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Out of This World: Colliding Universes,…

Out of This World: Colliding Universes, Branes, Strings, and Other Wild…

by Stephen Webb

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(cross-posted on my blog: http://davenichols.net/out-world-stephen-webb)

I didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. Having picked it up a few weeks ago, I expected it to sit on my shelf unread for some time to come. I was in the mood for a physics book, but couldn't pick between two others I have sitting on my shelf, Lisa Randall's Warped Passages and Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics. So instead of making a decision, I picked up Webb's book and gave it a quick read.

I'm glad that I did. Out of This World was an excellent overview of physics up through its publication date of 2004. Since I don't work in the field, it can be tough to remember all the specific theories, controversies, and terms that make up the modern landscape of physics. This book was perfect for such a refresher and more. Webb wastes no time at any point in elaborate metaphor or side story, he stays on message throughout, and I appreciated his brevity and clarity in presenting a notoriously difficult subject to write about. Webb is only rarely a cheerleader (unlike Kaku or even Greene, both of whom I enjoy reading), and offers a level-headed look at physics.

He states up front that this book's point was to present physics to a non-mathematical reader, but one should not mistake that for meaning the 'average joe'. Out of This World is meant for an intermediate reader who has some familiarity with science and a patience for reading theories not easily visualized. In other words, this was a perfect format for me at this point. The book includes numerous diagrams and photos to enhance Webb's presentation.

Webb gives a quick overview of some fundamentals of physics, including symmetry, relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model. His discussion on symmetry is the 'kindest' I've read yet to the non-math genius, and serves as an excellent introduction to the subject and its importance to physics (side note: Peter Woit badly needed this sort of presentation on symmetry in his anti-string theory book Not Even Wrong, as opposed to his included 100-page dry slog through the subject).

Later chapters cover more recent theories, especially string theory and M-theory, duality, and branes, as well as excellent overviews of anti-de Sitter spacetime and conformal field theory. He finishes up with postulations about future research into higher dimensions, supersymmetry, and offers an excellent introduction to the Arkani-Hamed--Dimopoulos--Dvali model and the Randall-Sundrum Scenario, the latter of which is well-timed since I will read Randall's Warped Passages in the next couple of weeks.

Webb doesn't outright take a position on the main controversy in physics, namely the place of highly-mathematical (and light on testable science) string theory and M-theory, although he presents them as primary subjects for much of the second half of the book. Part of the reason he does this is that there aren't many other games in town right now, though he does make a quick side reference to the work of Smolin and others on the emerging loop quantum gravity theory, and he clearly wanted to present the ideas currently leading the way in the field.

Out of This World was an unexpected, no frills yet highly-readable and enlightening gem for the intermediate physics reader. Well recommended, four stars. ( )
1 vote IslandDave | May 13, 2009 |
A good one -- more informative than most qualitative accounts of the latest beyond-the-Standard-Model physics. Dares to describe such things as the AdS/CFT correspondence (Anti-de Sitter / Conformal Field Theory correspondence): A gravity-including superstring theory defined in a five-dimensional anti-de Sitter spacetime (with constant negative curvature and five additional, compactified dimensions) is holographically dual to a gravity-excluding, supersymmetric, gauge, quantum field theory defined on the four-dimensional boundary of that spacetime. (Got that? Quiz later.)
  fpagan | Oct 21, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0387029303, Hardcover)

Stephen Webb, author of WHERE IS EVERYBODY?, takes the interested amateur on a thrilling and enlightening tour of the amazing, even bizarre, new ideas of modern physics, including alternatives to the Big Bang, parallel universes, and an imaginary trip to the other side of the black hole.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:45 -0400)

"Although it is now almost unanimously accepted that the cosmos started with the Big Bang, we still have no plausible theory for the forces that set this creative cataclysm into motion." "In Out Of This World, Stephen Webb examines recent theories. After introducing general relativity and quantum mechanics - the twin foundations of twentieth century physics - he explains how they are fundamentally incompatible. Then he introduces us to the seemingly outlandish and bizarre proposals - from almost unbelievably small particles to huge membranes that may envelope our Universe - that physicists have devised to account for this incompatibility, ultimately leading to us to wholly new realms of understanding."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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