Sunday, May 14, 2006

BOOK: Charles Seife, "Alpha and Omega"

Charles Seife: Alpha and Ωmega: the Search for the Beginning and the End of the Universe. Bantam, 2004. 0553814699. ix + 296 pp.

I'm usually not a terribly avid reader of popular science books, but I'm glad that I made an exception in this case. Cosmology is, after all, a fascinating topic, and the subjects it studies are truly awe-inspiring. What sorts of things are to be found in our universe, and in what proportions; what are the basic laws of physics; what was going on in the earliest few moments of the universe's existence, and what will the ultimate fate of the universe be — surely one can hardly help finding these questions at least a little bit intriguing, even though they admittedly don't seem to have much bearing on our every-day life.

Anyway, I have for some time been considering to buy something on cosmology, so when I noticed this book in the bookstore, offered at a 50% discount, I bought it and read it over the next few days.

It's a very nice book; it is readable, not too long, and as accessible to the lay reader (such as myself) as I guess one can reasonably expect a book about such a subject to be. Of course, since I have never been particularly interested in physics and never learnt it above secondary-school level, I'm not fit to comment on its scientific accuracy, but seeing as the author has a degree in mathematics and has made a serious effort to acquaint himself with cosmology, reading papers and interviewing many researchers in that field, I guess it's not unreasonable to suppose that he hasn't committed any terrible blunders — at least not such as would matter to a lay reader such as me.

One thing I particularly enjoyed is how the author is very good at giving metaphors and analogies that illustrate various complicated cosmological phenomena with something that we are familiar with from everyday life. Most of the time this works very well; only in the last few chapters did I find his writing difficult to follow. I was particularly impressed by his explanations of the clever reasoning and experiments that led to the discovery of dark matter (p. 96), exotic (or nonbaryonic) dark matter (p. 107), and dark energy (due to which the universe's rate of expansion is increasing rather than decreasing, p. 187).

Apparently cosmology has been making quite rapid progress over the last ten or so years. In fact the author suggests that we are in the middle of a ‘cosmological revolution’ (p. 51) comparable to the one in the 16th century when the heliocentric model replaced the geocentric one, and the one in the 1920s when Hubble discovered how huge the universe really is, and that it is expanding (pp. 39, 42). This book was first published in 2003, and the author often refers to very recent discoveries, as well as pointing out things that haven't yet been cleared up but likely will be in the next few years (perhaps by now some of them have already been). On the one hand, it's of course very exciting to be reading about such recent and impressive discoveries so soon after they have been made; but on the other hand, I sometimes couldn't help wondering if it wouldn't have been better for the author to wait a few more years and then publish a book with fewer loose ends and fewer tantalizing references to future discoveries. But it would be silly to really complain about this; undoubtedly someone will write a new popular book about cosmology sooner or later (or maybe Seife will issue an updated edition of his present book).

Ptolemy's model of the Solar System is actually more accurate than the one published by Copernicus (but it is also much more complicated); pp. 16–7.

In Copernicus' time, “the case of the heliocentric system was not yet airtight” and the Church didn't persecute it yet; Copernicus even dedicated his book to the Pope. “But Copernicus was a prudent man. He took the precaution of publishing it while on his deathbed.” (P. 18.)

“The noble, Tycho Brahe, was a sybaritic Dane. Born in 1546, he was a glutton. (Overeating led to his death half a century later.) For his amusement, Brahe kept a dwarf whom he fed with table scraps” (p. 19).

“All stars (and not just the Hollywood variety) are essentially balls of hot gas.” (P. 39.)

There is an excellent description of the current understanding of the big bang and the early history of the universe on pp. 65–70.

“The center of a hydrogen bomb is as hot as the first few minutes after the big bang.” (P. 117.)

“[. . .] this sticky force is incredibly strong. Physicists, in a rare outburst of creativity, dubbed this force the strong force.” (P. 122.)

RHIC's magnets are so powerful that some hysterical protesters feared that scientists using them would inadvertently end the universe.” (Pp. 127, 194.)

“The funamental tenet of supersymmetry is that every particle in the standard model has a supersymmetric twin. (The supersymmetric electron is known as the selectron; supersymmetric quarks are squarks. There are sneutrinos, photinos, gluinos, winos, and zinos.) Each sparticle is related to its twin particle, but it is not the same.” (P. 154.)

P. 155 mentions an amusing “apocryphal story” that “physicists were declared personae non grata and have not been allowed ot hold another conference in Vegas” after they refused to gamble during a conference there (knowing as they did that the odds are against them).

Each chapter begins with an epigraph, some of which are really good. There is a splendid one by Arthur Eddington on p. 162, a pastiche of one of my favourite rubaiyat (see e.g. this page).

“In 1967, Jocelyn Bell, a graduate student at Cambridge University,” discovered pulsars; “In 1974, her adviser, Anthony Hewish, was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery”!!! (P. 200, and see also the followup to the story on p. 202.)

There is also a good glossary with explanations of the various technical terms from physics and cosmology that frequently occur in the text.

All in all, this was a very pleasant read, and probably as good a popular introduction to cosmology as I can reasonably expect to find. Heartily recommended to anyone interested in this topic.


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