on October 14, 2006
Joseph Silk, a leading cosmologist, gives his latest take on the scientific quest to comprehend our universe, its origins, and where it is going.
I've read Silk's book on the Big Bang (which can be considered a companion volume) and he is able to explain scientific cosmology in fairly understandable terms. Unfortunately given the scales of time and space involved, many of which are far removed from our ordinary experience, the heavy use of arcane physical concepts and mathematical ideas far from ordinary life are inevitable. Yet, the conclusion Silk offers is our universe is probably infinite.
Interestingly, Silk dabbles in the possible theological and philosophical conclusions of an infinite universe, ranging from the possibility there are infinite numbers of parallell Earths and selves, to the possibility our universe is only one possible universe out of an infinite set of universes, most of which are inhospitable to life. Silk is aware of the limits of speculation (he is deeply knowledgeable about Astronomy) and gives a surprisingly positive estimate of philosophy and what it might offer science, and what science might offer to philosophy.
The book is quite enjoyable, though due to its expense, more worth borrowing than buying.
As a general rule, I enjoy reading books about what is currently happening in physics. I enjoy them because I studied physics in school and taught it for many years. Not only am I trying to keep current myself, but I am also looking for things that will help my students understand physics a little better. Unfortunately, though Dr. Silk is clearly up on what is happening, he doesn't communicate it very well. This is not a book I would pass on to my students.
When it comes right down to it, this is a very hard book to read. I'm reasonably well-versed in the subjects Dr. Silk is discussing and yet I found his prose unnecessarily dense and filled with numerical data that only superficially helps him make his points. Brilliant and knowledgeable he might be, but Dr. Silk has a real problem communicating his ideas in an appealing way. Certainly, unless you have a physics background and facility with a mathematical argument, I would stay away from this book.
That is too bad because the subjects Dr. Silk puts before us are inherently fascinating--black holes, the fate of the universe, et.al.--and he knows his stuff. Additionally, the proliferation of books on the subject show there is an interest out there. Dr. Silk's effort, however, will not likely help many people along the path to understanding unless they are already most of the way there.
When it comes to cosmology, you need your information fresh, spot on accurate, and as inspired as possible I came to SILK's book, having read about everything on Cosmology I could easily find. I found SILK's book overall inconsistant and confusing. It wasnt what he was revealing, because nearly all of it has been in recent books. Silk needed a better editor to take the time to structure this book, and commision some original diagrams to make some of the information more accessable. Good illustrations can take a very complicated "left brain" type explanation, and visualize it for us "right brain" types. A major problem with this book is that the writer doesnt seem to have a grip on WHO his audience is. IS it NASA research scientists? High school students? At one point he talks about Megaparsecs, kiloparsecs, and gigaparsecs. Now, this book as NO GLOSSERY OF TERMS. He could just as easily given distances in light years. Instead of using the most obvious terms, he obfuscates his writing, and loses his audience. Other times, he repeats explanations of the most fundamental terms. On page 26, he explains that HADRONS are BARYONs and LEPTONS. BUT, this gets explained again on page 118, when the terms of Baryonic matter gets another going over. Even on page 164, he defines baryonic matter again, and then once more tackles dark matter. If he had a chapter, that started with the basics of particle physics, and worked its way step by step into the concept of dark matter, that would have been so much clearer. This writing problem is throughout the book. On page 113, he says that stars become brighter by burning hydrogen into helium. The next sentence, he writes, "They (the stars) become brighter as their fossil fuel is gradually exhausted..". When I read that, i realized this guy was either making inside jokes with his terminology, or his editor didnt understand what was being written. FOSSIL FUELS MAKE THE STARS BURN? I saw this type of writing in many places. He says that distant galaxies produce most of their energy at infrared wavelengths. So, does he mean the energy is OBSERVED at infrared wavelengths (because of redshift), or it's produced that way? I was confused there again. (I'm sure SILK knows what he's talking about, but as a writer, his job is to make ME know what he's talking about.) The worse problem, is that the conceptual unfoldment of the book is not logical. Advanced explanations and terms get thrown sometimes in the front, at other times in the back of the book. If you had never read a book about cosmology before, you would really be lost here. In the end of these cosmology books, is where all the intellectual goodies are usually placed.....TIME TRAVEL, ALIEN LIFE FORMS, BEFORE THE BIG BANG, UNIVERSAL TOPOLOGY, and... GOD AND CONSCOUSNESS? When he started to write about God, conscousness, and how poets and theologicans are afraid of an infinite universe, i had to scratch my head. If i want theology, I'll read a theologian, and if I want poetry, i'll read a poet. When i want science, i read scientists. I have no idea why Silk was pontificating on some subjects, outside of his discipline. The oddest part of this book, is right in the title. The whole book, the writer claims that the universe is "INFINITE". Sometimes, when he speculates on the topology of the universe, Silk states the universe might be bounded, but infinite. (this is the topological part of the book, which is very obtuse. Others have commented about this as well.) A recent popular science writer, required a whole book on topology and cosmology, to explain how a hypertorus might be the shape of the universe, thereby allowing us to see multiple images of our own galaxy. But, Silk devotes less than 3 pages on the topic, and expects himself to be understood. And he isnt. So, he finally gets to the payoff, after talking about the time machines, time travel paradoxes, and the fate of the universe. After this whole book, about the INFINITE universe, he says, (pg.191) "We do not know if the universe is finite or infinite." WHAT? Why not just say that in the first chapter, and forget the circumlocutions? Anyway, there are some great ideas in the book. I'm not discrediting that. I am not sure what part of this book was Silk's original research, but popular science writers need not be scientists themselves. (By the way, there is only 4 or 5 footnotes for the whole book, so Silk isnt telling where he gets his information. And, if you think it might be in the bibliography, well, that's missing too.) I'm sure that SILK is a great scientist. It is his attitude and ability as a popular SCIENCE WRITER, that i have problems with. Difficult ideas and terms are sometimes glossed over, sometimes conflicting facts and oddball terms are introduced without explanations, and sometimes, the point you spend pages trying to prove, is tossed aside, as being without proof. I took a long time to read this, even tho almost all the material in the book, I've read before. Maybe the concept of the book was not fully thought out, or Silk didnt get enough feedback from his editor, before he published. THE INFINITE COSMOS is simutaneously both too basic and repetitive, and too advanced for the scope of a science book for the general reader. I was disappointed overall. I guess I'll stick to Kip Thorne, Hawkings, and Brian Greene.
on April 20, 2006
With humility, I appear to be at the head of the queue. I was immediately captivated by the quote from Oscar Wilde on page 3: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Joseph Silk is doubtless among the latter. His erudition is immense, and I hold his professional work in highest esteem. I enjoyed reading this "popular account" immensely. I admire his eclecticism in including a quote from Feyerabend, with which I also agree (despite the anarchist philosophy of science and politics attributed to P.F.). I do take issue with his off-hand critique of String Theory and Branes, not so much because it diametrically opposes the view of the afforementioned anarchist (with which one may assume Silk agrees), but because Silk seems to shrug off strings (Superstrings and D-Branes etc.) because not one shred of experimental evidence supports it (incidentally the only quantum-gravity synthesis that promises to eliminate the need for ad hoc elimination of quantum field singularities (off the cuff renormalization will not work in loop quantum gravity despite the claims of Lee Smolin et al. with whom I studied at the University of Waterloo.
I wish to call your attention to the fact that in 1915, Albert Einstein had absolutely no empirical evidence for the Theory of General Relativity. That came later. He didn't even know that the nebulae were extra-galactic galaxies. He thought the milky-way was the universe entiere, as did most astronomers prior to Hubble. In this and other similar comments, I have a sense that Silk is not in agreement with Feyerabend's inimicable style: "The only principle that does not impede progress is that anything goes."
But enough trivia. My main reason for giving this book a modest rating is not because I don't find it inspirational. I do! It is because it is presented as "popular science". One must take great care discriminating between "layman's physics" and "physics w/o equations". As one who is a card-carrying member of the C*-Algebra crowd (r.e. Arveson, Zakai, Sorbonne et. al), I can tell you that the most difficult thing I have ever undertaken was to explain to highly gifted lay-persons what the theory of operator algebras with involution on Hilbert Space is!
I purchased this book in the hope my 92-year-old father could read it to get a glimmer of what it is I think about. I was disappointed. My father has his marbles and was a professor of pharmacology. But he is clueless about homogeneous and isotropic topologies, inflationary theory, variable fine structure constants (1/150), strong and weak anthropic principles (need I go on?).
I believe a common perception is that popular books can be written for lay-persons if you just keep the math out. That may be true, but I fear Silk has not quite made it here.
p.s. Perhaps I'll try with noncommunative geometry. Wish me luck, cause I'll need it!!