Archive for the 'physics' category

From the Archives: The trouble with physics: The rise of string theory, the of a science, and what comes next by Lee Smolin

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, is from August 14, 2007.


This one of those very rare books, books that make you truly smarter and more knowledgeable than when you started. What does Lee Smolin, physicist at Waterloo's Perimeter Institute, make us smarter and more knowledgeable about, you ask? First of all, the history of theoretical particle physics and the search for a theory that unifies classical physics and quantum theory. Second, the progress of String Theory as a unifying theory and it's alternatives. Third, the culture of the physics community and how it influences the first two.

It's also one of those books that just stops you in your tracks every once in a while. An insight or a story provoking intense reflection and concentration. I'd be sitting there, reading, and suddenly, staring off into space. It makes for a slow but worthwhile reading experience. Since the book treats a lot of fairly advanced topics in theoretical physics, it's also a pretty mind expanding experience, requiring a fair bit of comprehension to soak it all in. Any previous knowledge of string theory or other physics concepts will only enhance the enjoyment (and comprehension) of this book. My general physics knowledge is probably above average and there were a couple of parts where I struggled a bit. There were times when things seemed to make perfect sense while I was reading; then, after putting the book down for a bit, all comprehension simply vanished. On the other hand, as will become apparent later in the review, the hard-core physics stuff isn't really the main payoff of the book so if you find yourself skimming some of the particularly hairy parts in order to keep up your momentum, that's OK.

The main topic of the book has to do with the lack of really productive research in physics since the mid-1970s, when the Standard Model was set out. Since that time, the main focus of theoretical physics has been String Theory. However, as advanced as the theory is, there has been no experimental proof that it is valid. In this sense, compared to the insane pace of advances in the previous century (from atomic theory, to relativity to Quantum Theory to the Standard Model), physics is in a crisis. Smolin attempts to understand that crisis, both from a scientific viewpoint and from a more sociological/philosophical viewpoint as well. Now, there's no more hoary a cliche than the brilliant scientist that turns to philosophy of science in his dotage, mostly to his embarrassment, but Smolin is no geezer and he definitely doesn't embarrass himself is his attempt to understand why the incredibly bright community of physicists has failed to make significant progress in such a long time. Smolin is certainly not afraid to criticize the String Theory community for being too single-minded, for refusing to entertain alternative ideas about theoretical physics, or the physicists themselves for being a bit arrogant or dismissive of their colleagues.

This is a brave and worthwhile book. Read it to learn a lot of physics. Read it to learn a lot about the culture of physics. But definitely read it.

Two blogs to check out in relation to this book, one pro-String Theory and one more skeptical are the group blog Cosmic Variance (example here) and Not Even Wrong (here).

Smolin, Lee. The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 392pp.

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From the Archives: Einstein: His life and universe by Walter Isaacson

Apr 17 2011 Published by under book review, physics, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Einstein: His Life and Universe, is from March 24, 2008.


Walter Issacson's 2007 biography of Albert Einstein was one of the best reviewed books of that year, appearing on nearly all the year end lists of favourite science books. Humane, magisterial, accessible, comprehensive, engrossing, all words used to describe this book. And each of them is very well deserved. So, as you can imagine, I was delighted when I found the book under the christmas tree this past December. I started reading it almost immediately, amid the genial chaos of my sister's Ottawa home during the holiday, reading it slowly but surely over the next couple of months. This is a perfect book to read and savour over a leisurely read. As with most biographies, you know how it ends. As well, Isaacson goes into quite a bit of detail, so parts of it can be a bit slow.

Oddly, this happens to be the first real Einstein biography I've ever read. I've had the Clark biography knocking around the house for years but have never actually started it. Reading Isaacson's book also felt somewhat like a gap in my knowledge and reading history had been closed. It's a nice feeling.

Like I said, this book is a lot of things.

Engrossing. Now I mentioned a bit slow. That's true, a detailed biography can sometimes drag a bit and this was no different. However, for the most part I found the story quite fast paced, especially the section when Einstein's fame started to grow right through the start of WWII. As well, I found the last section, Einstein's final years in Princeton, hard to put down.

Comprehensive. Isaacson covers Einstein's youth, his important years as a Swiss patent examiner, a lot of detail about his miracle year of 1905, his struggles to land a secure academic job, his marital woes, his political views, his life in Berlin up until the Nazis took over, the war years as well as his post war life in Princeton.

Accessible. Isaacson hits the right balance when it comes to actually explaining Einstein's scientific ideas and the overall context of the scientific times. Since Einstein himself relied on very visual thought experiments to frame his theories, Isaacson takes advantage of those thought experiments to explain the theories to us.

Humane. This is a warts and all portrait of Einstein. His infidelity, absent mindedness, emotionally distant relationships with his family, stubbornness, scientific mistakes, his resistance to quantum theory, all are covered. Granted, in many ways these failings are presented as quirky rather than damning, but we do get a pretty fair presentation of the human side of Einstein.

Magisterial. Human side, yes. But this is clearly in the "Great Man" tradition of scientific biography. We really finish the book feeling we know Einstein the genius. While still covering the all-too-human nature of Einstein, Isaacson still treats Einstein with kid gloves, glossing over some pretty significant controversies. Overall, it's a very gentle, respectful and even sentimental account of Einstein's life.

Borrow this book, buy it for yourself, get someone to buy it for you, buy it for your library's collection, recommend it for your local library's collection, but read it. It's a great book, a great introduction to the life of one the most interesting and important people of the last 100 or so years. It's rare to read a great big biography of a person and want to read more. This isn't the last Einstein book I'll read. It's only the first. I would heartily recommend it to any library that collects any scientific or general biography. It might be a bit weighty for high school libraries, but any level beyond that would be fine.

Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His life and universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 674pp. ISBN-13: 978-0743264747

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From the Archives: Miscellaneous physics books by Smoot, Batterson, Pickover and Luminet

Feb 27 2011 Published by under book review, physics, science books

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one is from August 22, 2008 and reviews the following books:


I seem to have finished a bunch of popular physics / history of physics-type books in the last few months, so I thought I'd do a combined review of all of them. Especially since I really don't have too much to say about most of the individual titles. Except for the Pickover, I'd say that they're all slam-dunk acquisitions for any academic library that collects at all in popular or historical physics material.

Smoot, George and Keay Davidson. Wrinkles in Time: Witness to the Birth of the Universe. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. 331pp. ISBN-13: 978-0061344442

George Smoot won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2006 with John Mather "for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation." This book, originally published in 1994 and now republished to take advantage of Smoot's notoriety, tells the story of he and his teams efforts to discover that cosmic background radiation.

A very engaging book overall, it starts with a fairly extensive history of cosmology that covers several chapters. This is probably the weakest part of the book and it's a shame that many may have given up on the book during these fairly dry chapters. What's really engaging about the book and what makes it really worth reading is Smoot's story about the trials and tribulations of the various experiments his team devised and implemented. These included using spy planes and high altitude balloons and culminated in a trip to the Antarctic for one final experiment. All of those are great stories -- I thought the sections in Antarctica to be the best in the book and among the best descriptions of working science that I've ever read. They really should have been more foregrounded in the book. Overall, a great book.

Batterson, Steve. Pursuit of Genius: Flexner, Einstein, and the Early Faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study. Wellesley: AK Peters, 2006. 301pp. ISBN-13: 978-1568812595

Another really fine book with a historical theme, this one strongly related to physics as well as math and other fields. This is a history of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, the place where Einstein worked when he moved to the US. In mostly concentrates on the early years of the institute until the 1960s then does a quick summer of more recent decades.

The early chapters are the story of Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute, and his inspirations and early efforts to get funding and get his dream up and running. This is easily the best part of the book, engaging and fascinating. It also functions as an intellectual history of the US in the early part of the 20th century. It also touches on the chicken-and-egg problem of getting the first few scholars to commit to the Institute.

Later chapters are devoted to the political wranglings of running an institute filled with scientific prima donnas as well as securing funding from governments and donors. These bits are considerably less compelling.

Overall, though, this is a fine book, one that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Pickover, Clifford A. Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 514pp. ISBN-13: 978-0195336115

Did this book make me smarter? Did I retain any of the massive amount of physics and chemistry I read about?

First of all, the idea behind Clifford Pickover's new book is to take a bunch of "laws of science & nature" that have been named after their most well known proponent (not necessarily the person who discovered the law) and explain them in a way suitable for a popular audience. Along with the explanation he also provides quite a bit of historical and biographical background on the law. The explanations are, on the whole, a little too detailed and technical for my liking however I'm probably not the ideal audience. Some of the bio & historical detail is pretty good, and some is pretty dry. However, I did read the book cover-to-cover and it is probably better to dip into rather than attempt comprehensiveness. One thing I would like to mention is that each law's section has a good bibliography of sources; my only complaint is that Pickover seemed to mostly consult books from his undergrad days -- ie. the reading lists tended on the older side. Another nice thing is that each section had two series of quotes, one directly about the law in question and the other with more general, and more provocative, quotes of a philosophical nature about what science and laws of science really are.

Which leads me to my biggest complaint, and the point which causes me to hesitate to recommend this book to libraries. The religious agenda. So much of the book seems to really be about reconciling the scientific viewpoint with religious and "spiritual" feelings. Nothing is more consistently highlighted in the biographical sections than how religious that particular scientist was. Now I have nothing is particular against attempts to reconcile science and religion (as pointless as I think those attempts may be), but to have such an agenda, so clearly and consistently explicated in the text, without making it very clear in the title and descriptions of the book seems to me to be a bit dishonest. For that, I'm not sure if the publishers or Pickover are more at fault but I can only judge by the book that I have in my hands. Buyer beware.

Before I forget: did this book make me smarter? Well, maybe a little. Certainly, I have very little recollection of many of the details of the various laws. On the other hand, I do have much more of a sense and appreciation for the breadth and variety of those laws.

Luminet, Jean-Pierre. The Wraparound Universe. Wellesley: AK Peters, 2008. 313pp. ISBN-13: 978-1568813097

Did this book make me smarter? I think so, maybe a little. I've been reading so many popular physics books lately, that some of it might be sinking in.

This one is a bit different from the others in that it tries to make a case for the author's theories on the shape of the universe. The first part of the book is a detailed explication of Luminet's theories with the second part mostly being the background and supplementary information that goes with the first part. The epilogue is basically Luminet's story of how he got his somewhat controversial ideas published.

Not being a physicist, I leave it to you to explore the content of Luminet's ideas. The book is often quite advanced, perhaps a little beyond my cosmology comfort zone. That said, I think I got 50-75% of the book, which isn't bad. You do need to exercise a little attention and concentration and especially to take it in small doses. This book really stretches notions of "popular" science.

In any case, Luminet's lively prose and relaxed style survive Erik Novak's fine translation. I would heartily recommend this to academic libraries but public and school libraries might find it too advanced for most of their patrons. Go with the Smoot book instead, it's really the best and most entertaining of the bunch as well as being the most appropriate for a mass audience

(The Batterson, Luminet and Pickover books were all provided by the publisher. The Smoot book was a Father's Day gift from my sons.)

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