Tag Archives: Big Bang

Book: The Illustrated A Brief History of Time

The Illustrated A Brief History of Time

Beautifully illustrated.
248 pages, ★★★★

I love physics. I love the mysteries at the frontier of physics and the mind-boggling quantum and relativistic strangeness that happens at very large and very small scales. I’m also an admirer of Stephen Hawking—mostly for his ability to convey science in such a clear, lucid way, but also for his ability to inspire millions of children into developing a love of physics. His books, iPad apps, films and lectures have inspired millions of young people into science.

This book is no exception.

The highlight of this book is when he explains the Hawking radiation that’s emitted from the event horizons of black holes with low mass. Hawking radiation was calculated from the principle that particles and antiparticles, as pairs, pop in and out of existence all the time, even in a vacuum. They appear, then quickly collide again and annihilate each other. Therefore, if an antiparticle appears on one side of an event horizon, and its partner particle appears on the other, then even if there’s only a tiny distance between them, one of the particles could be emitted into space while the other gets drawn into the black hole. The event horizon thus emits a tiny amount of radiation while the black hole gains mass. Fascinating!

I love the illustrations in this book. They’re as clear as my favourite Chemistry textbook by Whitten et al. (reviewed here) and as informative as one of my favourite history textbooks: Quick Access to Chinese History. Here are two of my favourite pages (the graphic conclusion and the double-page spread on subatomic particles).

Stephen Hawking Illustrated Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking Illustrated Brief History of Time subatomic particles page

The only downfall is in the penultimate chapter, when Stephen Hawking discusses the consequences of a deflating universe (as opposed to an inflating universe, which we live in). Hawking predicts that events would happen backwards, and takes the illustrations to the extreme. He says (and illustrates) that buildings would un-demolish themselves and that people would age backwards because the universe’s entropy needs to decrease. Personally, I think that if the second law of thermodynamics were to be reversed, I don’t think that the universe spontaneously reversing human demolition is the most efficient means of decreasing entropy. (A more efficient means might be to aggregate sub-atomic particles of a similar type—resulting in less entropy but more “mess” from a human perspective.) For me, this chapter was conjecture.

Overall, this book is a fascinating read. It engages young readers as well as adults, and conveys information in a clear, graphical way. Recommended for anyone starting to study physics. ★★★★


Book: Einstein’s Cosmos

Einstein's Cosmos by Michio Kaku

Excellent modern physics primer that’s mostly a biography of Einstein
203 pages, ★★★★

Author Michio Kaku is a very talented science writer. He is one of the few science writers who achieves the near-impossible goal of communicating advanced science accurately, in a way that’s easy to understand, and with added humour throughout. Most writers can’t do that!

In Einstein’s Cosmos, Kaku explores how Einstein’s life story shaped almost all of modern physics. The question of uniting two seemingly incompatible theories is a recurring theme in this book (and in physics itself). The first instance is on page 11, where we learn how Einstein was faced with the problem of reconciling Newton’s forces and Maxwell’s fields. “One of them had to fall”, Kaku writes. Einstein would topple Newtonian forces and replace them with something beautifully simple.

Kaku’s analogies are very easy to understand. To illustrate length contractions and time dilations using cars, he slows the speed of light down to 20mph and describes what each observer would see.

We’re now faced with an incompatibility between general relativity and quantum field theory. Both hold true at different scales, but they don’t seem to overlap properly as part of a grand “unifying theory”. Just as Einstein unified Newton’s and Maxwell’s equations, physicists are now faced with the task of unifying general relativity and quantum field theory—and the book almost exactly as it started.

Beautiful! ★★★★


Book: The Goldilocks Enigma

The Goldilocks Enigma
Life’s so perfect. Why?

Mind-boggling science proves the world is a marvellous place.
(I already knew that.)

350 pages, ★★★

The Goldilocks Enigma follows the same structural model as The Future of Physics, The Science Delusion and 23 Things. All these books are collections of easy-to-read scientific essays with introductions, fact-boxes, conclusions and summaries that plug a single thesis (in this case, “Life is miraculously improbable“). This formulaic approach to non-fiction really works, and the arguments stick in my head this way.

The Goldilocks Enigma proposes that the universe seems so perfectly suited for life that to some people, it looks purpose-built (the anthropic principle), or created by a deity (creationism). The author renounces multiverse theories as ridiculous (reductio ad absurdum) both on scientific and philosophical levels. I agree.

I saw author Paul Davies speak at the AAAS Annual Conference in Chicago in 2009. He emphasised the sheer miraculousness of Earth’s existence—six physical constants are calibrated perfectly:

Tweak any one of these constants and life becomes impossible! Some people liken this impossibility to “a hurricane sweeping through a scrapyard and assembling a perfectly-formed Boeing 747”. It’s reassuring to see scientific evidence of how precious and rare our planet is.

The physics in this book overlaps significantly with The Trouble with PhysicsQuantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction and The Science Delusion. While it’s an easy book to understand, it’s only mildly entertaining. Unless you’re really interested, only read one of these popular physics books. The Science Delusion is the best. ★★★