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.
on 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. This is a well-written, comprehensible book, full of wonder and excitement about our efforts to understand the universe that is as friendly to the layperson as to the experienced. VERY highly recommended.
See also: Kip Thorne's "Black Holes and Time Warps," Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" and "The Universe in a Nutshell," John Gribbin's "Unveiling the Edge of Time," and Tim Ferris' "The Whole Shebang."
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. For those readers with little scientific background, it is a fine, abeit light, overview. For those with a deeper background, HUGIS has little to offer save for a sketchy but tantalizing introduction to the work (topology) with which Levin is mostly (and most passionately) engaged.
Another reviewer suggests that Levin had the makings of an excellent book, in HUGIS, had her editor only pushed her further. I agree. HUGIS is a respectable first foray into popular science writing. Here's hoping Levin continues to write and that she matures as a writer. I think she has tremendous potential.
on January 22, 2005
Hats off to Janna Levin for such a profound and insightful work. Readers will surely fall in love with Levin's writing as she shares her ponderings and musings about the nature of the universe as a physicist and as a person.
Some readers like this reviewer, however, might stop and wonder if Levin goes too far in saying that nature abhors infinity.
Levin points out the possibility that the universe may be finite in size but unbounded in shape. If someone started flying their spaceship at one point in the universe they might, in principle, eventually come back to the same spot.
There is, however, another quite more profound and awesome way that the universe could be unbounded. Levin points out how the universe could be all there is. Thus, the universe is not simply unbounded in shape, having a finite volume and a beginning and an end in time like the earth.
The universe also is infinitely unbounded by having NOTHING outside of it. We see how the beginning of the universe is not simply a beginning of another thing, but also the beginning of TIME ITSELF.
Levin has done a great thing in helping humans to take a greater glimpse of the universe. Her insights help us to see that the universe could be limited in size, unbounded in shape, but also unbounded for the simple fact that nothing physical would exist outside of the universe.
This leads us human beings to greater levels of understanding and interest in encountering the universe, realizing how it may be limited in volume and time, but actually unbounded and unlimited simply because it is everything that physically exists.
on April 19, 2002
This book is engrossing on two levels: it presents science in a manner that is intellectually invigorating but it also compels as personal narrative. The author, a young and highly successful astrophysicist, gives a sharp and accessible account of current theories of the evolution, substance and topology of the universe and, using vivid imagery, presents an intriguing case for regarding it as finite. This crystal-clear instruction is interspersed with a diary which demonstrates how even the most scholarly pursuits are conducted against a backdrop of domestic relations and material considerations. If this sounds risky, it isn't. The author is eloquent, observant and witty.
I write as an arts specialist with a professional commitment to bringing science to artists and the wider public and am an avid, often critical, reader of `popular' science books. I find the science writing extremely lucid and the thread of personal preoccupation ingenious on a number of levels - giving the reader's brain a rest just when it was beginning to protest and forming a tersely-told story all on its own, inversely heightened by the science. Since when has a physics book been funny? Janna Levin is a scientist from a refreshingly unpretentious new generation and writes for her contemporaries but also for anyone in the wider public with intelligence and a natural curiosity for matter - and matters - great and small.
on January 6, 2007
A glance at the table of contents reveals a list of scientific topics, so one might expect to have found a popular science book. Flipping through the illustrations uncovers an assembly of star maps and human silhouettes in kaleidoscopic patterns -- so perhaps a fantasy novel? Reading a page unveils a discussion of decrepit London apartments, a failed relationship, and the internal monologue of a 30-something suddenly feeling lost in her life, as in an autobiographical work. So which is it? In truth: all of the above.
As a work of pop-sci, Levin's book uniquely contributes to the preexisting canon, in that it deals with the notion of finite universes. No other pop-sci book considers this fascinating proposal as seriously or extensively. At the same time, it also covers the pop-sci basics, introducing the ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics in prose easily comprehensible to any literate adult with no background in science. There are also brief digressions describing the uncanny personalities whose names are shared with the relevant physical theories.
While nothing in the book is fictional, the possible universes explored could easily be mistaken as such. The twisted topologies Levin walks the reader though are tantamout to a scientific discussion of an MC Escher painting brought to life. But the story told alongside the physics is not one that takes place on a Klein bottle or Mobius strip. The book is structured as actual letters from the author to her mother, letters that were never sent. Levin shares with the reader intimate details of her personal life, revealing the circumstances under which academic life takes place. Her gift for elegant prose is unique among scientists, and she uses her engagingly artistic writing to give the lay reader insight into the way a physicist's perspective makes life and the universe a place of unfathomable beauty.
Given that the vast majority of popular physics books potentially shelved next to this one essentially just repeat each other in both content and style, you'd be doing yourself a tremendous disservice choosing any of them over How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space.
on April 16, 2002
I had high hopes for this book, but it didn't live up to them. It's written in the form of letters to the author's mother (unsent, and edited later). Most of it deals with science, and the rest with the author's personal life.
The science sections are OK, but did not excite me: mainly they are a recitation of the standard catechism, with nothing to recommend this recitation over any of the many that have been published. There are a few nice stories the author says she learned from Barrow, but they are told better and more authoritatively in Barrow's book "Pi in the Sky". The one high point in the scientific sections is when the author gets up to the present day and talks a bit about her work. It's still not very detailed, but this is stuff one can't find in every popular physics book. On the whole, there's nothing terribly wrong with the science sections, but many other accounts are better.
I do think there's something wrong with the sections on the author's personal life: they're deadly dull and confusing as heck! One problem is that Levin's mother knows her too well, so there's no need for the letters to fill in all sorts of background information that would help a stranger reading the book (like her nationality, which one has to guess from context: at first I assumed she was British, then Canadian, before I finally came across a reference to her American accent). I had hoped that the personal sections would really illuminate what it's like to be a young physicist: what are different sorts of jobs and institutions like, what's it like to work with various famous people, what sorts of pressues or issues are there, what do physicists do all day, etc. These things are barely touched on. This really got on my nerves: the book keeps mentioning moving ("My boyfriend and I moved to England this month. Then back to California. Then to England. Oops, we're in California again."), but practically never describes any of the jobs or reasons for moving. The biography on the back flap says more about her jobs than the book does! We get a few curious observations about her obsessive-compulsive dropout boyfriend (he gets dumped, which does not surprise me given that she never actually says anything positive about him, even in things supposedly written before she dumped him), but it's not clear why the general public should care. I can't figure out what the author thought we would get out of these sections of the book, or why the publisher didn't get on her case about them.
If you buy this book, don't give up in disgust before you reach the later science sections (dealing with Levin's work), or you'll really have wasted your money. I rated it two stars solely because these sections save it from complete failure.
on December 4, 2014
After listening to an interview with Janna Levin on the NPR program Speaking of Faith, I became interested in reading her books. Levin is an astrophysicist and author interested in sharing her interest in topics from quantum mechanics to a Theory of Everything.
In the book How the Universe Got Its Spots, Levin uses a diary/letter style to explain contemporary theoretical physics in a way that is accessible to a layperson like me. She weaves the science through stories from everyday life. Her engaging writing style and excellent examples makes complex topics such as Einstein's theories easier to understand. It's interesting to learn how much we know and how much we still don't know about our universe. Is the universe finite or infinite? We really don't know.
One of the most amazing aspects of the book is her interest in cosmic archaeology which examines the patterns of hot spots left over from the big bang. I was also fascinated by her explanations of topology and geometry of the universe. I've always been interested in the idea of more than three dimensions, but it wasn't until I read this book that I began to understand how these other dimensions might work.
It's been nearly a decade since this book was written. I look forward to reading her newer, award-winning book titled A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.
Here's one of my favorite quotes from the book:
“…there are no walls built in the human mind making some of us scientists and some of us artist. They are branches of the same tree, rooted in a common human essence. Maybe it’s our ability to step between the different disciplines, weaving strange loops all the while, that’s the core of our creativity.” (p. 193)
on April 19, 2016
Engaging short letters explaining the universe. Painless, entertaining learning about what often is a dreary rendering of a fascinating topic.
The audio book is excellent as is the printed book. Both make the subject intimate and personal.
on July 27, 2012
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, illustrating a bit of her research and demonstrating how spots could form in our universe. Equations are not used because the initiating idea is where the paradigm changes and a revolution begins. Professors Janna Levin and Albert Einstein are adept at these questions, ideas and thought experiments. Equations and experiments follow to test whether their hypotheses are consistent with existing science or are revolutionary. HOW THE UNIVERSE GOT ITS SPOTS is an interesting, short little book which will give you an understanding of the universe and how creative theoretical physicists discover...