Review: We Have No Idea

4 stars
Incomplete answers to difficult physics questions, and puns - oh, so many puns

If you have a casual interest in physics, it can seem impossible to keep up with the field: what’s a boson and what does Higgs have to do with it? What are “gravitation waves”—indeed, what is gravity anyway? Is string theory still a credible contender as a “Theory of Everything”? Will the Large Hadron Collider destroy the world, and if not, what good is it?

Every year, many books make an attempt to summarize our current best understanding of key physics concepts to laypersons, either by avoiding the mathematics entirely or by focusing on some key equations. We Have No Idea stands out for two reasons:

  • As the title suggests, it makes an honest attempt to separate the known from the unknown, rather than advancing a given author’s preferred hypothesis for how the universe fits together.

  • The book is peppered with cartoons of pet ferrets planning a water balloon attack against their owner, of particle detectors surrounded by cows (“we’re looking for muuuuuons”), of the authors being embraced by the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s noodly appendages, … you get the idea.

Example illustration
Unlike this anthropomorphized galaxy, the book does not take itself too seriously.

The book is a collaboration between Jorge Cham, creator of PHDComics, and Daniel Whiteson, Professor of Experimental Particle Physics at the University of California, Irvine. Beside the illustrations, the writing is littered with puns, and almost all the footnotes are a vehicle for dad jokes. But at its heart, the book tackles very big questions, e.g.:

  • What is the universe made of?

  • What are dark matter and dark energy?

  • What are mass, gravity, space?

Throughout the book, the authors keep making the same point over and over again: there are a lot of unanswered questions, controversies, and mysteries that remain. This does in fact get a bit repetitive, but many explanations are lucid and helpful.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Particle physics is Whiteson’s specialty, and it’s especially here that the book shines. The book relates the familiar periodic table to various categorizations of more fundamental particles like quarks and leptons, and arranges them in tables, e.g.: how do different particles transmit force, and how do they react to it? The explanations of relativity are also good, and the cartoons are especially helpful here.

The book dedicates a final chapter to extraterrestrial intelligence (“Are we alone in the universe"?). This is, in my view, the most superfluous chapter: neither author is a biologist, and the brief discussion of the Drake equation does not really go beyond widely understood concepts that have already been covered very well in countless books, documentaries and YouTube videos.

In contrast, there’s not much here about “spooky action at a distance”, quantum teleportation, and some of the other challenging ideas in quantum physics. Nor do interesting “Theory of Everything” contenders like Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis get any attention.

The Verdict

For a general audience, I would give the book 4 out of 5 stars—some content is a bit too banal and there are some missed opportunities to tackle even weirder ideas and observations in physics, but many explanations and analogies are useful and entertaining.

The “punniness” may get on some readers’ nerves, but it does help to make the book a breezy read even at >350 pages. I would highly recommend the book as a gift for younger readers, as an introduction to how much and how little we know about our weird and wonderful universe.

Further Reading

On the book’s website, the authors have done an excellent job collecting additional helpful links about the book, so I’m taking the liberty of quoting them in full:

Read this excerpt on the PHD website, or this excerpt on Popular Science Magazine. Nautilus Magazine also published this excerpt about space, and BBC Sky at Night reviewed our book and interviewed Jorge (as did Chemistry World in their podcast and in print). Meanwhile, Nature interviewed Jorge and Daniel in their podcast, while Nature Physics gave the book an awesome review. Jorge illustrated over 26 reviews of the book from Amazon, and was interviewed by the NPR show Inquiry. Daniel was interviewed for NPR’s Here and Now. If you’d like to know how Jorge and Daniel started working together, Physics World published the oral history of our collaboration. We also made awesome video collaborations based on chapters of the book with Henry Reich of Minute Physics, Minute Earth, Hank Green’s SciShow Space and Dianna Cowern’s Physics Girl. Check out this great article on Symmetry Magazine about our book and this awesome editorial by Daniel on the need to teach the unknown. Listen to Daniel talk about the Universe on The Lopate Show or read this interview with Jorge and Daniel on Unbound Worlds. Check out this fun comic collaboration with SMBC’s Zach Weinersmith. And this one with David Malki’s Wondermark. Listen to Daniel introduce why we wrote the book on the PRH Audio website. And listen to this preview of the audiobook. Read Jorge’s letter announcing the book.