June 5, 2020

Review: The Atom & the Apple by Sébastien Balibar.

Science is frequently taught as a set of axioms and tables free of mystery. The course has been charted, everything worth knowing has been known. But shouldn’t we teach the unknown as well? How do we know what we know? Recently, an enlightening book entitled The Atom & the Apple published by Princeton Press arrived on our doorstep. Like Sagan and Clarke, its author once again injects the wonder back in science.

Author Sébastien Balibar is a first rate physicist on the front lines, and the twelve tales he weaves within paint a picture of the excitement and the overall state of modern physics. His specialty is research into the weird properties of Helium at extremely low temperatures, and his European perspective gives the book a refreshing flair.

Each chapter is a morsel of modern science meant to spark the excitement of modern discovery. Insights come from astronomy, mathematics and geometry, and of course, the wacky world of quantum physics.

In the first chapter, “Dark Night,” the author tackles a basic question most of us take for granted; why is it dark at night? This was first posed as Olbers’ paradox in 1823; if both the universe and the number of stars it contains are truly infinite, why don’t we see an equally dazzling sky? Ironically, it was none other than Edgar Allan Poe (of horror fiction fame!) that first proposed the correct answer! Via this simple night time observation that anyone can do tonight (weather willing!), you can prove to your friends (or who ever might brave the cold with you) one of the simple tenets of cosmology; our view of the universe we live in is bounded and finite.  The author also regales us with some of his childhood feats of amateur astronomy, which of course endears him to us here at Astroguyz…

Farther along, the author reveals that we are all, in fact, mildly radioactive. Through the drama of events such as Chernobyl, he shows that much of the radioactive hysteria is unfounded, as it is impossible to avoid radioactivity in our environment. And just what is “Becquerel” anyway? How much radiation is too much? Read and find out.

If it seems that the element helium pops up an inordinate amount in the book (one chapter, “God, Helium, and Universality” is devoted largely to it), it’s because the author has devoted much of his life researching this unique element at extremely low temperatures. Do you know that helium crystals actually increase their number of facets as they approach absolute zero? Or that the familiar gas that we all know and inhale to talk like Donald Duck loses all viscosity at the same temperatures?   All very weird stuff…

Among other highlights the author tackles is the Fibonacci sequence, which seems to continually pop up in nature, from spiral galaxies to acorns to seashells. This ratio starts with 1+1=2, and is simply the sum of the two previous sums, so that 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8, ad infinitum. God must truly be a mathematician…

The TV Show Num3ers on the Fibonacci Sequence.

Finally, in the chapter “From Pianos to the Sun,” the author tackles the burgeoning global energy dilemma in a very engaging fashion. Is fusion viable? Is it possible to continue to expand as a technical civilization and still consume the level of energy that we’re accustomed to? And how does one calculate the number of piano tuners in the Chicago area? These kinds of thought experiments are fun to try, and illustrate a fresh, scientific approach to old problems.

I found the Atom & the Apple a very fascinating look at the wonders of modern science. It’s a good lawn chair afternoon read and a snapshot of where we’re at, and where we might be heading. Consider it a sampler of some of the mysteries that are at the forefront of the author’s mind. I could add my own, but that could tip my hand for any forthcoming books or blog ideas! Mysteries abound in this world, and discoveries are coming at a fast and furious rate, not all (or many) of which tend to make front (web) page news. From dark energy, to the higgs-boson, to a much sought after Grand Unified Theory (GUT) of everything, the battle is on for who will be Nobel’s next top science geek. Will we have an answer to life, the universe, and everything that will fit onto an XL t-shirt in our lifetimes? Perhaps the next junior Einstein is surfing the Web (and hopefully not too enthralled with EBay) as we type these words…


  1. [...] Olbers sounds familiar, it’s because he also lent it to the paradox that now bears his name. Obler’s paradox was one of the first true questions in cosmology posed in a scientific framework that asked: if [...]

  2. [...] name Olbers sounds familiar, it’s because he also lent it to the paradox that now bears his name. Obler’s paradox was one of the first true questions in cosmology posed in a scientific framework that asked: if the [...]

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