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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  History of Science & Nature

Life is Simple How Occam's Razor Set Science Free And Unlocked the Universe

By: JohnJoe McFadden(Author)
384 pages
Publisher: Basic Books
Life is Simple
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  • Life is Simple ISBN: 9781529364958 Paperback Jul 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
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About this book

Life is Simple tells the remarkable story of how a thirteenth-century monk's search for simplicity led to the emergence of the modern world.

We begin in the turbulent times of the medieval friar, William of Occam, who first articulated the principle that the best answer to any problem is the simplest. This theory, known as Occam's razor, cut through the thickets of medieval metaphysics to clear a path for modern science. We follow the razor in the hands of the giants of science, from Copernicus to Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Rubin and Higgs. Its success suggests that we live in the simplest possible habitable universe and supports the revolutionary theory that our cosmos has evolved.

By highlighting the very human passion, curiosity, mistakes and struggles of those who were inspired by Occam's razor to create the modern world, Johnjoe McFadden provides new insight into what science is really about. And that the principle of simplicity is as relevant today as ever.

Customer Reviews


JohnJoe McFadden is a Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey. He has published over 100 academic journal articles and has written extensively for a more popular audience in the Guardian, Washington Post and Frankfurter Allgemeine. He has also published a number of popular science books, most recently Life on the Edge with Jim Al-Khalili (Black Swan 2014).

By: JohnJoe McFadden(Author)
384 pages
Publisher: Basic Books
Media reviews

LIFE IS SIMPLE tells, in an entertaining and engaging way, the remarkable story of a simple idea that begins its epic journey 800 years ago with a medieval Franciscan friar and yet somehow still influences some of the most profound ideas in science today. – Jim al-Khalili

Occam's razor, like Hobson's choice and Schrödinger's cat, is a phrase that's entered the language. We know more or less what it means without necessarily knowing anything about its inventor or realising the immense power it has as a philosophical and scientific principle. LIFE IS SIMPLE describes brilliantly the context in which William of Occam lived and worked, and the transforming effect that his simple-seeming doctrine has had on the development of our understanding of nature and the universe. – Philip Pullman

The most sheerly enjoyable history of science of recent years – Simon Ings, The Spectator

I read LIFE IS SIMPLE and found myself captured by the central premise: that science, though perceived as complicated, is actually the pursuit of simplicity. Johnjoe has created a fascinating book that weaves history, science and humanity together to illuminate what science really is – a topic that could not be more timely. The world is currently waking up to the complexities of science and its role in our world, and this book is an enlightening aid to that new understanding. – Michael Brooks, physicist and science writer

In LIFE IS SIMPLE, geneticist Johnjoe McFadden offers a breezy but well-researched look at how the razor has inspired some of science's biggest ideas [...] his examples illustrate with persuasive power how 'simplicity continues to present us with the most profound, enigmatic and sometimes unsettling insights' into how the universe works
 –  Scientific American

LIFE IS SIMPLE is a history that takes you through many centuries of understanding the changing language and philosophy of science. I highly recommend you buy it
 –  Robin Ince, broadcaster and author of The Importance of Being Interested: Adventures in Scientific Curiosity

With flair and accessibility, McFadden walks readers through Occam's many intellectually revolutionary ideas [...] A dense, provocative, and satisfying foray into the history of science – Kirkus Reviews

A compelling assessment of an idea many of us know but few deeply understand
 –  John Keogh, Booklist

I learned a great deal from reading this book and I thought that the concept of simplicity as the main plot of the story worked well
 –  Bernard Lightman, Distinguished Research Professor, University of York, Canada. President History of Science Society and editor of Isis, the preeminent international History of Science journal.

McFadden's love for William is hard to resist. If you are at all interested in the history of ideas, this is a fabulous read. Even after you've taken a few detours through other material to become better oriented in the controversy over what exactly he's good for, William plausibly still stands as a daring, original figure who deserves a place in the Pantheon, and McFadden has done a great service in bringing the whole William and his influence to wider attention. In short, Life is Simple is enthralling. – Prospect Magazine

Centuries ago, the principle of Ockham's razor changed our world by showing simpler answers to be preferable and more often true. In Life Is Simple, scientist Johnjoe McFadden traces centuries of discoveries, taking us from a geocentric cosmos to quantum mechanics and DNA, arguing that simplicity has revealed profound answers to the greatest mysteries [...] Recasting both the history of science and our universe's origins, McFadden transforms our understanding of ourselves and our world
 –  Irish Tech News

A tour through two millennia of scientific discovery [...] interesting and illuminating
 –  Wall Street Journal

For all its technical triumphs, science does not take place in a cultural vacuum. McFadden's wonderful and thoroughly-researched account of the history of ideas reveals how simplicity as an overarching principle weaves through all the sciences, telling us something profound about the nature of reality. His vivid descriptions and clear exposition make the subject come alive, and resonate with significance. This is one of the best science books I have read in a decade. – Paul Davies, Regents' Professor of Physics at Arizona State University and author of What's Eating the Universe?

Like a talented stylist or editor, courageous scientists have identified what is redundant [...] and promptly scratched it out. McFadden's book brings this observation to life using two millennia of scientific advancement, never castigating those who were wrong, but instead highlighting how they helped to shape the correct answers that came later – Caroline Delbert, Popular Mechanics

McFadden includes much interesting material drawn from Ockham and other historical sources. His evident enthusiasm is particularly welcome as this book is directed not only at fellow scientists but also at a wider readership – Geoffrey Cantor, Times Higher

Johnjoe McFadden's delightfully lucid book is itself a model of deceptive simplicity. The words glide off the page in this trenchant analysis of nature's complexities that brings fresh life to centuries of scientific discovery and also points the way towards a clearer future – Patricia Fara, Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and award-winning author of Science: A Four Thousand Year History

Thoroughly fascinating [...] Far from being a narrow specialist, [McFadden] has a firm grasp of the complexities of many branches of science [...] Breath-taking in its comprehensiveness and clarity – Irish Times

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