Long before we had committees, professors and and conferences on the public understanding of science, there were people getting on with it: Patrick Moore, Mortimer Wheeler, James Jeans, David Attenborough and others. One of the most fascinating was George Gamow, for the originality of his approach and for the toughness of the material that he dealt with. As well as being a populariser, Gamow was a physicist of distinction. His specialism was stellar evolution, the subject of a paper published in a learned journal by "Alpher, Bethe and Gamow".
These two volumes offer the contemporary reader a delightful choice: between experiencing the original version of Gamow's character Mr Tompkins anew or for the first time, or going for the updated version produced by Russell Stannard, professor of physics at the Open University and one of the modern generation of science popularisers.
Both books are written as voyages of discovery by Mr Tompkins, a bank clerk who persists in nodding off during explanations of advanced physics but whose dreams turn out to be more informative than the lectures. The professor giving the lectures, and his daughter Maud, who becomes Mrs Tompkins, are the other central characters.
The real pleasure of the books is in the Tompkins dream world. In the first chapter Tompkins visits a city where the velocity of light is massively lower than in our world. Here relativistic effects are an everyday expectation, not something people have to strain to imagine. Later, the quantum effect becomes visible, so that a car may leak through the garage wall and into the house, much as electrons can. And Mr Tompkins goes on a tiger hunt in which quantum tigers are hunted from a quantum elephant, though the quarry is spread so thin through space time that the chance of a hit is slight. (Stannard abolishes the hunt in deference to the green-minded.) Also dealt with in the original are topics such as the curvature of spacetime, the expansion of the universe, Maxwell's Demon (who takes Maud on a tour of the atomic world) and Dirac's ocean of particles. At the end of the book, Gamow puts the case for valuing science for its intellectual content alone. As the professor says, we do not value music because it allows buglers to waken soldiers in the morning;
in the same way, the fact that science has practical applications is not the main reason to support science.
The original Gamow essays first appeared in Discovery magazine, and in book form in 1940 and 1945, but readers brought up short by a reference to the Vietnam war should know that there was an update by Gamow in the 1960s.Stannard's 1999 rewrite must have called for some difficult decisions. Should Mr Tompkins be turned into a single-
parent web-page designer, prone to insights into superstring theory after overdoing the disco biscuits? Should Gamow's "gay tribe of electrons" be supplemented by humans of similar tastes? And what about the "girls" analysing particle images? Here, fortunately, the task has presumably been computerised.
Stannard gets round these issues by a minimalist approach that works well.Tompkins is still a bank clerk. But Maud's taste for mink no longer speaks its name, and she has turned from airhead to lapsed physicist now working as an experimental artist. More significant is the new material with which Stannard has had to cope. Quasars, the heat death of the universe, theories of everything and new properties such as strangeness appear. And it needs a touch as light as Gamow's: Gamow may have been the only science writer to have put equations into a piece without losing the bulk of his readers.
The real measure of Stannard is that the new material is covered comprehensibly and in a style that matches that of the original. Much as Tompkins visited quantum land in the Gamow version, he now takes a trip around the innards of the Cern particle accelerator running at full tilt. Indeed there are points, such as the explanation of Dirac's work, where Stannard is clearer than Gamow.
Which version to go for? I enjoyed the original, but too much has happened in the past 30 years of physics for it to be of much value today. Reviving an ancient character instead of inventing a new one is a risk, but in this case it has paid off.
Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES .
Mr Tompkins in Paperback
Author - George Gamow
ISBN - 0 521 44771 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £7.95
Pages - 186