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Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics Paperback – 25 Apr 2013
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"The wizardry of Jim Al-Khalili is irresistible. Marvel at the mind-bending Zeno’s paradox! The amazing ambiguity of Schrödinger’s Cat! The preposterous postulations of perpetual motion! The extraterrestrial extrapolations of Fermi’s paradox! and other wonders of physics, philosophy, even poetry. “I have had tremendous fun writing this book,” says Professor Jim. Reading it is the best fun you can have beyond a pop-science comic book and a home particle accelerator" (The Times)
"A master of making the complex simple" (Independent on Sunday)
"Al-Khalili leads into the harder science, but does so with such deceptive ease that before you know it you’re mulling over the expanding universe, staring down quantum theory and pondering Schrödinger’s Cat – and enjoying it" (Financial Times)
"Al-Khalili is the ideal guide through these seeming mysteries of modern science" (New Scientist)
"[A] field guide to some of the most important and fascinating conundrums in physics" (Science)
'This book is about my own personal favourite puzzles and conundrums in science' Jim al-KhaliliSee all Product description
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With the popularity of shows like "The Big Bang Theory" it's not surprising that books of this sort are making their way increasingly into the awareness of the reading public. In a nutshell, I think this book tries to cover too much ground in too little time. For most of the topics covered a 300-page book just for one topic is not usually sufficient so to attempt to summarize this much material in 220 pages for 9 such topics is a breathtakingly complex undertaking. That said, it is reasonably executed given the Herculean nature of the task. Rather than critique further let me try to guide the reader part by part.
Chapter 1 is rather an outlier. Potentially interesting but with a distinct mathematical bent that will leave many readers scratching their heads. Do NOT judge the book based on the first chapter. Just politely skip it if it gives you flashbacks to statistics class.
Chapters 2-4 work together as examples from classical physics. They stand alone but comprise a skippable grouping of their own if they don't sit well with you.
Chapters 5-7 represent Einstein's General and Special Relativity. As concepts they are massively intriguing but again, if they don't appeal then they are a skippable grouping.
Chapter 8 is really more philosophical than physical.
Chapter 9 is the most referred to bit of physics in the past 50 years in popular culture. If you read nothing else then read this.
Chapter 10 is for the UFO crowd.
Chapter 11 is a bit of a throw away. Perhaps a tease for a next book.
In summation, I think that like any book of this type it's straddling a fine line. As someone who has been reading books of this ilk since he was 10 it's just a rehash of topics I've read half a dozen times before. There's no new information here. For the uninitiated I think it tries to be too broad in scope and will leave a lot of head scratching. I will say though that with the exception of the first chapter the author has successfully eradicated the mathematics from these topics. That in itself is an accomplishment not to be sneezed at.
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As an example, he talks about the Quantum Zeno Effect. He spends five pages never saying exactly what it is. Just the bog-standard quotes about quantum physics being weird and who knows what "observation" really is. He jokes about the incomprehensibility of "a quantum physicist will happily tell you that the effect can be explained by "the constant collapse of the wave function into the initial decayed state"". He then does not explain what that means. As far as I can tell, he's just using jargon to impress the lay reader.
I see what he intends because know what he's referencing. If you don't already know the Quantum Zeno Paradox better than he explains it, his coverage will just be baffling. Honestly, a reference to the wikipedia page on the Quantum Zeno Effect would have better than this mushy 5 page summary.
Writing about complex subjects simply is hard to do. Jim Al-Khalili does not succeed.
1/ The assertion that the stars in consecutive shells of space, with the same thickness, radiate equal amounts of light back to Earth is questionable. Here we see an increase in the number of stars equal to the increase in volume of the shell assuming an average star density. Given a shell numbering of n, going from 1 to infinity, the increase is precisely n^3 – (n – 1)^3. Conservatively we can reduce this to simply n^3. But because these stars are further away, their apparent brightness is reduced by 1/n^2. And also because their apparent size is also reduced by 1/n^2, their ability to light up the sky is further diminished so the overall effect is a reduction of n^3/n^4 which simplifies to 1/n. Now, if we say the light emitted by stars reaching the Earth from the first shell is magnitude L, then we can generate a harmonic series L/1, L/2/ L/3, L/4, L/5………etc. The sum of the harmonic series L/n is the total for all shells. This infinite sum diverges to infinity and would result in an illuminated sky. But the sum of the partial series, limited to the extent of the visible universe, falls far short of the light intensity required to even see an object in the night sky. Hence, this is the reason why the sky appears mostly black at night. I’m not disputing the answer because this is obviously what we see but I’m questioning some of the details.
2/ “Like walking too slowly down an escalator going up” is not an accurate description of light traveling in an expanding universe. It really is more like the common mathematical puzzle of the ant walking along a stretching rubber rope which does, un-intuitively, reach the end albeit an age later.
These are questions by me and are posed to solicit responses; am I missing something?
Update: I skimmed through the remaining chapters and was not impressed by the side-tracking to physics lessons away from discussion about the actual paradoxes. For those already familiar with the physics, this would be frustrating read. The book should be re-titled, physics lessons around apparent paradoxes. It's probably OK for those wanting to know more physics.
I had heard of most of these paradoxes before, but this book gives you much more information on the problems, and the solutions.
I feel it may be a little advanced in subject matter for those not familiar with physics.