66 of 70 people found the following review helpful
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
This review is from: The Quantum Universe: Everything that can happen does happen (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Any review of this book probably needs to be prefaced with a declaration of the reviewer's academic credentials, so I have to declare up front 'A' level physics and a PhD in mathematics. I think this is relevant rather than a misguided attempt at trumpet blowing because one's familiarity with certain concepts inevitably colours judgement of a book that does to some part attempt to engage the reader with the nuts and bolts of a difficult subject rather than resort entirely to hand waving and analogy.
Factual matters first; this is a short (200 pages) book whose mission is to provide a reader not versed in mathematics or physics beyond GCSE level (or less) an insight into the behaviour of the universe at the level of the very small. There are difficult but rather beautiful concepts here, and the authors are attempting to convey the essence of those concepts in a way that requires some effort on the part of the reader; clearly a detailed mathematical approach is going to leave all but a small percentage of people lost, but in order to talk sensibly about the subject at all does at least require some acknowledgement of the underlying maths.
As one of the core concepts that needs to be addressed in discussing quantum mechanics is that of complex numbers and Hilbert spaces, the authors have opted to represent this using the notion of one-handed clocks. This is where I can only guess as to whether someone who has never dealt with complex numbers will find this approach more or less confusing than the underlying maths; with my background I found that I was constantly translating the clock concept in my head to try and understand what the authors were actually getting at. Personally I would have preferred a more direct approach; e.g. define a complex number, explain how they are added and multiplied and then use that, but I can understand I'm probably in the minority here.
Overall I found the book very interesting; what I particularly admired was that the authors provided a real insight into why the seemingly bizarre concepts of quantum mechanics can not only explain behaviour at the micro level, but also how those concepts "smooth out" into the more familiar behaviour of objects at our scale (e.g. why we "don't fall through the floor" if the vast proportion of any atom is "empty space").
Full marks to the final chapter too, where the authors do a little bit of mathematics and mathematical reasoning to derive the maximum mass of a star than will not form a black hole. For those that can stick with it, this gives a genuine taste of what it feels like to embark upon a proper 'proof' of something.
I also find the concept of a book that really challenges a lay readership to deal with something unfamiliar and difficult to be very refreshing. Too much information (scientific, political, financial etc.) is presented with a lowest common denominator
approach, treating you as someone too stupid to deal with anything but the simplest concepts. This book, and The Road To Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe are honourable attempts at countering that.
Tracked by 1 customer
Sort: Oldest first | Newest first
Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 17 Aug 2012 21:59:49 BDT
Shushanto Bose says:
Penrose's book, "The road to reality" is far too mathematical for the lay reader. It is really more for a maths/physics graduate, and one who had a good understanding of what they studied (which most graduates don't nowadays). I am a Maths graduate (King's College, 2010) who had very very little understanding of what I studied (due to poor schooling and then poor teaching at university). For instance I know (roughly) a Hilbert space to be an n-dimensional space in C with a dot product defined on it. So it's elements are complex numbers, and each one is the dot product of two other complex numbers in the same space. And due to the continuity of C, the Hilbert space is also complete. I'm going by memory, so I might be wrong in places. If I were to brush up on vector spaces, the absolute basics I would understand, but that would be all.
How I should think of the Hilbert space, or what can be done with it, I really don't know. So for someone without ever having studied maths is hardly going to actually understand a book like "the road to reality". I did actually attempt that book and gave it up awfully quickly. Because you have a PhD in Maths, I think your view is skewed towards reading with an awareness of the underlying maths, and most likely this book would be far too wishy-washy and simple for you anyway. Any topic within the realm of mathematical sciences which is dumbed down for the lay reader is usually a load of nonsense, especially when it's done by someone with a PhD.
Do you happen to do any teaching by any chance? I mean teaching undergraduates. If you have done so in the recent past (in the last 10 years), you will find that most young students (the ones who go no further than Undegrad or Masters) have very little idea of what you're telling them. This goes for all universities other than Oxford and Cambridge. I really don't know what the average graduate from those universities comes away with (other than their certificate), but I can assure you that 95% of the population of all the other top universities (such as King's, Imperial, UCL, etc) barely knows what an algebra is.
The school system is horrendous and university lecturers can't be bothered with any of the students who are having difficulty due to an unsuitable background (95% of them). The few who do have a bare idea as to what is going on go on to do a masters, and the 1 or 2 of those (never more) who have a good grasp of their core subject areas go on to do a PhD. And these last 2 are the only ones the lecturers pay any attention to. Of course these 1 or 2 who are picking it up are also without a suitable background, but they have the intelligence and talent to do so.
I don't think any of the intelligentsia in this country is bothered with teaching those less intelligent than themselves, and therefore subjects like this (covered by popular science books) are doomed to the realm of popular science, rather than mainstream education.
In reply to an earlier post on 14 Sep 2012 09:44:38 BDT
Thanks for your comment; I didn't do any undergraduate teaching as a postgrad, but marked 3rd year papers and I was quite astonished at the difference in level of mathematics expected from an undergrad in Oxford and one at London (I won't name the college/uni) - the 3rd year work at London was on topics covered in the first year at Oxford!
As for the Penrose book, the problem with it is that he tries to teach a vast amount of postgrad-level maths in a very short space and I just don't think he does it very well. I ended up reading "proper" books on each of the chapter topics, but then ran out of spare time :-)
‹ Previous 1 Next ›