an interjection, this is certainly not a text book. When I turned the last page and found the book’s index and generous bibliography, I was reminded of how much I’d learnt, almost inadvertently (which really is the most pleasant way of learning) and felt equipped to continue delving into the phenomena to which I’d just been introduced.

As a disclaimer, my scientific knowledge is meagre. Readers who can define entropy without frowning and biting their lips are likely to approach this book with less ignorant wonder than I did. This isn’t to say that someone with a solid understanding of the key ideas of science wouldn’t get pleasure from these conversations. Hill’s and Callaghan’s jovial relationship and their application of scientific theories such as thermodynamics or memes to everyday life are engaging regardless, I think, of whether the facts they are sharing are new to the reader or not. And, as this book is about the importance of questioning as much as about providing answers, readers are reminded that scientific knowledge can never be complete, only as thorough as the context allows.

When Lavinia Greenlaw, an English poet from a family of doctors, whose work has been described as having a scientific leaning, spoke at a Writers on Monday event a few weeks ago at the City Gallery in Wellington, she mentioned not being able to reconcile the science she was taught at school with the scientific theories that interested her at home. The former being dry and divorced from reality, the latter fascinating and relevant. I could say the same thing, comparing my high school science classes to As Far As We Know. I don’t know if it’s just me, or my generation as a whole who have large gaps in their knowledge of how the world works. In the Foreword, Professor Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society of London, writes “the rising sophistication of everyday technology is actually a barrier Inquisitive children in the mid 20th century could dismantle a clock, radio set, or motorbike, figure out how it worked – and even put it back together again… It’s quite different with the marvellous artifacts that pervade our lives today – mobile phones, iPods, and the rest. It’s hard to take them to bits. If you do, you’ll find few clues to their arcane miniaturised mechanisms. They’re baffling ‘black boxes’ – pure magic to most people.”

As Far As We Know encourages readers to investigate this “magic” rather than take it for granted, and makes a good companion for Are Angels Okay?, a collection of collaborations between New Zealand writers and physicists, edited by Callaghan and Bill Manhire. Callaghan, recipient of the Rutherford Medal in 2005, is rapidly becoming, due to his knowledge and lucidity, New Zealand’s pre-eminent public scientist; I look forward to seeing the next step in his promotion of science to the laymen.

See also:
» Are Angels OK?: The Parallel Universes of New Zealand Writers and Scientists