Showing posts with label physics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label physics. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Atom Land by Jon Butterworth

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is Jon Butterworth's second book on physics. I have not read his other book. The author is a Professor of Physics at University College London and also works at CERN on the ATLAS particle detector experiment. This was one of two large hadron collider experiments which were instrumental in discovering the long-sought-after Higgs Boson.

I have to say up-front that I was very disappointed in this book. For me, it confused things far more than it clarified them, which is unfortunate. I'm not a physicist by any stretch of the imagination, and I have only a lay-person's understanding of the topics covered here, but I have read extensively on these subjects, so I know my way around them in general terms. I was hoping for more clarity or new learning here, and I felt I got neither. The author used the metaphor of exploring oceans and islands to pursue the investigation of forms of energy and sub-atomic particles, but it didn't work and it felt much more like a shallow tourist trip where it's all about superficiality and gewgaws, rather than an actual exploratory voyage during which we really learn something about the venue we're visiting.

But before I really get started on content, I find myself once more having to say something about formatting. This book is laid out as a typical academic-style text, with very wide margins, lots of white space, and lots of extra pages up front that strictly aren't necessary. The publisher determines how a book should look, and supplicants to the publishing world are required to conform whether the antiquated rules make sense in a modern world or not.

For me, the bottom line is that we cannot afford to sacrifice so many trees in a world where climate change is running rampant and may be irreversible. We need trees alive, not crushed and sparsely printed on. Naturally in an ebook, this is irrelevant except in that bulkier books eat up more energy in transmission over the Internet, but for a large print run, this slaughter of forests has to stop, or at least be contained. Wasting so much paper is unacceptable.

This book had an extensive contents which served no purpose at all because it contained no links to the actual chapters nor did the chapters contain a reverse link to get back to the contents. Neither was there an index in the back. I assume there was no index because ebooks are searchable and therefore an index and a contents are really irrelevant. Who reads a contents page? Maybe some do, but I never do. I don't read prologues, forewords, introductions, or prefaces, either. If you want people to know what's in the book, make the back cover blurb serve a real purpose and put a brief contents list on that cover!

The real problem here though was the margins which ate up (by my estimation) at least a quarter of each page in white space. The chapter title pages wasted more, and each book section wasted yet more by having its own title page. I'm sure authors and publishers think this makes a book look pretty but you know what? Trees are far prettier than any book I've ever seen or heard of. The book could probably have been two hundred pages instead of three hundred, had more judicious margins and a slightly wiser use of overall space been employed. I can't sanction that kind of wastefulness in formatting.

Another issue was that while the publisher very wisely did not publish this using Amazon's crappy Kindle format, which mangles anything but the plainest of text, the book was published in a format which lent itself poorly to being read on a smart phone, because every page insists upon presenting itself as a complete page. Like an atom, it's not easily broken down into smaller component parts and the entire page is too small, especially with those margins, to be read comfortably on a phone screen. It's really designed for a tablet computer which is far less easy to tote around than is my phone.

On the phone, the reader is constantly having to stretch the page to fill the screen. Shrinking those large margins made it intelligible, but that also rendered it 'unswipeable': you can't swipe to the next page, so you have to reduce the page back to original size - sometimes requiring two shrinking efforts to achieve this properly - swipe it, enlarge it, read it, shrink it, rinse and repeat. It makes for an irritating reading experience at best.

The real problem or joy of any book though is the content (as opposed to contents!). Does it do the job? For me this did not because there were so many confusing metaphors here that it really muddied the water rather than clarified it. It was like comparing the pristine Inverness river of the thirteen century with the disgustingly polluted Thames of the Victorian era.

As I mentioned, the metaphor of sea-travel and island visits is employed here, and the book even includes maps of them of these locations, but this struck me as completely fatuous and an entirely wrong-headed approach. Illustrations of some of the concepts he was discussing would definitely have clarified things, but none of those are to be found anywhere. Instead, we have fake maps of fictional seas and islands that really have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject under discussion. To me this was ill-advised.

It didn't help that the author continually jumped around like he was in Brownian motion between one topic an another. First we sail to this island, then we sail back to where we started, then we take a train journey, then we re-board the ship and sail to another island, oh look at that island over there, but here we are at this island instead. It made for a nonsensical text in which the reader struggled to follow the topic instead of being helped along by a favorable breeze as it were.

I can't test the whole document since I don't have the text, but out of curiosity I typed in this one tiny section which struck me as being obtuse:

The sprays, or jets, of hadrons will be collimated roughly in the direction of the initial quark and antiquark. The energies and directions of the initial quark and antiquark can be calculated in QCD, and the calculation agrees well with measurements of the jets.
This scored marginally over a forty four in Flesch reading ease, where a score for comfortable reading would be sixty or seventy. Low scores are bad! The Flesch-Kincaid grade level was 12.5 which indicates a person who has started college (beyond twelfth grade in the US means graduated high-school - or post-GCE-A-level student in Britain). Although this was hardly a random sample, I believe it's representative since it isn't atypical of how this book is written, so be warned that the reading level isn't exactly aimed at the general populace! I think this is a flaw perhaps induced by having only scientist colleagues read the text? I don't know.

By the time this book reached chapter 19, roughly halfway through, and very accurately titled 'The Weak Force', and went rambling on about W and Z particles, once again without really explaining anything, but instead comparing the whole thing to an airline, I had pretty much lost all interest in this book. This chapter seemed to be one of the most confusing and therefore the weakest in the chapter list so it was aptly named, but maybe this was simply because I was so tired of these meaningless meandering and overblown metaphors that I really had no heart left in it at all, and I decided my time would be better spent elsewhere.

Even when we got down to the actual topic under discussion, the text really didn't do very much to educate or illuminate. As I mentioned, it was like a tourist version where we see the sights, but learn little to nothing of local color and history. We got a scientist's name tossed in here and there, but nothing in depth about the subject before we were whisked-off to the next. Every topic got the same short shrift no matter how easy or hard a topic it might have been to explain.

For example at one point (page 127 of the book, page 145 of the screen page count, which is an indicator of how many fluff pages there were at the start of this book), there was a brief discussion of the elements and how well-bound (or otherwise) they are, with iron standing out as tightly-wrapped no-nonsense kind of a fellow, but nowhere in this section was there any sort of discussion as to exactly why iron, of all the elements, is like this! There were hints all around it but nothing as solid as iron itself is.

Why is iron such a problem in star formation and development such that when a star starts making iron in its belly, it's doomed? Iron is like the legendary black spot in pirate lore, predicting your demise if you get it, but we learn nothing of exactly why this is so. We're told only that this is why iron is so common. I had expected, in a book like this, that there would be something to learn here, but it seems that either there isn't or the author thinks it not worth sharing, and we were never party to which of those options it was. To me this was a starting point: begin with trusty old iron, talk about the elements, and use those discussions of elements and their properties to launch the other topics covered here.

Another such issue was when the text started in on the color of quarks. Color when used in this sense has nothing whatsoever to do with what you see on the TV or movie screen, or in images on your camera. It's an idiosyncrasy of science which Richard Feynman detested. Red, green and blue are used to describe various quarks, but their opposites are not cyan, magenta and yellow! Instead, they're woodenly named: anti-red, anti-green, and anti-blue! There was an opportunity for humor there which was missed a in a community which seems fine with quarks named strange and charm! In physics, the color of a sub-atomic particle has to do with the charge of the particle, not with color, but beyond that I have no idea what it really means and this book utterly fails to explain it, or even broach it. This to me was emblematic of the overall skimpy approach employed here. I'm surprised the ship didn't run aground in such shallow seas.

The fact that topics got short shrift - or more à propos, set adrift, as opposed to being anchored solidly in something people have an instinctive grasp of, really sums up the problem: I expected a lot more from this than I got, and it was a truly disappointing experience. I wish the author all the best in his career, both academic and literary, but I cannot recommend this book.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Real Quanta by Martijn van Calmthout

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This book was a disappointment to me, a dark body with little radiation. The first problem, I felt, was that the blurb completely misrepresents it. You can't blame the author for the blurb, unless the author self-publishes, but it's not the blurb that bothered me so much. Blurbs often misrepresent content. It's rather their job. What truly bothered me was the content itself, which was all over the place. There was a great teaching opportunity here, a chance to focus light on some potentially obscure subjects, but instead of a neat rainbow from a prism we got a scattering effect that failed to focus anything. The author is actually a science journalist, so this was doubly disappointing for me.

The conceit here is that the author, a Nederlander, is sitting down at a table in a fancy hotel in Brussels and discussing quantum physics with the German, Albert Einstein and the Dane, Neils Bohr, both of whom are dead. The problem with that is that neither Einstein nor Bohrs manage to get a word in edgewise; it's all Calmthout all the way down. And what he has to say was about as gripping an atom of a conducting material is on its electron shell.

According to the blurb, the book is supposed to be a discussion of "the state of quantum mechanics today" but it's far more of a history book than ever it is a modern electronics book, and the history, as I said, is terse and it bounces around so much that it makes it hard to get a clear picture of what was going on when. Unlike electrons which, when they jump, emit light, the text here typically failed to illuminate, hence my dark body allusion.

Additionally, there is a lot of repetition in the text, which is annoying. If this had been a first draft, I could have understood how it might end up like this, but this is supposed to be the publishable copy, or very close to it. In my opinion it needs a rewrite. And it needs properly formatting. This was obviously written with the print world in mind, without a single thought spared for the ebook version which is ironic given the subject matter! In my opinion, it should have been published only as an ebook.

The formatting was atrocious, with the titles of each chapter running into one word with no spacing, so they were unintelligible without some work to disentangle them. The drop-cap at the start of each chapter was predictably normal-sized because Amazon's crappy Kindle app cannot format for squat. Normal-sized, would have been fine had the drop-cap not been on the line above the rest of the text it was supposed to lead off. Also, quite often, when a term employing the indefinite article was employed, the 'a' was tacked onto the next word after it, which I suppose in one small way was an eloquent representation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

But back to the topic: the only way to have a conversation with Einstein or Bohrs is to read something they've written, or in the case of a book set up like this, to tread carefully and quote from them, using their published views as 'answers' to or explanations satisfying, your questions. The author didn't do this. Like I said, he seemed to feel that his own opinion was much more important than that of either of these two legendary and Nobel prize-winning historical figures!

He even puts words into my mouth so I shudder to imagine what he would have done to those two characters had he actually let them speak. For example, he says, "You instinctively wonder how on Earth an electron knows what is up and what is down. Aren’t those concepts a bit too human for a particle that shouldn’t really even be called a particle? That confusion is the core of the quantum mystery," but this is nonsensical, and do rest assured that I have never wondered how an electron knows what is up or down!

I can reveal to you here and now for the first time, that in the real world, electrons honestly don't give a damn. They are what they are. The fact that we project simplifying human 'explanations' onto them in an effort to understand their behavior doesn't mean the electrons care what we think! It's immaterial to an electron which way up it is. I know this because I interviewed a few for this blog and the truth is that electrons do not act alone! They're consummate team players - an example to us all!

The author doesn't seem to get this, and lets himself be dazzled by the reflection of our projections onto electrons, mistaking them for something real emanating from the electron itself! This same flaw is evident in the author's approach to the history of quantum physics: singling out great figures, but never successfully turning them into a refined-prose condensate. I wish this author all the best, but I fear we must await another author to get us a Grand Unified Theory of modern quantum mechanics - at least one that will energize the masses and give us the chain reaction we crave.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios

Rating: WARTY!

Dishonestly subtitled " A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World", this book was a disappointment. There is math in this - a lot of it - and it starts right there in chapter one. It isn't at all well explained. That was the biggest problem here. This author simply is not one who can competently and clearly explain complex science to the lay person.

I didn't come into this completely ignorant, but I left it with little learned, which is why this is a fail. I have read quite a lot on Quantum Mechanics, which doesn't make me an expert by any means, but I do understand some of the principles and ideas. This author but this guy did nothing to enlighten me any further. His constant footnotes were far more annoying than ever they were edifying, and his frequent references to obscure antique comic books did nothing to help his case along.

For me, Lawrence M. Krauss started all this in 1995, when he published The Physics of Star Trek which was well-written, entertaining, and educational. It spawned many imitators, few of which have been as well done as his was. I think Kakalios believed he could turn his own obsession with old comics into a similar work, but whereas Krauss actually did reference a cultural icon which is well-known, Kakalios simply appears to have indulged himself in his own personal passion, which has little, if any, relevance to anyone else.

This book was dense, humorless, and unenlightened, the illustrations unillustrative, the explanations obscure and meandering when they were not outright obfuscating, and the frequent comic book and fifties 'B' movie references irritating and distracting. I can't recommend this at all.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

Title: A Universe From Nothing
Author: Lawrence Krauss
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Rating: WORTHY!

It's December 21st, so it's time for double U - not to be confused with W!

A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing has been a very controversial book and for no good reason. If you search for reviews on it, what pops up in abundance is Christian websites desperately trying not to refute it (they can’t) but to discredit it! That's a good sign, because it means that it seriously shredded yet another facet of their inane fairy tale, and like a wounded wild animal, they’re lashing out blindly in their pain. This is a routine knee-jerk reaction which we see every time a new Richard Dawkins book comes out, for example.

Note in passing, one more thing about this book. When real professionals, doctors, scientists, and so on, publish a book, they never put their credentials after their name. It's always - and only 'Lawrence Krauss', or 'Lynn Margulis', or 'Neil deGrasse Tyson', or 'Richard Dawkins', or 'Carl Sagan', or 'Stephen Gould', or 'Brian Greene', and so on. This is how you differentiate books like this, ones which contain honest, factual information and tested scientific theory, from those bullshit books which which contain so-called magic diets or alternate lifestyle "help", where the authors invariably lard up their name with a string of letters trailing it. Keep that in mind for future purchases!

The really amusing thing is that reviewers - on both sides of the fence, religious and scientific - are not so much reviewing what Krauss wrote per se as they are whinging about whether the powerful arguments science makes - which discredit or side-line religion - really dispatch it or not. I found that as interesting as it was revealing, because these same people don’t ever try to argue in that same way when a religious book is published using science to try to establish their particular god!

I noticed that one Christian website, in a negative review of this book, was still flogging the bankrupt and discredited (non-)argument employed by William Lane Craig, but not original with him:

    Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. The universe exists. Therefore the universe has an explanation of its existence. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

This particular website concluded: "Since this is a logically valid deductive argument, and since the universe obviously exists, non-theists must deny premises 1 or 4 to rationally avoid God’s existence." This is patent nonsense of course! It’s not even rational. Point one is far from established. It’s simply wet sand upon which the theists choose to base their claims, and it completely ignores quantum physics and vacuum energy which fly in the face of it. Point four is nothing but a baseless and desperate assertion, which proves nothing other than that they who support this argument are not above hypocritically bearing false witness.

Point three in no way rationally follows from anything which preceded it not least of which because point one has not been established. This is the transparent theist attempt to get a free lunch, because all of the 'arguments' they make carry within them the implicit and a priori assumption existence of a god. They claim that their god has always existed, yet if you tell them that the universe (or whatever generated it) has always existed, they argue that it cannot be so - it needed a cause; then they argue that their god is causeless! Rational? Not even close.

I'm a big fan of Lawrence Krauss, but I think he did a better job in the popular books which first brought him to wide-spread recognition than he does here. His The Physics of Star Trek And Beyond Star Trek are amazing and very accessible, and I highly recommend them. The second was, I think, better than the first. Here in this book, he's not looking at how realistic (or otherwise) science fiction is, he's actually looking at the meaning of science which is so advanced that it might appear like science fiction (or even fantasy) to people who either don’t take the trouble to understand it, or who are arbitrarily predisposed (from the thorough religious indoctrination most people are subject to from childhood) to dismiss it out of hand.

But while I think he could have done a lot better job in conveying his ideas (and perhaps an even better job in reading them - I listened to the audio book version, which Krauss reads himself, and not always very clearly), I still think he made his case. The question is what case was it he was making? People assume he was simply making a claim that everything came from nothing and he proved it in this book, but that's not actually what he's saying.

In his own words, in an interview, Krauss put it this way: "...I'll be the first to say that empty space as I'm describing it isn't necessarily nothing, although I will add that it was plenty good enough for Augustine and the people who wrote the Bible. For them an eternal empty void was the definition of nothing, and certainly I show that that kind of nothing ain't nothing anymore." That's an excellent interview and I recommend reading it. It clarifies a lot of things and makes obsolete a lot of the arguments people have tried to raise in the wake of this book. The link was good at the time this review was first posted.

Krauss came from a background of particle physics and moved into astrophysics afterwards, so he's in a very good position professionally, to write a book like this. He begins by bringing his readers up to speed on the modern theory of how the universe began. And note that here, theory is used in a scientific sense - as an understanding of physical laws and an explanation for how they interact with the real world. It's not being used in the popular sense, like one kid might say to another, I have a theory that your dad isn’t going to be thrilled with us for arriving home so late. A scientific theory is something which has been put together based on observations of reality. It seeks to clarify why things are the way they are, and more than this, it offers predictions which can be tested, and which will either disprove the theory or which will help to further confirm it.

This is why I don’t get why some scientists have taken issue with this book because it asks a "Why?" question! Science is all about why, so why can't Krauss ask why there is something instead of nothing?! Both they and the theists are also missing the point that even if Krauss has not explained everything (and I don’t see where he ever claimed that he had), the fact remains that he has explained everything that he did explain without having to ever call upon any gods. That's the bottom line here. Religion has always had its forte in the gaps in our knowledge. Had we the scientific understanding of the world we now have, but had it ten thousand years ago, no religion could ever have begun.

Some have criticized Krauss for what they describe as 'padding' this book with a discussion of scientific discoveries about the universe, and how we know how big it is, and of what it's composed, but this is necessary since he's talking about its origin. It’s important to understand that origin and how it was discovered, because topics that he discusses here are called into use later - or at least show the need for a certain amount of familiarity with what came before to understand properly what's discussed later.

It’s not a question of the individual value of the different parts, it’s a matter of the utility of the whole. To take a part of his book and criticize that while ignoring the whole package is nonsensical! It’s like checking that your kid packed everything before you go on vacation, focusing on one corner of the suitcase and saying, "There's nothing but socks all the way down! How can you go out in public with only socks?" Well duhh!

My only complaint is about the clarity, as I've mentioned. I think Krauss could have done a better job of explaining in some portions of the book, and he certainly could have done a better job of reading those parts! Perhaps the audio book isn’t the best way to absorb this book, not least because it skips all of the illustrations and diagrams. That said I recommend the book because I think it does exactly what the title promises for theistic definitions of nothing.

Of course, the theists are going to continue to move the goalposts; that's a given. It's true that science is not about proof, it’s about going where the evidence leads and understanding what it means, but if the history of science has proved anything, it’s that as long as theists keep on proudly erecting those goalposts, then scientists are going to continue to score right through them.

If you can't get the book, but you do have Internet access, then you can watch a recording of Krauss giving a lecture which is the essence or even the prototype of this book. It's in this video that we can enjoy gems like: "Forget Jesus, the stars died so that you could be here today!" and "Empty space is responsible for 90% of your mass." I recommend this book.