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How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space [Hardcover]

by Janna Levin
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 11, 2002 0691096570 978-0691096575

Is the universe infinite, or is it just really big? Does nature abhor infinity? In startling and beautiful prose, Janna Levin's diary of unsent letters to her mother describes what we know about the shape and extent of the universe, about its beginning and its end. She grants the uninitiated access to the astounding findings of contemporary theoretical physics and makes tangible the contours of space and time--those very real curves along which apples fall and planets orbit.

Levin guides the reader through the observations and thought-experiments that have enabled physicists to begin charting the universe. She introduces the cosmic archaeology that makes sense of the pattern of hot spots left over from the big bang, a pursuit on the verge of discovering the shape of space itself. And she explains the topology and the geometry of the universe now coming into focus--a strange map of space full of black holes, chaotic flows, time warps, and invisible strings. Levin advances the controversial idea that this map is edgeless but finite--that the universe is huge but not unending--a radical revelation that would provide the ultimate twist to the Copernican revolution by locating our precise position in the cosmos.

As she recounts our increasingly rewarding attempt to know the universe, Levin tells her personal story as a scientist isolated by her growing knowledge. This book is her remarkable effort to reach across the distance of that knowledge and share what she knows with family and friends--and with us. Highly personal and utterly original, this physicist's diary is a breathtaking contemplation of our deep connection with the universe and our aspirations to comprehend it.

Editorial Reviews


Janna Levin insists that infinity works as a hypothetical concept only, and that it is not found in nature. (Lauren Porcaro New Yorker)

How the Universe Got Its Spots is a genuine attempt to break down barriers . . . between scientists and their wished-for-audience. (Ken Grimes and Alison Boyle Astronomy)

The intellectual-emotional balance, and . . .finely tuned prose, are what makes this different from the very many other books on cosmology. (Toronto Globe and Mail)

One of the nicest scientific books I have ever read-- . . . entertaining and difficult to put down. (Alejandro Gangui American Scientist)


Although we're tantalizingly close to the answer, we still don't know if our universe is infinite or finite. Janna Levin, one of the bright young stars on the interface between topology (the study of shapes) and cosmology, describes her efforts to look for the signatures of a finite universe and offers the reader a unique insight into her life and inner thoughts. (David Spergel, Princeton University)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (March 11, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691096570
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691096575
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #579,886 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
The author is an astrophysicist and has all the right credentials in the scientific world to perpetrate her theories on the nature of the universe. However, she has targeted this book to a broader audience. Had I not seen her promote her book in a local bookstore I might not have had my interest piqued. Also, my book discussion book selected this as its monthly choice and I was determined to read it even though, at first glance, some of the scientific diagrams seemed impossible to me as I have no background whatsoever in this area.

Wisely, though, the book is constructed as a diary of her personal life as well as explanations of her work in a letter format. She actually wrote these letters to her mother, and therefore I thought her descriptions would be simple. They weren't. However, by pushing myself to read every word, even though much of the theory was difficult, I made a discovery. All of a sudden I was introduced to concepts that I had never heard of before, no less understand. Although I'll never remember the details, I learned about Einstein and the theory of relativity, how the topology of the earth makes it a lot more complex than a perfect sphere and what the concept of "infinite" really means. And, most important, I realized just how big our universe must be and how we humans are just a tiny part of it.

As this is probably the only book I will ever read about the world of physics, I must thank the author for taking me on a journey to new and unexpected places in the small universe that is my own personal mind. The book is not an easy read, but for anyone willing to explore new frontiers, I definitely recommend it.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and original work September 9, 2002
What is the ultimate nature of the universe? Is it finite or infinite? Does it have an edge or a boundary, or any definable shape? Janna Levin attempts to provide answers to these questions in this extraordinary and fascinating effort. The book's unusual style--written as a set of unsent letters to her mother--adds a kind of personal touch that, when combined with the author's free-flowing prose style (which makes shrewd use of metaphor, analogies, and alliteration) makes it a very reader-friendly experience. Adding to the book's intimate nature is Levin's frequent references to her often chaotic and sometimes lonely life as a scientist, especially when referring to the way her increasing knowledge has in some ways distanced her from those she loves.
Her theories (which seem to have an equal number of critics and adherents) are largely based on an unusual combination of topology (her specialty) and cosmology into one elegant theory. She suggests that the universe is without an edge, staggeringly immense, but ultimately finite. But does it have a shape? Part of her theory hinges on the study of the study of the distribution of matter and the cosmic background radiation (the "echo" of the Big Bang) throughout the universe, a pattern that may eventually reveal the shape of the universe ( and may give us a greater sense of our place in it). Such a discovery could settle the debate over whether space-time curves back onto itself. If so, could hypothetical travelers move in a straight line through space and eventually come back to where they started? Perhaps topology holds the answer. In addition, Levin also discusses string theory, black holes, time warps, and numerous other theories past and present in her quest (and humankind's, as well) for an ultimate understanding of the universe.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A decent first effort May 10, 2005
In general, I am in complete agreement with those critical but supportive reviews below. As popular science, HUGIS is mediocre. Up to the last few chapters, in which Levin discusses her own scientific interests and contributions, the exposition is far inferior to other popular works on cosmology/relativity. (Among those which Levin cites at the beginning of her book I would single out Kip Thorne's Black Holes... as an exemplary introduction to the field, and a hugely entertaining piece of writing).

When, in due course, Levin does turn to her work -- topology -- HUGIS does get interesting. The book would have been much better, in my view, had Levin devoted the greater part of it to topology, and had she done so at greater depth. That said, the final chapters of HUGIS introduced me to a range of ideas I had not encountered before. I am very eager to learn more about Levin's and others' work in this highly abstruse subfield of astrophysics.

Science aside, a not insubstantial portion of HUGIS is taken up with various personal matters, mostly to do with Levin's (then) difficult relationship with a musician named Warren and her/their anguish about professional/geographic moves. Had the personal material in HUGIS had more to do with Levin's experiences as a scientist, a female scientist, etc., it would have greatly enriched her book and made the conceit of a book-as-a-series-of-letters worthwile. As it stands, however, the personal material in HUGIS was largely uninteresting and irrelevant, and transitions between Levin's personal reflections and her reflections on science were often forced and trite.

All that said, HUGIS is a quick and easy read. It is a decent and gentle introduction to some very difficult concepts.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars What's Out There, Really?
This book is pretty easy to read. There is some geometry but almost no formulas; the reading level is like Scientific American. Read more
Published 2 months ago by James W. Fonseca
3.0 out of 5 stars Spot the Spots
A curious book! For a start, the title is misleading. The thrust of the book is not to explain how the "spots" (minute variations in the temperature of the cosmic microwave... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Michael Farman
5.0 out of 5 stars How the University Got its Spots
This book is very interesting. The author attempts to explain concepts about the university, relativity, black holes, quantum physics, interwoven with bits about her personal life. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Suzanne Kincaid
5.0 out of 5 stars Reverent Wondering
I give this book five stars because the author let us peek at her whole being without interfering with her succinct thoughts about our universe. Read more
Published 15 months ago by oneofmany
5.0 out of 5 stars The Universe and Its Spots
Janna Levin does an excellent job with explaining the old things in new ways and new things you've never heard of.
Published 17 months ago by kenneth lavoie
5.0 out of 5 stars Your Teaching Prof. Reveals the Universe & Theoretical Physics
As you read Prof. Levin's writing you will wish she were your professor. Her writing style flows while emphasizing the guiding ideas or thought experiments of modern physics,... Read more
Published 21 months ago by Searcher
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Best Cosmology Books
Do you believe that the universe is infinite? In this book Levin gives a compelling argument that may cause you to reexamine that belief. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Trophy Mule In Particular
4.0 out of 5 stars Not Just a Science Book
Anyone with even a general interest in science will enjoy this book. Levin is able
to explain the various sides of a complex subject in a way that most readers will
be... Read more
Published on March 6, 2012 by Gary
5.0 out of 5 stars Sparks Curiosity
I have always feel intrigued by the astros and cosmos of the Universe. However, I haven't taken a formal curse in which I could learn in detail about the Universe. Read more
Published on May 5, 2011 by D. Correa
4.0 out of 5 stars A journey into the Universe: Both Levin's & the Cosmic one
A nicely put diary of two universe's; Levin's & the cosmic one.
Suggested for readers of all levels. Read more
Published on May 6, 2010 by Astrobob
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