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Cosmological Koans - Anthony Aguirre ***

The format of this book suggests the author is trying a bit too hard to be different, which is a shame as it contains plenty of good material. At first sight, the approach of using (pseudo) 'Zen koans' as a linking theme is reminiscent of awful past titles that attempt to show parallels between Eastern philosophies and physics (think, for example, of The Tao of Physics or, even worse, The Dancing Wu Li Masters). But this isn't really the case - Anthony Aguirre is, rather, using the approach of presenting a short passage that makes you think (the koan) as an entry point to fifty connected essays on physics.

Having said that, the theme can seem a little heavy handed. To complicate the format even further, as well as the koans, each essay fits into a journey in time and space, which in the introduction Aguirre describes as historical fiction: but sometimes this seems to be unnecessarily distorted to match the 'Zen koans' theme. So, for example, the very first essay is based on Zeno's arrow paradox, yet for some reason Aguirre chooses to set it not in Ancient Greece but in seventeenth century Japan, which is just odd, and off-putting.

I think the approach would have worked better if the content being presented was very high concept, fluffy descriptive stuff about the life of a scientist, but in just a few essays Aguirre has moved onto the topic of world lines, which need good illustrations and careful exposition (it's where many people got lost in Hawking's A Brief History of Time). Here the almost illegibly small diagrams and the confusion caused by the format make the whole thing inaccessible. It's style over accessibility. We get onto some quite deep aspects of physics before moving on to topics which are more issues of philosophy (these might appeal more to some general readers), but I can't help but feel that anyone who would be attracted by the format would have been put off by that content by about essay 10. It has the feel of a book that will be bought but not read.

The reader has to ask what the point of the novel structure and the koans is. The hope, I assume, was that it would help communicate the science, but in practice the effect is to obscure it. There is plenty of good physics in here, but the format does not help.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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