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This review is from: Warped Passages: Unravelling the Universe's Hidden Dimensions (Penguin Press Science) (Paperback)
As someone who took an astrophysics degree in the seventies I have tried to keep up to date with developments in the field, at the level of pop-sci books. However as of the late nineties it seemed that Physics was getting bogged down. After a long Golden-Age of prediction and dicovery the Standard Model and the Big-Bang were threatening to unravel. So the last such book I read was Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory which I found unsatisfying in that it just made clear that, if I wanted to really understand what was happening, I was going to have to devote time and energy I just didn't have, to get to grips with some new maths.
So, seven years later I thought I'd give this a try and see if I could get some kind of layman's angle on what was going on these days. The book starts well in reviewing the history of physics. There's a very concise and to the point description of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.
There's a description of the Standard Model that I did find useful. I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the Standard Model, but the lady filled in some new areas for me, Electroweak theory and the Higg's mechanism which led me to a more flexible understanding of particle mass than I had had before. It is as part of this that we find that the toughest question for the Standard Model is what is called the Hierarchy Problem, which is about the huge gap between the world the other three forces and SM particles inhabit, all of which can be probed, just about, with our accelerators, and then the world of the Planck distance down at E10-33 m, sixteen orders of magnitude smaller, which is where gravity becomes strong enough to be comparable with the other forces, and which we can never hope to build accelerators big enough to study directly.
We then walk through QED, QCD, symmetry, supersymmetry keeping an eye on how these things might tackle the Hierarchy problem, but that they either fail to solve the problem or yield positive experimental results.
We then get a whirlwind tour of String Theory the Super-Strings, and this is where it all gets really new for me. It would appear particle theorists, trying to extend the Standard Model, and String theorists, working on stuff that can never hope to be proven 'not even wrong', have enjoyed a synergy over the last few years, and as a result various classes of exotic multi-dimensional theories have emerged which just might yield observable consequences, possibly even turning up in the new LHC collider, when it eventually comes online. All of these theories try to tackle the Hierarchy problem by allowing gravity to be the only force that gets out of the 4D space-time 'brane on which we and the other forces and SM particles 'live', thus allowing its effects to be diffused. It would appear that there a quite lot of recipes for higher dimensional models that allow for the dissipation of 16 order of magnitude, and the number is growing year on year. For this reason there is a whole community of physicists anxiously waiting for the LHC to get down to work, and who are hoping, in addition to finding Higgs particles, which the Standard Model predicts, to find completely new and unexpected particles, or energy deficits, that might lend support to one or other of the competing higher dimensional theories.
The book contains a lot of news for someone interested in these things, but it is pretty hard work and not just due to the nature of the material. I know that communicating this stuff to the lay public is a talent in its own right, and I've no doubt as to Randell's sincerity of purpose. However, I found that reading became tougher is I progressed, because I felt myself to be carrying an ever accumulating baggage of questions of elucidation, so that towards the end we were talking so casually in terms of 'branes', curvatures, 'gravitons', 5-D Black Holes and curled-up, or large, or infinite but invisible extra dimensions, that she might as well heve been talking about sausages. Hence my quirky title for this review.
In my opinion, the book is somewhat longer than it needs to be because of frequent repetition of points that are easily grasped. Each chapter is prefixed with a Lewis Caroll like passage intended to provide a metaphor for the material to follow. These become more irritating as the book proceeds, as the metaphors become more strained and eventually plain cryptic.
This book is probably the best of its kind around at the moment, and there's no denying that Randell has tried really hard to explain some mind-bending things, in lay-person terms. But I think there is scope for a presentation of the same material by someone who has a proven track record in popular science writing.
Another point to make is that she has definitely perked my interest in the forthcoming results from the LHC.