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How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space Hardcover – March 31, 2002

ISBN-13: 978-0691096575 ISBN-10: 0691096570
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"If the universe is infinite, then its possibilities are infinite as well. But in How the Universe Got Its Spots, the astrophysicist Janna Levin insists that infinity works as a hypothetical concept only, and that it is not found in nature."--Lauren Porcaro, New Yorker

"The intellectual-emotional balance, and the finely tuned prose, are what makes this different from the very many other books on cosmology. And Levin has found an interesting way to do this; the book is in the form of letters to her mother."--Toronto Globe and Mail

"Often elegiac in tone like a premature swansong from a young scientist with much to say--How the Universe Got Its Spots is a genuine attempt to break down barriers, both intellectual and emotional, between scientists and their wished-for-audience."--Ken Grimes and Alison Boyle, Astronomy

"This intimate account of the life and thought of a physicist is one of the nicest scientific books I have ever read--personal and honest, clear and informative, entertaining and difficult to put down."--Alejandro Gangui, American Scientist

"In an engaging, quirky collection of letters originally intended for her mother, Levin describes her quest as a cosmologist to understand both the topology of the universe and her place in it."--Discover (20 Best Science Books of the Year)

From the Inside Flap

"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

"Janna Levin is one of the most talented and original of the young cosmologists, and her book combines a tour of the frontiers of cosmology with an intimate account of her struggles to reconcile the demands of a scientific career with the demands of the heart. No other scientist has yet had the courage to write such an honest and personal account of what it is like to live the life of a scientist."--Lee Smolin, author of The Life of the Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity

"This is a totally charming piece of work. A memoir of one very talented young woman, it layers her personal odyssey and bits of science like an exotic piece of intellectual/personal pastry. The attitude toward the subject is that of the artist: feelings matter, pictures matter, intuitions matter. Levin's book is a wonderful read that introduces current science from an odd angle in a lively, accessible, and engaging fashion. I have never read a book like it."--Jeremiah P. Ostriker, Cambridge University

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (March 31, 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 (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #846,441 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

53 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Linda Linguvic HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on February 3, 2004
Format: Paperback
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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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Christian Wheeler on September 9, 2002
Format: Hardcover
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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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Librum VINE VOICE on May 10, 2005
Format: Paperback
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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