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Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in…

Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics (2012)

by Jim Al-Khalili

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We’ve all heard of the concept of Paradox before, but in case you haven’t, I think this is one;

The sentence below is true.
The sentence above is false.

Now it could also be just a word puzzle of some kind, but that is the kind of thing to expect from this offering by Jim Al-Khalili. The book claims to show the nine greatest enigmas in physics and it does a pretty good job of that. That is not to say that the Paradoxes shown are all unsolved, far from it; it merely means that the paradoxes are ones that have baffled people for a long time.

Each of the paradoxes starts out the same way; Al-Khalili introduces the problem and then goes on to state how it was put forward and why it was confusing. If he knows how it was muted for a while, he explains that too. Then, if the paradox was resolved he goes on to explain how it was done and what tools or logic were used.

The book includes some other things too, mainly to show how spurious intuition can be. This one is the famous “Monty Hall Problem.” You might have heard of it if you are into mathematical puzzles like I am, but if you are not then here is my take on it from memory.

You are on a Game Show in the final round. You are presented with three doors, let us call them “A”, “B”, and “C.” Monty Hall or the host or whoever tells you that you must pick a door from the three choices. Behind one door is a brand new car, and behind the other two doors are goats. You pick a door and Monty Hall opens another door that you did not choose, showing a goat. He then offers a deal; you can switch doors, or you can remain with the door you originally chose. Simple enough so far, but here’s the quandary; is it to your advantage to switch doors? The surprising answer to many is yes. Now at first glance, you might think that switching the doors doesn’t matter since you should have a one in two chance since there are now only two doors, but that is incorrect. Since the host KNOWS which one has the car, this changes the outcome of the game and the probability stays at one in three for each door. So that means that switching offers you a two in three chance to get the car rather than a one in two. Even professional mathematicians thought that this was the wrong answer and wrote angry letters to the editor that the author of the column was forced to respond to.

Some of the other ones are also interesting historically. Take the paradoxes from Zeno of Elea for example. His paradoxes stated that motion was impossible, yet people and things move. They weren’t resolved rigorously until calculus was invented. In the same vein is Olbers Paradox. This might seem like a silly idea too, but it isn’t in the frame of the original problem. There should be stars in every direction from the Earth, right? Regardless of how far away they are, there should be a star there, providing light from that particular point. If that is the case, why is the night sky dark rather than filled with light? The answer to that didn’t come until Einstein put forth his General Theory of Relativity. The reason the sky is dark is that the Universe has a beginning and because there is a speed of light.

Anyway, I had a grand old time with this book. All of the problems were interesting and explained in a manner that people should be able to understand. The book doesn’t contain any heavy math, so you won’t find field equations or anything too complicated. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
This was interesting but not terribly stimulating. ( )
  jimocracy | Apr 18, 2015 |
9780593069301 (tpb)
  ahkaissi | Dec 3, 2013 |
As I've said countless times lately, I received this book in a GoodReads giveaway.

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. ( )
  slavenrm | Apr 15, 2013 |
Informative, captivating and thought-provoking. I wish there'd be more details and depth in some parts of the book but overall it was a very nice reading experience. ( )
  vlucia | Mar 2, 2013 |
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To Julie, David and Kate
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307986799, Paperback)

A fun and fascinating look at great scientific paradoxes.

   Throughout history, scientists have come up with theories and ideas that just don't seem to make sense.  These we call paradoxes.  The paradoxes Al-Khalili offers are drawn chiefly from physics and astronomy and represent those that have stumped some of the finest minds.  For example, how can a cat be both dead and alive at the same time?  Why will Achilles never beat a tortoise in a race, no matter how fast he runs?  And how can a person be ten years older than his twin?

   With elegant explanations that bring the reader inside the mind of those who've developed them, Al-Khalili helps us to see that, in fact, paradoxes can be solved if seen from the right angle.  Just as surely as Al-Khalili narrates the enduring fascination of these classic paradoxes, he reveals their underlying logic.  In doing so, he brings to life a select group of the most exciting concepts in human knowledge.  Paradox is mind-expanding fun.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:34 -0400)

Quantum physicist Jim Al-Khalili examines nine notable scientific paradoxes and presents possible solutions for them.

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