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Categories—On the Beauty of Physics: Essential Physics Concepts and Their Companions in Art & Literature

By Emiliano Sefusatti, John Morse, and Hilary Thayer Hamann

A few months ago, I attended a publishing seminar conducted by an editor from Norton. She earned the ire of the nonfiction hopefuls in the room with this statement: “Don’t tell me your book will be of interest to everyone.” She cautioned, “I can’t market a book to ‘everyone.’ Saying it’s for everyone is the same as saying it’s for no one.”

Her words came back to me as I read the publisher’s foreword in Categories—On the Beauty of Physics, which promises that it is the first of a series ofvolumes designed to “inspire early learners,” “inspire late learners,” “improve the academic performance of students,” “improve the quality of family life,” “improve the quality of the academic experience for American students,” and “foster an atmosphere of intelligent play.”

At first glance, Categories seems as if it might just live up to its many lofty objectives. It’s a lovely little volume with custom-printed end papers, a genuine sewn binding, and matte-coated stock upon which original, commissioned illustrations as well as masterpieces of mostly Western art are beautifully and carefully reproduced—all in the service of a greater understanding of 39 topics in physics. Each five-page chapter contains recommendations for further reading, a brief literary passage or two meant to shed light on the relevant principle, a brief biography of the author of the literary passage, a brief biography of the painter whose work is included, a dictionary definition of the principle in question, and, when appropriate, some mathematics—which the authors admit is not meant to be understood by the average reader.

What there isn’t, however, is a lot of physics. Unlike most recent pop physics books, Categories for the most part avoids blowing minds. There is no talk of wormholes, superstring, alternative universes, Big Bangs, or the plausibility of time travel. The text focuses instead on the backstories of the everyday phenomena that seem intuitive because we’re used to them—things like gravity, friction, torque, and rotation. Pulling the curtain back on the mundane promises to expose some everyday magic, but all the art and lit meant to tease meaning out of each chapter’s nugget of physics like the commentaries in the Talmud come off more like the frosting on a Safeway cupcake—a too-thick layer of sickly sweet sugar.

For one thing, it’s hard to build a sense of wonder when the nuggets of science are neutrino-sized. The topics were chosen not by the physicist on the editorial team but by the book’s editor/co-author, Hilary Thayer Hamann, whose degree is in cinema studies. Her interest in movement and light come up repeatedly as too-subtle distinctions are fleshed out in, say, separate chapters on “light,” “color,” and “image.” In one chapter, a block is being pushed; in another, it’s shopping carts or pool balls. More comprehensive chapters on optics or motion would have made more sense.

The “Read About It” section—not to mention the art selections—trend to the obvious: Check out Carl Sagan for more on astronomy! Seurat’s pointillism is just like particles! But they’re still preferable to each chapter’s “Talk About It” section, in which Hamann reveals her true literary calling—to write for the “meditations” racks of Christian contemporary bookstores. From the chapter on friction (the ellipses are Hamann’s):

Imagine a personal dilemma as a type of friction … Consider the problem of choice … Is it ever possible to know exactly “what to do”? … What is free will and how do we use or abuse it? … […] how do we separate sound advice from manipulation?

“How?” indeed. The sound advice here is to look up real science writers—Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Edmund Blair Bolles, Matt Ridley—who don’t assume that science is dry and dull without the glister of art and literature. In contrast to the truly wonder-inspiring works of these authors, Categories is the pop-science equivalent of a bloated Broadway musical: too many dancers, too much music, too much stagecraft covering up a vanishing plot and weak dialogue. It’s truly a book for no one. —Jandos Rothstein