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Light-hearted and light treatment of very heavy concepts....
on February 23, 2011
Visions of the Multiverse is a very readable introduction to some very strange concepts in physics. Its advantage is that it's short and requires no math expertise from the lay reader, even though much of it is really about mathematics. However, it does require you to think about things. Its disadvantage is that it's short and requires no math expertise--in other words, you may arrive at the end somewhat dissatisfied by your lack of understanding of these topics. If that's the case, bless your soul, there are more meaty tomes (also with little or no mathematics) that expand on the ideas contained in this book. (I'll mention some of them below.)
"Multiverse" is short for "multiple universes." Physicists probably spend too much time coming up with cute names for their theoretical constructions and experimental phenomena. For example, Mr. Gell-Mann must have had a lot of free time on his hands to read Finnegan's Wake in order to find that phrase that gave birth to the quarks in high-energy physics found in his "eight-fold way" (another bit of dubious poetic license). One of my professors at U.C. Santa Barbara once explained to us that the name "barn," a unit for area used in nuclear and high-energy physics, came from the expression that "you can't even hit the broad side of a barn." That might be true. So you'll have to be on your toes to keep all these fancy names straight in Mr. Manly's book.
Quantum mechanics and relativity (both the special and general theories) are hard enough, but this little book looks beyond to topics like cosmology, string theory, and a plethora of different brane-storms that are ripped bloody and raw from the wild imaginations of theoretical physicists. Author Manly and others are serious about this stuff, of course; I quote him: "The idea of a multiple universe reality is no longer considered speculative or implausible by many physicists; rather, it is deemed inescapable." Really? I guess I'm a heretic, a non-believer.
I use concepts like superstring theory, branes, and multiverses in my sci-fi. I'll admit that this is directed more to playfully bludgeon the reader with buzzwords that provide a convenient rug to sweep under all kinds of foggy concepts like faster-than-light travel and changeable physical constants. Star Trek probably did it in a simpler fashion by creating the warp drive and its associated mumbo-jumbo and leaving it at that, but today's sci-fi reader is more sophisticated. He may have read some of the popular treatments of these new ideas and rightfully expects me to have done the same (I've done a little more than that, of course).
Author Manly in his first few chapters provides an introduction to what is often called "modern physics" in a style that is often called "physics for poets." Quantum mechanics and relativity are hardly modern, of course, and their applications go far beyond what the author discusses, probably for lack of space and time (sorry--I couldn't resist). Both are vintage 1900 and even Gay Nineties theories, but your smart phone wouldn't exist without solid state physics, an offshoot of quantum mechanics, and your GPS wouldn't work right without its relativistic corrections. Maybe because these theories are so last century, the author gives the idea that all problems with these theories have been solved.
Don't get me wrong. I don't expect him to dwell on foundational problems--I just expect him to acknowledge them. Let's take one example, the Higgs boson (the author has a nice introduction to this illusive beastie, by the way). Does it exist? Let's ask the more practical question. Does the current electroweak theory require it? That theory certainly requires spontaneous symmetry breaking and the Higgs field does that trick, but to leap from that theoretical observation to saying the beastie exists is quite a stretch. Maybe the new accelerator at CERN will finally find it and I will have to eat my words. Until then, I'm a skeptic.
I've always been a cynic. I find much of modern physics in general and the topics that the author treats in this book in particular to be the work of dreamers. Models are invented willy-nilly, many without any chance of being tested, in the lab or even in the astrophysical sense. Even string theory, which possesses a beautiful mathematical intricacy, is dissatisfying with respect to the physics phenomenology. The mathematics of string theory is so complicated that Ed Witten, probably the only physicist who can be mentioned on the same page with Einstein, received the 1990 Fields Medal, the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He is the only physicist to have received it (something never mentioned by Mr. Manly, by the way). But the physics of string theory? We might as well imagine angels on the heads of pins playing little harps.
Another disadvantage is the author's dwelling on religious issues. A faith-based multiverse? Even though you've written for popular consumption, sir, this is a book about science (and mathematics, of course). Religious issues don't belong here--I don't care how mixed up we are in the U.S. with our magnetic crystals, alien abductions, astrology, intelligent design, flat Earth society, and ESP mumbo-jumbo. Another bit of pseudo-scientific charlatanism can be found in the idea of "quantum activism"; from Amit Goswami's website: "...quantum activism is the moral compass of quantum physics and helps us to actually transform ourselves and society." Add this to the list right after alien abductions. Then add Rhonda Byrne's pronouncement: "Quantum physics tells us that the entire Universe emerged from thought!" To use a little of what I know about cell-phone textese: "OMG!"
If you, the reader, can get beyond the snake-oil salesmen (why did the author waste his time with them?), and you want a light-hearted introduction to some very complicated topics (neither Manly nor I could be a success as stand-up comedians), I can recommend this book. It might have a place as a complement to a physics-for-poets class. Even physics students in their first years, especially those trying to decide whether they can have some fun in the discipline, might enjoy reading it. (If you're already a professional physicist, you should already know the first two-thirds of the book in a lot more detail than is treated here, and therefore should move on to the following list.)
For those who want more, let me suggest Brian Greene's three books, The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality; Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds; Lisa Randall's Warped Passages; and that old warhorse, The First Three Minutes, by Steven Weinberg, the author who started it all. If you want to read non-fiction instead of my fiction, I can imagine no better use of your time.
(This review was written for Book Pleasures.)