Skip to main content

Once Before Time – Martin Bojowald ***

Physics has a dark secret at its heart. The two big theories that form the main basis of just about everything don’t work together. Quantum theory, dealing with the very small, and general relativity, dealing with gravity and the nature of space-time, are incompatible. Not only does this make it impossible to put together a coherent theory covering, for instance, all forces, it messes up our understanding of events that fit into both camps, like the big bang.
The best known modern attempt to pull the two together is string theory – but this has huge problems as far as making useful predictions goes, and some regard it as a dead end. Its main opposition (though there are other theories) is loop quantum gravity. This breaks down space-time itself into atoms, which have something of a loop-like nature, making reality a kind of weave of these loops.
This theory too has yet to make any useful predictions, and like string theory it depends on mind-twistingly complex maths. Yet it is in some ways simpler, doesn’t need many extra dimensions to make it work and even gets around some of the concerns about infinities cropping up at the big bang.
This means we desperately needed a good, popular science guide to string theory – and sadly we still do. Martin Bojowald is one of the key figures in the field, and certainly has a good grasp on the science, but has real problems with getting the information across. It probably doesn’t help that this book was first written in German, then translated into English by the author – certainly at times you might think it still isn’t English.
The science simply hasn’t been made understandable. The author spends a fair amount of time, for example, on Penrose diagrams. These special space-time diagrams are very useful to help understand what is happening in a black hole and similar oddities of space time. But it is very difficult to grasp what is going on. We are told that the singularity is not timelike, but spacelike – it is part of evolving space at a fixed time. This is shown clearly on the diagram, but we are given no real explanation of why this is so, or what it means.
It doesn’t help that the book is illustrated by fairly meaningless arty photographs and has occasional snippets of very bad fiction (which presumably are harder to translate than the science). All in all it is a frustrating read that is unlikely to be illuminating unless you already know quite a lot about the subject area, but not about loop quantum gravity.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Review by Martin O'Brien

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …