Skip to main content

From Eternity to Here – Sean Carroll *****

I have a big claim for this book – almost scarily big. This is the book Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time should have been. Let me explain. Despite being the absolute classic of the genre, Hawking’s book has two huge flaws. Firstly it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It has lots of great stuff to tell us about relativity and black holes and much more. But it doesn’t really tell us anything much about time.
Secondly, BHoT isn’t the most readable of popular science books. It is infamously a book that many have started but few have finished. When you look at the concepts it covers there’s nothing too scary (at least, by modern popular science standards), but it isn’t put across in a way that’s easy to pick up.
So we come to Sean Carroll’s book. And it is a joy. It really does tell us about time, better than anything I’ve ever read. To be fair, most of the content is about entropy and the second law of thermodynamics (which ought to be better understood, and is strongly time-related) with a good dose of relativity and quantum theory thrown in. But it really does explore the nature of time.
As for the second issue with BHoT, there is good news and bad when we put From Eternity to Here (I title I hate, by the way) alongside it. This book explains significantly more complex matters than Hawking’s does. But it does so much more clearly. I’m not saying it is all an easy read. You have to read it slowly and carefully – so some readers will definitely be put off – but it hugely repays the effort. I particularly like the way that Carroll not only presents with the orthodox picture, but his own personal views, making it clear where these vary from many other physicists and cosmologists, but nonetheless making powerful points.
Of course it’s not perfect. It is occasionally a trifle obscure. There are occasions the mask of accessibility slips and he forgets who he is talking to. The section on coarse graining, microstates and macrostates, for example, would be better suited to an undergraduate lecture than the intended readership. And I particularly disliked Carroll’s cat and dog analogy for quantum theory, which I found more confusing than just talking about the particles that feature in the theory. The analogy was both cringe-making and confusing.
I also think Carroll (to be fair, like quite a few scientists) needs to take a look at his dictionary when it comes to his approach to paradoxes. ‘Paradoxes are impossible,’ he bluntly states. No they are not – you are thinking of fallacies. Although paradox is sometimes applied in this sense, the better meaning is something that appears impossible but is actually true, something that runs counter to common sense. (Which is why the author is also wrong moaning about EPR being called a paradox.)
A final mini-moan – I wish he had told us how the ekpyrotic universe (see Endless Universe) fitted with his entropy-based analysis of different models of the universe, as he totally ignored it. But these are minor concerns in what is a tour-de-force of popular science writing in the ‘you really need to read this carefully and think about it’ school (as opposed to ‘sit back and enjoy it.’) Highly recommended.
Paperback:  
Also in Hardback:  
Also on audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…