Saturday, 24 January 2015

Our Mathematical Universe - Max Tegmark *****

I find myself in the strange position of awarding five stars to a book that has plenty of content with which I disagree. The detail of that will come up later, but the reason that I can still confidently give this book five stars is that it is a great read, covers some less controversial aspects of physics and cosmology very well and where Max Tegmark strays into concepts that many don't accept, he does so in a way that really makes you think, and analyse just why these concepts seem so unlikely - which is great.

The book is an exploration of the development of Tegmark's leading edge (or wacky, depending on your point of view) ideas - I should stress, though, whether or not he's right, Tegmark is a respected physicist, not a random person with no knowledge to back up his ideas. The book includes an excellent pass through the development of the current hot big bang with inflation theory that it would be worth buying for without the rest. In his introduction, Tegmark says that regular popular science readers might want to skip these first few chapters, but I really recommend that you don't - for instance, he gives the best explanation and exploration of the concept of inflation I've ever seen in a popular science book. It's superb.

From then on, though I don't necessarily accept what Tegmark has to say, he gives a very engaging picture of the way that the concept of eternal inflation could produce a multiverse with a infinite collection of big bangs, each producing their own universe, an impassioned plea for the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory and a really impressive attempt to persuade us that the universe isn't just described by mathematics, but is fundamentally mathematical at its heart.

To be honest, you can stop there and go and buy it if you like. But I do have to say why, personally, I'm not very convinced by anything Tegmark says once he leaves the mainstream. I also have a couple of niggles about the book, which I'll get out of the way first. I found the bits about his personal life more distracting than helpful (though I know publishers love this kind of thing). He several times refers to the detailed colour picture of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation that is shown on the cover. As you can see from the image above, if this is correct, then the universe is a whole lot more interesting that I thought it was. It's a shame the text wasn't updated to reflect the new edition. Also, the BICEP2 results form quite a big piece of evidence in favour of his view of inflation - unfortunately the book seems to have been published just before these were effectively dismissed, which would put Tegmark's reflections on BICEP in a very different light.

I won't spend too much on what I wasn't convinced by in the content, but a few key points are that he makes several deductions from infinity which I don't think can be justified (you have to be very careful, deducing things from infinity), for all his enthusiasm I wasn't sold on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and I think in the final part of the book he makes the common error of conflating models and reality.

However, as I mentioned up front, I didn't care - because even when I didn't agree with him, I found the book really made me think. Which surely is a mark of class.

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Review by Brian Clegg

The post Christmas lag...

... is nearly over.

We always run low on reviews for a few weeks after Christmas, because there's usually a whole raft of fiction and other non-science books to get through. But I'm pleased to say that we're now back on the popular science runway and ready to go with some excellent new books for 2015.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Too Much Information - Dave Gorman ****

It might seem odd to feature a book by comedian Dave Gorman on a popular science site, but this is a book about information, information technology, media and its impact on us as people - so entirely deserves its place here.

Admittedly, the book can often seem like a specialist version of the TV show Grumpy Old Men on the topic of information, IT and the media - and there certainly are some funny parts to it - but just as the subtitle suggests that Gorman is trying to think in a deluge of often unwanted 'information', itself of dubious nature, so it gives the reader the chance to do the same.

What comes through, as is usually the case with Gorman, is an obsessive fascination with detail (which, if you're a geek like me, you will probably share). He picks up on a piece of information and pulls it apart to destruction. So, for instance, he riffs (there is really no other word for it) about the oddity of the band Scouting for Girls putting out a 'greatest hits' album in which clearly (and he has a chart to prove it) most of the tracks weren't hits at all.

Some of the content of Too Much Information is pure grumpiness, as in the plea for Twitter users to gain some perspective and stop thinking it's funny or clever to change words by prefacing them with 'tw' to make them special-to-Twitter. People, he assures us, remain people, not 'tweeple' or (shudder) 'tweeps'. Elsewhere he comes up with a fascinating analysis of why all HTC mobile phones show a particular time in adverts, uncovers the bizarre ways that celebrities are exploited by (and exploit) the media and ponders the social impact of the 'next customer' separators we use on supermarket conveyor belts.

The stories, as they effectively are, range in length from just one page to at least ten, and often hit the spot, though with 40 different, loosely collected topics, the book can feel too bitty and lacking cohesion as you read through it. Even so, I found many of the subjects fascinating, some informative and almost all of them enjoyable. 

If you've never taken the time to step back and think about what being in such a connected, information rich world does to us - and how people and companies try to manipulate us through that information - it really is time you did so. And Dave Gorman is here to be a grumpy guide to that voyage of discovery.

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Review by Brian Clegg