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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Martin O'Brien

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…