Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond, by Christophe Galyard

I have read a number of books in which writers attempt to explain complicated concepts of modern physics, Einsteinian relativity, quantum physics, string theory, and the like. These writers employ different strategies in their attempts to make comprehensible to an intelligent lay reader complicated concepts. Most of them don't succeed. One of the most difficult concepts in Einsteinian relativity is the concept of time dilation. Time dilation refers to the idea that if you travel at an extremely high rate of speed, say, 95% of the speed of light, time for you slows down. Or to put it another way, time seems to pass in a normal fashion for you but in the world through which you're traveling it speeds up. This means for instance that if you travel on a rocket ship for a year at 95% of the speed of light, when you return to your starting point you'll discover that eight hundred years have passed while for you only one year has passed. I understand what time dilation is, but I don't understand why and how it works. It's been proven repeatedly through various experiments. It's a fact that it works, that it exists. I just want to understand why.

Christophe Galfard, the author The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond (Flatiron Books, 2016), invites the reader to imagine that he is sitting at night on the beach with friends looking up at the stars. Suddenly his mind leaves his body and soars up into the cosmos. From this perspective the reader oversees the history of the solar system which ends billions of years hence in the sun's explosion. We plunge into the core of the sun, visit black holes, study atomic particles up close, learn about atomic structures and quantum forces.  During these visits Galyard shows the reader how different physical principles work.

The premise of the book: that by understanding the scientific principles of the universe, Newtonian physics, Einsteinian relativistic physics, quantum physics, string theory, and the like, mankind will one day have enough Information to be able to ensure the survival of the human race into the future before the sun explodes.

This strategy does work in a certain way. The author succeeds better than some others In making these concepts comprehensible. But I found his strategy condescending, inviting the reader to pretend that he is soaring through space or shrinking to a minuscule size and traveling around with quarks and electrons and protons and various other particles. In essence, it insults the reader's intelligence. Moreover, Galyard spends so much time setting up these journeys and joshing with the reader about what he’s learned that he denies himself the opportunity for explaining his subject in more depth. What I want from a book like this is clear writing and careful explanation of difficult concepts, not pandering.

Each chapter tackles a different aspect of cosmology: moving from the solar system to the universe to atomic particles and quantum particles to black holes and the Big Bang and string theory.  An introductory note promises that the book will use only one equation (E=MC2) and that the reader will take a “journey through the universe as it is understood by science today.  It is my deepest belief that we can all understand this stuff.”

I appreciate Galyard's attempt to explain difficult concepts, but his strategy is sometimes cloying.

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