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A User's Guide To the Universe 153

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
alfredw writes "Have you ever wanted to buttonhole a physicist at a cocktail party? Do you have the burning desire to sit down with a professor and ask a laundry list of 'physics' questions about time travel and black holes? Do you want to know more about modern physics, but want to do it with pop culture experiments instead of mathematics? If you answered 'yes' to any of those questions, then you're in the target audience for A User's Guide to the Universe: Surviving the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes, and Quantum Uncertainty." Keep reading for the rest of alfredw's review.
A User's Guide to the Universe: Surviving the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes, and Quantum Uncertainty
author Dave Goldberg, Jeff Blomquist
pages 304pp
publisher Wiley
rating 8
reviewer alfredw
ISBN 9780470496510
summary A fun, light read about interesting areas of modern physics that will entertain while it educates.
A User's Guide to the Universe (hereinafter "A User's Guide") is the physicist's answer to Phil Plait's Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End.... What Goldberg and Blomquist have created is a fun, light read about interesting areas of modern physics that will entertain while it educates. The book assumes very little scientific background on the part of the reader. Those with some knowledge (this is Slashdot, after all) will find the explanations of well-known concepts (the double slit experiment, for example) lucid, direct, brief and entertaining.

A User's Guide covers topics like relativity, time travel, the Standard Model of Particle Physics, and alien life. It does so with a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and footnotes that act as the authors' very own peanut gallery. While this humor lightens up what could otherwise be a few dry areas of discussion, the littering of the text with pop-culture references is bound to make the book feel a bit dated in years to come. For now (March 2010), though, A User's Guide is so fresh you might call it ripe.

Unlike Death from the Skies, this book is well illustrated. The pen-and-ink cartoons are omnipresent, and serve to both illustrate the text, and to take every opportunity for a joke (cheap or otherwise) that presents itself. Overall, I felt that the cartoons were a strong addition to the book, as they can provide a needed laugh in a serious section, or can eliminate the proverbial thousand words when describing an experiment or concept.

The chapter on time travel is a stand-out. It presents several "practical" designs for time machines, which use black holes, cosmic strings or wormholes as components. I am an avid reader of pop-sci books, and I found designs that were new to me. The discussion of the Grandfather Paradox (if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, then you were never born and could never have committed murder) and ways around it are very helpful and present a solid physical framework for thinking about these issues. When the Grandfather Paradox is reformulated using pool balls, instead of thinking humans, it becomes clear that the issues are physical and not metaphysical. Also, the authors helpfully include a chart ranking sci-fi shows and movies for their time travel savvy.

You'll also find a strong and entertaining treatment of inflationary cosmology, including discussions of the evidence behind the theory and a look at some consequences. This book avoids both a heavy technical treatment and a historical look at the development of the theory (see, for example, Alan Guth's The Inflationary Universe for that) and instead dives right in to the juiciest parts. This style is well-suited to the reader who wants the funs bits without all of the baggage.

If you're curious about quantum mechanics, the second chapter contains a one of the best introductions in the field. By asking questions like "can we build a Star Trek transporter?" the authors drive a quick and satisfying tour through the weirdness of the microscopic world. This "evil genius hands-on" approach is this book's most important contribution to pop sci literature, and its most endearing feature. You'll start by looking at Star Trek, but end with the mysteries of the double-slit experiment, wave-particle duality and the uncertainty principle.

Finally, at the end of the book, the authors helpfully include two sets of references: one to the pop sci literature, and one to the technical literature. Many of the best pop physics books of the past are listed, and the bibliography could serve as useful direction to more depth for the interested.

Overall, A User's Guide accomplishes what it sets out to do. It combines a hands-on, question-driven approach to physics with a tongue-in-cheek, pop-culture-based sense of humor. And then it throws on a layer of great cartoons to make the entire package something that most science books aren't: enjoyable. This book is fine, and you may well learn something in the process.

You can purchase A User's Guide to the Universe: Surviving the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes, and Quantum Uncertainty from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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A User's Guide To the Universe

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  • Cosmos! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Facegarden (967477) on Monday March 29, 2010 @01:18PM (#31660122)

    I just started watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos on Hulu. I'm 25 and was just a bit too young to watch it when it aired in the 80's, but damn if that isn't the *most* inspiring show about the universe I have ever seen! Immediately after watching it I couldn't stop thinking about space travel. I haven't read an actual book for about 8 years, and this weekend i bought "A Brief History of Time" to learn even more. I'm looking at getting a decent telescope too.

    If you have any interest in this stuff, go watch Cosmos! It's all on Hulu and its free (if your country is allowed access).

    Really, so inspiring its crazy!

  • by pclminion (145572) on Monday March 29, 2010 @04:17PM (#31662434)

    We know that photons have a small amount of mass, and we know that the force required to accelerate to the speed of light approaches infinity.

    Photons don't have any mass. Not sure where you get that idea. They have energy due to their frequency, and energy and mass are equivalent as far as general relativity is concerned, but the photon doesn't literally have a rest mass. This is because the photon is never at rest.

    Your confusion arises because you aren't using the correct definitions of energy and momentum. When you use the proper relativistic definitions, there is nothing confusing about it.

    To the issue of how a photon, which is massless, can possibly carry a momentum, you can explain this several ways. The simplest, but more opaque explanation is that photons always originate from charged matter. Because a photon carries energy (I don't see how you can dispute THAT fact), this means the energy of the charged particle which emits a photon must change somehow. Suppose this change is of the kinetic type (as opposed to a change purely in electronic state). This means the momentum of the charged particle changes, because its velocity changes. But the momentum cannot change without putting the extra momentum elsewhere -- basic conservation of momentum. Ergo, the momentum MUST be in the photon.

    A more physically revelatory way of looking at it is to consider it from a wave perspective. An EM wave has an electric component and a magnetic component. When the electric component interacts with a charged particle, it causes this particle to oscillate. As the particle oscillates, it moves through the magnetic field from the very same light wave. This produces a Lorentz force which generally points in the same direction the light wave is propagating -- ergo, light carries momentum.

  • by maxwell demon (590494) on Monday March 29, 2010 @04:21PM (#31662496) Journal

    So why can some gauge boson's be massless while others have mass?

    Well, massless gauge bosons are no problem, because gauge bosons should be massless. So the real question is: How can gauge bosons have mass? Well, that's why the Higgs mechanism was invented. The Higgs mechanism says that in principle the electroweak gauge bosons are all massless, however, there's the Higgs mechanism, which causes spontaneous symmetry breaking, and the broken symmetry allows the W and Z bosons to apparently have mass.

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