Against time, and beauty

Two enduring scientific ideas take a thumping

What are pop physics books for? I ask as somebody who has spent a fair amount of cash on them, but who is uncertain of his own motivations. Read enough of these volumes, and you cannot help absorbing some intuition about the twin Copernican leaps of the twentieth century: relativity (there are no absolute or privileged frames of reference), and quantum physics (at small scales, the world is inherently blurry and probabilistic). But relativity and quantum-ness are not information any ordinary person will be able to use, except as metaphors. Men were sent to the moon without anybody involved needing to know, at any point, that either relativity or quantum ­physics existed.

Ever since Stephen Hawking produced the unexpected blockbuster A Brief History of Time (1988), it has been accepted that these books are mostly for erudite display, even though being seen with one only proves one’s tourist status. This...