"One of our most versatile and gripping science writers." John Carey

The Water Kingdom takes us on a grand journey through China's past and present, offering a unique window through which we can begin to grasp the overwhelming complexity and teeming energy of the country and its people.

Water is the key that unlocks much of China's history and thought. The ubiquitous relationship that the Chinese people have had with water has made it an enduring metaphor for philosophical thought and artistic expression. From the Han emperors to Mao, the ability to manage the waters - to provide irrigation and defend against floods - became a barometer of political legitimacy, and attempts to do so have involved engineering works on a gigantic scale. Yet the strain that economic growth is putting on its water resources today may be the greatest threat to China's future.


Although at first glance the natural world may appear overwhelming in its diversity and complexity, there are regularities running through it, from the hexagons of a honeycomb to the spirals of a seashell and the branching veins of a leaf. Revealing the order at the foundation of the seemingly chaotic natural world, Patterns in Nature explores not only the math and science but also the beauty and artistry behind nature’s awe-inspiring designs.

Unlike the patterns we create in technology, architecture, and art, natural patterns are formed spontaneously from the forces that act in the physical world. Very often the same types of pattern and form – spirals, stripes, branches, and fractals, say—recur in places that seem to have nothing in common, as when the markings of a zebra mimic the ripples in windblown sand. That’s because, as Patterns in Nature shows, at the most basic level these patterns can often be described using the same mathematical and physical principles: there is a surprising underlying unity in the kaleidoscope of the natural world. Richly illustrated with 250 color photographs and anchored by accessible and insightful chapters, Patterns in Nature reveals the organization at work in vast and ancient forests, powerful rivers, massing clouds, and coastlines carved out by the sea.
By exploring similarities such as those between a snail shell and the swirling stars of a galaxy, or the branches of a tree and those of a river network, this spectacular visual tour conveys the wonder, beauty, and richness of natural pattern formation.

"The most beautiful book of 2016": Publishers Weekly here.

See a preview in the Wall Street Journal here and in Nautilus here.

Book cover - Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen

Published by Bodley Head, 2014.

Invisible presents the first comprehensive survey of the roles that the idea of invisibility has played throughout time and culture. This territory takes us from medieval grimoires to cutting-edge nanotechnology, from fairy tales to telecommunications, from camouflage to early cinematography, and from beliefs about ghosts to the dawn of nuclear physics and the discovery of dark energy. We need to attend to many voices: to Plato and Shakespeare, to James Clerk Maxwell and Victorian music-hall magicians. We will discover new worlds: some of them already known, some sheer fantasy, others whose existence has been asserted but is yet to be proved.

Science is said to be on the threshold of achieving the ancient dream of making objects invisible. But the stories that we have told about invisibility are not about technical capability but about power, sex, concealment, morality and corruption. Precisely because they refer to matters that lie beyond our senses, unseen beings and worlds have long been a repository for hopes, fears and suppressed desires. Ideas of invisibility are, like all ideas rooted in legend, ultimately parables about our own potential and weaknesses.

Book cover to Book cover of Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler

Shortlisted for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

Read excerpts in Scientific American, February 2015, here.

In January 1940, the Dutch physicist and Nobel laureate Peter Debye, formerly one of the leading physicists in Hitler’s Germany, sailed from Genoa to the United States. The official story was that he was taking a leave of absence from directing the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin in order to deliver a series of lectures at Cornell University. In fact Debye never returned to Germany, but settled in America and contributed to the Allied war effort against the country in which he had worked for most of his life.

When Debye died in 1966, his career seemed uncontroversial: he had resisted Nazi interference while in Germany, and had contributed in a small way to the victory over Hitler. But 40 years later he stood accused of collusion with the Nazis and opportunism after his subsequent flight. When Debye’s name was dropped from a Dutch institute and scientific prize, the affair reopened the debate about the conduct of scientists in Nazi Germany.

Serving the Reich takes a fresh look at that debate, contrasting Debye’s career with those of two other leading physicists in Germany during the Third Reich: Max Planck, the elder statesman of physics after whom Germany’s premier scientific society is now named, and Werner Heisenberg, who succeeded Debye as director at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics when it became focused on the development of nuclear power and weapons.

The Music Instinct: How music works, and why we can't do without it. A book by Philip Ball.

The Music Instinct offers the first comprehensive, accessible survey of what is known – and what remains unknown – about how music works: why we can comprehend it, why we are moved by it, why we make music and what roles it serves in culture and society.

It also advances some new ideas about those questions, pointing out where there are current gaps in our enquiries and investigations and suggesting new directions.

It will help the reader understand what is happening when they listen to music: how their brain is decoding the complex sound signal, discerning patterns and regularities and forming interpretations and expectations that create a sense of aesthetic pleasure – or not, as the case may be.

In this way, the book will not only enhance readers’ appreciation of the music they love, but also encourage them to look at all music in a new light and perhaps to begin exploring music that previously seemed opaque or dull or daunting.

Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People. A book by Philip Ball

Can we make a human being? That question has been asked for many centuries, and has produced recipes ranging from the homunculus of the medieval alchemists and the clay golem of Jewish legend to the cadaverous mosaic of Frankenstein's monster and the mass-produced test-tube babies of Brave New World's Hatcheries. All of these efforts to create artificial people are more or less fanciful, but they have taken deep root in Western culture. They all express fears about the allegedly treacherous, Faustian nature of technology, and they all question whether any artificially created person can be truly human. Legends of people-making are tainted by suspicions of impiety and hubris, and they are regarded as the ultimately 'unnatural' act, offering a revealing glimpse of changing attitudes to the relationship between nature and human art.

In Unnatural, I delve beneath the surface of the cultural history of 'anthropoesis' – the creation of artificial people - to explore what it tells us about our views on life, humanity, creativity and technology, and the soul.

Nature's Patterns : A Tapestry in Three Parts, Shapes, a book by Philip Ball   Nature's Patterns : A Tapestry in Three Parts, Flow   Nature's Patterns : A Tapestry in Three Parts, Branches, a book by Philip Ball

Patterns are everywhere in nature – in the ranks of clouds in the sky, the stripes of an angelfish, the arrangement of petals in flowers. Where does this order and regularity come from? It creates itself. The patterns we see come from self-organization. Whether in living or non-living systems, there is a pattern-forming tendency inherent in the basic structure and processes of nature.

Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind, a book by Philip Ball

In the twelfth century, Christians in Europe began to build a completely new kind of church – not the squat, gloomy buildings we now call Romanesque, but soaring, spacious monuments flooded with light from immense windows. These were the first Gothic churches, and they culminated in the cathedral of Chartres, where all the elements of the new style cohered perfectly for the first time.

Since the church was the hub of society, representing nothing less than a vision of heaven on Earth, this shift in architectural style was not undertaken lightly or out of a desire for mere novelty. It marked a profound change in the social, intellectual and theological climate of Western Christendom. And it posed enormous challenges to the master builders and masons who constructed the cathedrals, who had to make these vast masses of stone seem airy and weightless.

In this book I trace the reasons for the inception of the Gothic style. I argue that it signifies a new way of looking at God, the universe, and humankind's relationship to them. Informed by an influx of texts from the ancient world, philosophers began to question old certainties about God's power and plan. This was the beginning of the argument between faith and reason – which has never ended. The Gothic era saw the birth of a scientific view of the world, ultimately threatening to dispense with God altogether.

Book cover of Curiosity by Philip Ball

Curiosity is dangerous. But it’s far worse than you think, for curiosity was the original sin. In Christian tradition, all the ills of the world follow from the attempt in the Garden to grasp – literally to consume – forbidden knowledge. “When you eat of it”, said the serpent to Eve, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Through curiosity, our innocence was lost.

Yet this hasn’t deterred us; quite the reverse. It is said that God created Adam only at the end of his six-day labours so that the man should not see how the trick was done. Ever since then, we seem to have been trying to discover exactly how that trick was done.

Our innate curiosity has now led us to make a 27-km tunnel called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) below Switzerland emptier than the wastelands of the cosmos, and to spend five billion euros to send particles that can never be seen whirling around it at close to light-speed before they crash into one another. This, we hope, will bring us to within a split second of that moment of Creation, and if it cannot reveal the complete trick then it should sate our curiosity about a brief but crucial part of it.

The Sun and Moon Corrupted, a book by Philip Ball

Karl Neder – physicist, Communist and all-round maverick – thinks he has made a discovery that will offer mankind energy for free. But no one believes him – or rather, no one understands him. And so he is forced to wander like a vagabond across Cold War Europe, an outcast from his native Hungary, leaving chaos and half-built machines in his wake.

But who, and where, exactly is Karl Neder? Young journalist Lena Romanowicz wants to find out, hoping to kick-start a stalled career but driven more by motives she would rather not interrogate. Yet to understand Karl Neder she must wrestle with his story, which ranges from the castles of Transylvania to the rocket labs of NASA, from Viennese cafés to the blasted borderlands of the Soviet Union.

Here is a Geiger-counter of a novel that crackles with ideas and shines a bright, brilliant light on the history of science and ideas, and on the fate of would-be geniuses who challenge the orthodoxy of their time. (Portobello, 2008)

The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science, a book by Philip Ball

'Philip Theophrastus Aureolus Bombast von Hohenheim – known to later ages as Paracelsus – stands on the borderline between medieval and modern: a name that is familiar but a man who has been hard to perceive or to understand. A contemporary of Martin Luther, he was an enemy of established medicine, scourge of the universities (‘at all the German schools’, he said, ‘you cannot learn as much as at the Frankfurt fair’), army surgeon, unorthodox theologian, and alchemist. Myths about him – from his treating disease from beyond the grave in nineteenth-century Salzburg to his alleged Faustian bargain with the devil – have proved far more lasting than his real story. Even during his lifetime, he was rumoured to ride a magical white horse and to store the elixir of life in the pommel of his sword.

But who was Paracelsus, and what did he truly believe and practise? He has been seen both as a charlatan and as a founder of modern science, but this book reveals a more complex man – who used his eyes and experience to learn from nature how to heal, and who wrote influential books on medicine, surgery and alchemy while living a drunken, combative, vagabond life.

Elegant Solutions:Ten Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry. A book by Philip Ball
Where does beauty reside in experimental chemistry? Is it in the clarity of the experiment’s conception? The design of the instrumentation? The nature of the knowledge gained, or of the products made?

Offering ten suggestions of what may be the most beautiful experiments in chemistry, this book provides insights into the way chemists think and work, and demonstrates how what they do affects the rest of science and the wider world.

The book opens with an experiment conducted in the seventeenth century by the Flemish physician Jan Baptista van Helmont, in which he measured the growth of a willow tree in a pot over five years, nourished only (or so it seemed to him) by water. The results led van Helmont to conclude that everything in our world is made of water. The experiment was simple and quantitative, and if the conclusion drawn from it was quite wrong, it was no less beautiful for all that.

This exploration of beauty in experimental chemistry, commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry, will stimulate scientists and non-scientists alike to think anew about how we come to know about the world, how science and art are related, and how science tells (and sometimes distorts) its best-loved stories. (Royal Society of Chemistry, 2005)

Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, a book by Philip Ball
Tired of the civil war ravaging England, Thomas Hobbes decided in the seventeenth century that he would work out how society should be governed. But his approach was not to be based on the wishful thinking of Plato's 'Republic' or Bacon's 'New Atlantis'; Hobbes used Galileo's mechanics to construct a theory of government from physical first principles. His answer looks unappealing today: a dictatorial monarchy that ruled with an iron fist. But Hobbes had begun a new adventure: to look for 'scientific' rules that governed society.

This programme was pursued, from many different political perspectives, by Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill and others; but social and political philosophy gradually abandonded such a scientific approach. Today, physics is enjoying a revival in the social, economic and political sciences, as we find that large numbers of people can display behaviour eerily reminiscent of so many mindless particles, all interacting with one another.

The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements, a book by Philip Ball.

This companion volume to "Stories of the Invisible" looks at how our ideas about the fundamental constitution of matter have evolved through the ages, from the four classical elements of Aristotle to the creation of new, artificial elements in the particle-smashing machines of physics laboratories.

This companion volume to "Stories of the Invisible" looks at how our ideas about the fundamental constitution of matter have evolved through the ages, from the four classical elements of Aristotle to the creation of new, artificial elements in the particle-smashing machines of physics laboratories. It explores the many and varied roles that elements play in our culture, from the gold of Midas and the alchemists to the silicon of the Information Age.

Bright Earth cover - rreissued by Bodley Head in 2008

This book investigates how the invention of new pigments and colouring materials since times of antiquity have affected the course of Western art. The creative potential of painters has always been constrained by the colours on their palette. Renaissance and the emergence of Impressionism in the late nineteenth century, can be linked directly to the availability of new pigments.

Often neglected in studies of art history, the materials of the artist provide a new perspective on how art has evolved and how science, commerce, industry and art have interacted throughout the centuries.

Reissued by Bodley Head in 2008

Read reviews of this book

Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules. A book by Philip Ball.

From a community of molecules, life somehow emerges. It seems miraculous, for molecules have no intrinsic life of their own. Life is a result of their interactions, their communication, cooperation, competition and motion. This book uses the chemistry of life to explain what molecules are, how and why chemists make new ones, and how the molecular sciences are eroding the boundaries between natural and synthetic ...

From a community of molecules, life somehow emerges. It seems miraculous, for molecules have no intrinsic life of their own. Life is a result of their interactions, their communication, cooperation, competition and motion. This book uses the chemistry of life to explain what molecules are, how and why chemists make new ones, and how the molecular sciences are eroding the boundaries between natural and synthetic by seeking to emulate some of biology's microscopic feats of engineering.

H2O: A Biography of Water. A book by Philip Ball.

In the Old Testament, the God of the Hebrews hovers over the primeval waters and brings forth the world from the infinite ocean. It is a motif echoed in creation myths throughout the world. In each, water is the fundamental precondition for life. Yet the extent to which water remains a scientific mystery is extraordinary, despite its prevalence and central importance on Earth. Whether one considers its role in biology, its place in the physical world (where it refuses to obey the usual rules of liquids) or its deceptively simple chemistry, there is still no complete answer to the question: what is water? This book explains what, exactly, we do and do not know about the strange character of this most essential and ubiquitous of substances.

The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in NatureWhy do similar patterns and forms appear in settings that seem to bear no relation to one another? The windblown ripples of desert sand follow a sinuous course that resembles the stripes of a zebra or a marine fish. We see the same architectural angles in the trellis-like shells of microscopic sea creatures as in the bubble walls of a foam. The forks of lightning mirror the branches of a river or a tree.

This book explains why there is more than coincidence in this conjunction of forms and structures. Nature commonly weaves its tapestry by self-organization, employing no master plan or blueprint but instead simple, local interactions between its component parts - whether they be grains of sand, diffusing molecules or living cells. And the products of self-organization are typically universal patterns: spirals, spots, stripes, branches, honeycombs.

Made to Measure: New Materials for the 21st Century, a book by Philip BallFrom synthetic skin, blood and bone to substances that repair themselves and adapt to the environment, that swell and flex like muscles, that repel any ink or paint, or that capture and store the energy of the Sun - new materials are shaping our future. For the first time in history, materials are being "made to measure": designed for particular applications, rather than discovered in nature or by haphazard experimentation.

This book links insights from chemistry, biology and physics with those from engineering as it outlines the various areas in which new materials will transform our lives in the twenty-first century.

Designing the Molecular World: Chemistry at the Frontier, a book by Philip BallMany of the most exciting developments in modern science come not from particle accelerators, astronomical observatories or biotechnology companies but from the benches of chemists. Dubbed "The Cinderella Science", chemistry has come a long way from smells and smoke.

Today's chemists are creating the substances that shape the world and change our lives.

Book covers