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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2008
I bought this book in the hope to learn in particular about noncommutative spacetime theories. This new book by Fields medalist and undisputed world leader in the field of noncommutative geometry, Alain Connes, would be the first popular science book presenting these ideas for a non-specialist audience. So my expectations were high.

Too high it appears.

First, let it be stated very clear here: this book is not by Connes. Amazon should update their database and display "Shahn Majid (Ed.)" as author. Connes is just one of the contributers, yet his name is conveniently displayed as first author. The blurb claims: "this unique volume brings together world leaders in cosmology, particle physics, quantum gravity, mathematics, philosophy and theology". As far as I can judge, there are only two big names amongst the contributers (Connes and Penrose). The others might be established names, but they seem far removed from being "world leaders".

The contribution by Connes itself (covering about 40 pages of the book) I found disappointing. Lots of generalities and very little about noncommutative geometry. Where it goes deeper into mathematics, the notation and definitions are unclear, and it seems he never gets to the heart of the matter.

The contribution of the other 'big name', Roger Penrose is better, but contains a lot of material presented already in his superb book 'The Road to Reality'. The new material Penrose has added is about conformal cyclic cosmology.

In my opinion, the best contribution (and certainly the largest at close to 90 pages) comes from the editor Shahn Majid. He actually does go into noncommutative geometry, explains its relevance to quantum gravity, and presents some simple examples of noncommutative algebras one can play with mathematically. The last two sections of his text (on 'self-dual structures and 'relative reality') were however rather vague.

Amongst the other contributors you will find Michael Heller and John Polkinghorne. The former is linked to the Vatican, and the latter an Anglican theologian. Their contributions are of metaphysical nature and try to make a link between modern physics and theology. In my opinion the book would have been better without these two contributions.

The editor, Majid, has also written the preface. I suspect it proved impossible to attract a renowned scientist to write a preface to this collection of popular science texts of rather mixed quality.

On the positive side, this hardcover edition is of good binding quality, with an attractive cover, and certainly priced favourably (even surprisingly so for a book in this category). Yet, someone interested to read a book containing a collection of contemporary theories on quantum gravity and the nature of spacetime, I would advise similar, perhaps more expensive but content wise better, collections such as Callender and Huggett's "Physics Meets Philosophy at the Planck Scale: Contemporary Theories in Quantum Gravity".

Barely three stars, with the very affordable price and Majid's contribution preventing this book from dropping below that level.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 2009
The books falls very nicely between casual mass-market popularization literature and professional PhD texts. The average reader can easily follow the popular books, yet one can read only so many times about ray of light in moving train and curved spacetime. To follow the real developments in modern physics is next to impossible without well-developed math skills.

Majid does a terrific job of leading to the very edge of layman understanding, proving minimal math concepts to explain structure of his ideas... and then just at the moment where loosing his train of thoughts seems inescapable provide simple and yet brilliant summation of surprising insights on his ideas about reality.

The book is not trivial to follow, and knowledge of basic math concepts would be very helpful. However, it doesn't require the actual PhD level math or deriving anything. You just need to be ready to apply much more math thinking when reading the text then it would be typical for say Brian Greene book. Working your mental gears through very simple yet fun facts like (x*y)^-1 = (y^-1*y)(x*y)^-1=(y^-1*x^-1*x*y)*(x*y)^-1==(y^-1*x^-1)*(x*y)*(x*y)^-1= y^-1*x^-1 is very satisfying.

Of many recently purchased books (including terrific works by Lee Smolin, Lisa Randal, etc) this one lets you come as close as one can to watch actual workings of modern theoretical physicist research, and almost grasp the building blocks and connections without the nitty-gritty details of rigid proof. Majid conjectures are very thought provoking, and put new light on many familiar physical concepts. Strongly recommend and just wish there were more high-end popularization books like that one.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2010
I found "On Space and Time" a refreshing change from the usual, related popular book fare. The latter too often proselytize about string theory-related approaches, without making the reader adequately aware about how speculative are the theories. After a very readable and usefully up-to-date introductory overview of cosmology by astrophysicist Andrew Taylor, we have the core three chapters by leading mathematicians Shahn Majid, Roger Penrose, and Alain Connes, who each present quite different ideas about the possible fundamental structure of space-time. I particularly enjoyed the contributions by Majid and Penrose. Majid introduces in a leisurely and not overly technical way the subject of 'non-commutative geometry' and describes how it might furnish a mathematical framework for quantum space-time. Particularly intriguing is Majid's thesis that a fundamental theory of space-time (and hence physics) will involve so-called 'self-dual structures'. I liked very much his original use of Plato's cave allegory to help explain his thesis.

Penrose's chapter begins with a nice overview about how classical space-time is described using the tools of geometry. Later on, he reviews his longstanding ideas about the nature of the birth and ultimate fate of our expanding universe. His main thesis is that the laws of physics around the time of the big bang and in the remote future are 'conformally invariant'. This has the remarkable consequence that no meaning can be attached to the question of when the universe began and when it ends: there is simply no notion of time passing.

This book is not quite a 'popular' account of the subject, with equations and technical language frequently making an appearance. Yet, it is breathtaking ideas such as those exampled above that make the book well worth the effort. A reader without a mathematics background will still get a lot out of this book, not least a rare impression about the invaluable insights mathematicians have about the unsolved problems of the quantum nature of space-time.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2011
The book contains six essays on allegedly related topics (you can always try to make completely unrelated things look related).

The first chapter by Andrew Taylor is by far the easiest to follow. It is a brief summary of cosmology - in particular the theoretical background and physical evidence of the cosmological constant. It can at times get technical - e.g. there is a significant discussion on baryonic acoustic oscillation; but overall it is very readable.

The second chapter by Shahn Majid is also quite easy to read - although he has some quite profound idea which in the end is quite difficult to grasp. It explains why general relativity is not compactible with quantum machanics and proposes that quantization of space-time may solve this problem. This implies non-commutative geometry. Professor Majid's version of non-communtative geometry is called "braided algebra" - which I understands is related to braid theory - but is otherwise too technical to follow. It also invloves Hopf algebra - this bit is easier to comprehend. The essay then becomes quite vague (the author admits that it has to be the case because the mathematics become too intricate). It is then claimed that certain form of non-commutative geometry may solve the mystery of how to demystify the Copenhagen interpretation - i.e. there is no difference between the nature of an observer and its/his/her observed event. It then becomes very difficult to follow when he claims that this solution will also imply the explanation of the observed value of the cosmological constant.

The third chapter by Sir Roger Penrose, to me, is the most rewarding. Essentially it explains the concept of the manifold; then the mystery of extremely low entropy at the big bang; and then explain how Conformal Cyclic Cosmology can work. Very fascinating and much more easy to read than his other book The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe.

Chapter 4 by Alain Connes, I have to admit, is impenetrable. And the last two chapters (Ch 5 and 6) are really on theology - I really do not know why they are included.

In summary, pp 1-195 are fantastic; pp 196-283 are either unreadable or slightly irrelevant. Three stars.
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10 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2008
The nature of space and time is not a problem that puzzles physicists, mathematicians and philosophers only. For historians, time and space are two of the three most important categories we need to consider in our analyses. This volume helps put the debate on time and space into a wider context, making a cross disciplinary discussion about the elements that are at the very heart of modern
science available to non experts whilst, at the same time, offering cutting-edge research on the enigma of time and space. This book was an eye-opener for me as I had no idea that so much on this topic was still such a mystery even to physicists. There are chapters on dark
matter and energy, on quantum symmetry, on Penrose's pre-Big Bang theory, on particle physics, and on philosophical and theological implications of space and time. It is a book of different levels and in my case the technical aspects were always going to be challenging,
but its nice to know that the arguments are there for readers who want to work through them. The chapters covering philosophy and theology would be a good place to start. This volume is a must-read for those wishing to understand when did "time" begin, and where is that thing which some call "space"? And it also looks really good on
my coffee table right next to A Brief History of Time and my battered copy of The End of History.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 13, 2008
I really love the idea behind this book, which is that a unified theory of forces requires a rethink of the nature of space and time. However the passages written by Alain Connes and Majid are very difficult to follow, because the mathematics is way beyond me. I can understand the concept of noncommutative geometry both of these are working with but the actual application to physics and practical understanding is hard to follow. Some of Connes' remarks regarding solving physical problems through his theory surprise me in their optimism. Roger Penrose's article is very much indebted to 'the road to reality' in its ideas and expositions.

For some reason there are philosophical chapters and religious ones included, which appear to me completely gratuitous, hence the 3-star rating. The first chapter is a very quick and brief review of cosmology and quantum theory, ending with the puzzle of unifying standard model and gravity (i.e. general relativity). I would love to understand more about Connes and Majid but unfortunately these mathematicians are not intending to make their theories too understandable for the educated layperson in this particular book.
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on March 26, 2014
I recommend this book for folks with some education in physics and mathematics. It needn't be exhaustive but you'll appreciate it. You should at least have a year of college physics and calculus at the minimum. Preferably a couple of years worth. If you're really interested in science and mathematics but lack these basic courses I would recommend trying many other popularizations of this material as they'll be more enjoyable. To really enjoy this book I'd recommend degrees, you'll just see more of what's going on.

This is a partial review as I'm nearing the end of the second chapter, Majid's article. It's a well balanced chapter that gives the reader the sense of what folks like Majid (and Connes) are trying to do in the arena of quantum gravity with noncommutative geometry. There's clearly a deep sense and understanding of mathematics, physics and philosophy and he delivers clear and powerful ideas steadily through the chapter. I'll be adding some of his papers to my reading list in the future.

I'm also looking forward to reading Connes chapter but I want to warn readers not to get their hopes up. Noncommutative geometry does not have a simple exposition. There isn't one. You must have a minimum of a master's in mathematics before you begin to read simplified introductions. Take a gander at "Very Basic Noncommutative Geometry" by Khalkahli. You can find it on arxiv.

I'll add more when I finish, but this is a great read for those of you with experience in physics and mathematics (preferably degrees) who are looking for something beyond the usual oversimplifications written for the layperson.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2011
OK: Andrew Taylor presentation "The Dark Universe" is a great summary of what we know (or do not know) about the Universe. This itself deserves 5 stars. Michael Heller's thoughts are interesting and several pages entry by Polkinghorne is readable, though looks like a quick filler to me. But...Roger Penrose presents heavily his new concept (model) of Conformal Cyclic Cosmology using Weyl curvature tensor (hypothesis). He recently published his own book on the subject. Shahan Majid shows his theoretical and speculative views related to self-duality principle of reality perception, using "deformed geometry" and abstract algebra (the best is Fig.2.13 - Plato's cave allegory), while "noncommutative" Alain Connes..well, I just had enough and skipped it - too much "math by words". Avoid it, unless you want to realy struggle throughout almost 200 pages.
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1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2009
It started out good but got way to technical for the non- physics person.
I have a BS in Math and Physics and got lost in his equations and use of functions and swaping functions.

Had I known I would not have bought it. I was much more interested in understanding how time is dilated by speed and time and how that affects cosmology.
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