Sunday, September 11, 2016

I’ve read a lot of books recently

[Reading is to writing what eating is to...]

Dreams Of A Final Theory: The Scientist's Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature
Steven Weinberg
Vintage, Reprint Edition (1994)

This book appeared when I was still in high school and I didn’t take note of it then. Later it seemed too out-of-date to bother, but meanwhile it’s almost become a historical document. Written with the pretty explicit aim to argue in favor of the Superconducting Supercollider (a US-proposal for a large particle collider that was scraped in the early 90s), it’s the most flawless popular science book about theoretical physics I’ve ever come across.

Weinberg’s explanations are both comprehensible and remarkably accurate. The book contains no unnecessary clutter, is both well-structured and well written, and Weinberg doesn’t hold back with his opinions, neither on religion nor on philosophy.

It’s also the first time I’ve tried an audio-book. I listened to it while treadmill running. A lot of sweat went into the first chapters. But I gave up half through and bought the paperback which I read on the plane to Austin. Weinberg is one of the people I interviewed for my book.

Lesson learned: Audiobooks aren’t for me.

Truth And Beauty – Aesthetics and Motivations in Science
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar
University of Chicago Press (1987)

I had read this book before but wanted to remind me of its content. It’s a collection of essays on the role of beauty in physics, mostly focused on general relativity and the early 20th century. Along historical examples like Milne, Eddington, Weyl, and Einstein, Chandrasekhar discusses various aspects of beauty, like elegance, simplicity, or harmony. I find it too bad that Chandrasekhar didn’t bring in more of his own opinion but mostly summarizes other people’s thoughts.

Lesson learned: Tell the reader what you think.

Truth or Beauty – Science and the Quest for Order
David Orrell
Yale University Press (2012)

In this book, mathematician David Orrell argues that beauty isn’t a good guide to truth. It’s an engagingly written book which covers a lot of ground, primarily in physics, from helocentrism to string theory. But Orrell tries too hard to make everything fit his bad-beauty narrative. Many of his interpretations are over-the-top, like his complaint that
 “[T]he aesthetics of science – and particularly the “hard” sciences such as physics –have been characterized by a distinctly male feel. For example, feminist psychologists have noted that the classical picture of the atom as hard, indivisible, independent, separate, and so on corresponds very closely to the stereotypically masculine sense of self. If must have come as a shock to the young, male, champions of quantum theory when they discovered that their equations describing the atom were actually soft, fuzzy, and uncertain –in other words, stereotypically female.”
He further notes that many male physicists like to refer to nature as “she,” that Gell-Mann likes the idea of using particle accelerators to penetrate deeper (into the structure of particles), and quotes Lee Smolin’s remark that “the most cherished goal in physics, as in bad romance novels, is unification.” This is just to illustrate the, erm, depth of Orrell’s arguments.

In summary, it’s a nice book, but it’s hard to take Orrell’s argument seriously. Or maybe the whole thing was a joke to begin with.

Lesson learned: Don’t try to explain everything.

The End Of Physics - The Myth Of A Unified Theory
David Lindley
Basic Books (1994)

This is a strange book. While reading, I got the impression that the author is constantly complaining about something, but it didn’t become clear to me what. Lindley tells the story of how physicists discovered increasingly more fundamental and also more unified laws of nature, and how they are hoping to finally develop a theory of everything. This, so he writes, would be the end of physics. Just that, as he explains in the next sentence, it of course wouldn’t be the end of physics.

Lindley likes words and likes to use a lot of them. Consequently the book reads like he wanted to cram in the whole history of physics, from the beginning to the end, with him having the last word.

His argument for why a theory of everything would remain a “myth” is essentially that it would be hard to test, something that nobody can really disagree on. But “hard to test” doesn’t mean “impossible to test,” and Lindley is clearly out of his water when it comes to evaluating experimental prospects of, say, probing quantum gravity, so he sticks with superficial polemics. Of course the book is 20 years old, and I can’t blame the author for not knowing what’s happened since, but from today’s perspective his rant seems baseless.

In summary, it’s a well-written book, but it has a fuzzy message. (Also, the reprint quality is terrible.)

Lesson learned: If you have something to say, say it.

Why Beauty Is Truth – A History of Symmetry
Ian Stewart
Basic Books (2007)

This is a book, not about the physics, but the mathematics of symmetries, symmetry groups, Lie groups, Lie algebras, quaternions, global symmetries, local symmetries, and all that. Steward also discusses the relevance of these structure for physics, but his emphasis is on it being an application of mathematics. The book is held together by stories of the mathematicians who lead the way. The title of the book is somewhat misleading. Steward actually doesn’t discuss much the question “why” beauty is truth. He merely demonstrates along examples that many truths are beautiful.

It’s a pretty good book, both interesting and well-written, if somewhat too long for my taste. It doesn’t seem to have gotten the attention it deserves.

Lesson learned: It’s hard to write a popular science book that anyone will still recall a decade later.

Eyes On The Sky: A Spectrum of Telescopes
Francis Graham-Smith
Oxford University Press (2016)

This is a book about telescopes, from then to now, from the radio regime to gamma rays. It’s not a book about astrophysics, it’s not a book about cosmology, and it’s not a book about history. It’s a book about telescopes. It is a thoroughly useful book, full of facts and figures and images, but you need to be really interested in telescopes to get through it. I read this book because I wanted to write a paragraph about the development of modern telescopes but figured I didn’t actually know much about modern telescopes. Now I’m much wiser.

Lesson learned: If you need to read a 200 pages book to write a single paragraph, you’ll never get done.

Beauty and Revolution in Science
James McAllister
Cornell University Press (1999)

Philosopher James McAllister reexamines the Kuhnian idea of paradigm changes. He proposes that it should be amended, and argues that what characterizes a revolution is not the change of the entire scientific paradigm, but merely the change of aesthetic ideals. To back up his argument, he discusses several historical cases. This is not a popular science book, and it’s not always the most engaging read, but I have found it to be very insightful. It is somewhat unfortunate though that he didn’t spend more time illuminating the social dynamics that goes with the prevalence of beauty ideals in science.

Lesson learned: Philosophy isn’t dead.

Higher Speculations
Helge Kragh
Oxford University Press (2011)

Kragh’s is a book about the failure of speculative ideas in physics. The steady state universe, mechanism, cyclic models of the universe, and various theories of everything are laid out in historical perspective. I have found this book both interesting and useful, but some parts are quite heavy reads. Kragh doesn’t offer an analysis or draws a lesson, and he mostly restrains from judgement. He simply tells the reader what happened.

Lesson learned: Even smart people sometimes believe really strange things.

Supersymmetry: Unveiling The Ultimate Laws Of Nature
Gordy Kane
Basic Books (2001)

Particle physicist Gordon Kane explains why the supersymmetric extension of the standard model has become so popular and how it could be tested. Whether or not you are convinced by supersymmetry, you get to learn a lot about particle physics. It’s a straight-forward pop-science book that does a good job explaining why theorists have spent so much time on supersymmetry.

Lesson learned: You don’t need to write fancy to write well.

Nature’s Blueprint - Supersymmetry and the Search for a Unified Theory of Matter and Force
Dan Hooper
Smithsonian (2008)

A book about high energy particle physics, the standard model, unification and the appeal of supersymmetry. It’s a well-written book that gives the reader a pretty good idea how particle physicists work and think. Hooper does a great job getting across the excitement that comes with the hope of being about to discovery a new fundamental law of nature. The book’s publication date was well timed, just before the LHC started taking data.

Lesson learned: Your book might become history faster than you think.


  1. A small typo: "if somewhat to long for my taste." should read "if somewhat too long for my taste."

    Based on your book reviews here, I think you would like Physics from Symmetry.

  2. Sarah,

    Thanks, I've fixed that. The book you mention is quite expensive. Would it teach me anything I don't already know? Best,


  3. Thank you for the useful reviews, I would be interested in your opinion of The Beginning of Infinity, by David Deutsch,which has a mixture of science and philosophy.

  4. driod,

    Sorry, I haven't read that book. And it doesn't look like I'll come around to read Deutsch any time soon :/

  5. @Sabine The electronic version can be downloaded for free at Springer Link. (At least if the FIAS has a Springer subscription.)

    The book explains many "well-known" topics from a completely different perspective than most other books and is written very colloquial. Thus although I don't think you would learn many new facts, I think you would enjoy reading it.

    Have a look at the reviews at or , which convinced me to buy the book ;)

  6. It looks like you were examining the mathematical beauty concept. I think the other side of that argument, the argument against rigor by Feynman and Zeh is even more interesting. I recently read Zeh's "Feynman's interpretation of quantum Mechanics". (available on Zeh's website) I got interested in Zeh because he presents a serious challenge to Feynman's remark that nobody understands quantum Mechanics. As for a book An oldie but goodie you might like is "The Letters on Wave Mechanics"(1967) probably need a physics library. {very sort book} It is a book of Schroedinger's correspondence. Read Letter 18. It's a doozy.

  7. Euclid makes no errors of derivation, is beautiful, is exhaustive. Eight 3-space geometries (Bolyai, Thurston) say Euclid cannot draw an undistorted flat map of the Earth absent dissection or folding. The Shroud of Turin is a trivially reproducible fraud, yet faith....

    Physics makes no errors of derivation, is beautiful, is exhaustive. Physics knows what is inconsistent, which is no sin. Physic knows what not to observe , which is its Shroud of Turin.

  8. Hi Bee,
    This comment is orthogonal to your lessons learned about writing.

    To find out what S. Chandrasekhar himself thought about beauty, etc., one may have to look up biographical notes, e.g., S Chandrasekhar: the man behind the legend, edited by Kameshwar Wali.


    "He told me once that he had attended the full course of Dirac's lectures three times, in his years at Cambridge. In later life, when he met Dirac at a conference, he happened to mention this to him. Dirac was astonished and asked: "Why did you do that?" Chandra replied: "If I had told you that I had listened to the same Beethoven concerto on three occasions, you would not have found that astonishing."

    "However, Chandra was very critical of Dirac's statement, recorded on a blackboard in Moscow University, but repeated many times:

    "Physical laws must have mathematical beauty".

    In a paper written about 1985, then circulated privately, and finally presented at Telegdi's 60th birthday meeting at CERN on 11 January 1987, and published in its Festschrift in 1988, Chandra said that it is not the mathematical form of general relativity which is so beautiful, but the physical idea which it expresses, the equality of inertial and gravitational masses. He emphasized that the mathematical forms of physical laws are not immutable...."

  9. ^^^But it seems as time went on Chandrasekhar came closer to Dirac's view.

  10. Sabine,

    Thank you very much for this impressive collection of brief reviews. I have always wished I could read faster than I do (with comprehension, of course). I especially appreciate your "lessons learned".

    Ironically, your post has inspired me to read (again) the only book in your list that I have already read -- Weinberg's "Dreams Of A Final Theory". I read it when it was first published. Perhaps I will appreciate it even more than I did then now that I have read your comments.

  11. Hi Sabine,

    I'm a Dreams of a Final Theory fan too. Not because I agree with all of Weinberg's opinions, but because he is open and honest enough to expose his reasons for those.

    In physics, where there are so many important things we don't know for sure, it's a pleasure when the Nobel-Prize-winning authority isn't just telling you what you must think. The reader has a chance to arrive at his/her own opinions.

    "Weinberg is one of the people I interviewed for my book." I'm a regular reader of this blog, but didn't know you had a book in the works! What's going to be in it?

    Best wishes, Kris

  12. Kris,

    I have mentioned this a few times... Yes, I'm writing a book. If you take the overlap of all the books in the above blogpost, you get a pretty good idea what it's about. It's about, well, theoretical physics to begin with. Theory development, unification, the dream of a theory of everything and the role of beauty in that pursuit. (And it has a paragraph about telescopes.) Best,


  13. "it’s the most flawless popular science book about theoretical physics I’ve ever come across"

    Check out his To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. Weinberg is not only a good scientist (some say "the greatest living physicist"), but an excellent writer as well. Who else manages to be so good in both areas? John D. Barrow among the living; among the dead: Carl Sagan, maybe George Gamow. Good company all.

  14. "Eyes On The Sky: A Spectrum of Telescopes
    Francis Graham-Smith"

    I knew Graham (as everyone calls him---it's complicated) when I was at Jodrell Bank (where he has been most of his career). He is known mainly for his work in radio astronomy, but as a former Astronomer Royal and Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, of course his knowledge is much broader than just radio astronomy. He has written, and is writing, several more books.

  15. "He further notes that many male physicists like to refer to nature as “she,” that Gell-Mann likes the idea of using particle accelerators to penetrate deeper (into the structure of particles), and quotes Lee Smolin’s remark that “the most cherished goal in physics, as in bad romance novels, is unification.” This is just to illustrate the, erm, depth of Orrell’s arguments."

    This is mild to those who have compared Newton's Principia to a "rape manual" (of all the people to deem too macho, Newton (who died a virgin, at least as far as women were concerned) is an odd choice) and---no joke---the claim that the physics of rigid bodies was developed early on in theoretical mechanics while turbulence is still not understood today, and this is because male physicists are interested in hard things (nudge nudge, wink wink) and are baffled by fluid things like menstruation. Really. People really believe this.

  16. With all of that non-fiction treatment of beauty and truth, you ought to squeeze in a showing of the movie Moulin Rouge (2001) in which beauty and truth is a mantra and theme that captures the era.

  17. Wymyns Liperation harradins must evolve feminist alternative magnetic memory to HARD drives. Have you ever really looked at a partial differential sign? Organic chemistry is all male and female joints, electron pairs and nucleophilic attack, hard and soft acids and bases, enslaving nylons! We are "a basket of deplorables."
    Principia's opening paragraph must be rewritten. Anything can fall any way it likes. I'm doing my part! For the rest of you, Room 101,
    Social Justice in the Sciences.

  18. Hi Bee,
    You may find it worth your while to find the Chandrasekhar essay published in the Telegdi festschrift. I found some pages of it here on, and it is quite different from modern fashion.

    E.g., (1995) quote: "It does not seem to be that the successes of Einstein's theory are either long or impressive. It is true that his prediction of the different rates of clocks in locations of differing gravity, his prediction of the deflection of light when traversing a gravitational field and resulting time delay, his prediction regarding the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, and finally, the slowing down of a binary star in an eccentric orbit by virtue of the emission of gravitational radiation, have been confirmed quantitatively. But all these relate to departures from Newtonian theory by a few parts in a million; and of no more than three or four parameters in a post-Newtonian expansion of Einstein's field equations. And so far, no predictions of general relativity in the limit of strong gravitational fields have received any confirmation; nor are they likely in the foreseeable future."


    "The occurrence of black holes in nature as one of the final equilibrium states of massive stars in the natural course of their evolution is not a confirmation of a prediction of general relativity in any real sense. The notion that light cannot escape from a sufficiently strong gravitational field is an obvious inference not based on any exact prediction of the theory; it depends only on the verified fact that light is affected by gravity......only a quantitative confirmation of the metric of the space-time around black holes can be considered as 'establishing' the theory.

    "And as to the excellence of the theory, what does that excellence consist of? A theory is not excellent by repeating ad nauseam that our confidence in the theory arises from {quoting Dirac} "...the essential beauty of the mathematical description of Nature which inspired Einstein in his quest of a theory of gravitation". Our confidence in the theory arises rather from its internal consistency (such as with the requirement of causality and the positivity of energy) and above all from its freedom from contradiction with parts of physics (such as quantum theory and thermodynamics) not contemplated in the formulation of the theory. (These ideas are pursued in greater detail in the author's Karl Schwarzschild Lecture [3].)


    If Chandrasekhar was this stringent in his judgement of General Relativity, I wonder what he would have said of superstring theory!

  19. Returning to topic, physics may not be nearly as solid as it publicly boasts,
    Part 4 is in progress.

  20. Bee,

    I'm very happy you've had a chance to spend time with Steven Weinberg talking about important things!

    Einstein: “Of all the communities available to us, there is not one I would want to devote myself to except for the society of the true seekers, which has very few living members at any one time.”

    Weinberg has always struck me as one of those rare individuals who genuinely cares about what's true in physics. Can you share any of your personal impressions of him here, or will those have to wait for your book?

    Cheers, Kris

  21. Thank you Bee, for these nice, compact reviews of a number of physics books from the 1980's to recent years. I would like to add another, which reactivated my interest in physics way back in the 80's. That book is: "Quarks, The Stuff of Matter", by Harald Fritzsch (1983). At least, to my mind, it was an exceptionally well written book, and hard to put down once you started reading it.

    Now that the scorching Summer heat, here in the northeast USA, is behind us, it's possible to actually enjoy intellectual pursuits, like reading, without the brain being in a heat induced stupor. All Summer, I dreamily looked at the delightfully cool temps in Central Europe. I sometimes ponder why our illustrious forefather, Johann, traded the temperate climate of the Old Country for the heat and humidity of New York City, over such a trifle as a pay raise. But on further reflection I'm happy that he did - I love being able to drive 5000 miles, and not need to learn another language, among other things.

    Be that as it may be, I do hope that Bee will cover more substantive topics, with meat on them, in future posts; like the greatest of all astrophysical mysteries - Dark Matter. Recently, I came across a conjecture, (which I won't name due to posting rules), that dispenses with the need for Dark Matter, and Dark Energy, to boot. It's an elegant and beautiful idea, which has sharply focused my interest in the Dark Matter enigma; that previously was a backwater for me. But, it suffers from two serious flaws. For one, it implicitly requires faster-than-light (instantaneous) influences over light-year distances. For another, it imposes a variable inertial mass to the photon, dependent on its local environment. And, there's other issues.

    Anyway, I look forward to interesting, and informative, Fall and Winter seasons on Backreaction, with lively debates on the finer points of physics.

  22. Hey, Bee, this is totally off topic but I gotta ask you anyhow. What do you think of self-driving cars? First as a scientist with a technological background. Second as a potential passenger. Is this truly workable technology or a chimera? And would you actually ride the highway at 70mph in such a vehicle? Would you take your kids with you for a ride in such a vehicle? Would you want a fleet of such vehicles regularly driving in the vicinity of your children's school?

    Or is it just me?

  23. DocG,

    I'm only posting your off-topic comment because I was recently thinking of writing a more general 'future' post to celebrate a round birthday I've coming up. I don't know why you think I have a technological background, I work on quantum gravity, that's as far removed from technology as science can be, with the possible exception of string theory. But since you ask, I love the idea of self-driving cars and hope they'll be here in my lifetime. I have enough trust in our democracy and the scientific system to be confident that if these things pass all required tests they probably drive safer than I, hence I'd totally take them on the highway, yes including the kids. Actually I'd be much more worried about city-traffic than highway traffic. In any case, I am afraid it's still two decades or so to go until this things become affordable for average-income households like ours.

  24. Sabine,

    I suppose in two decades time, taking your "kids" with you will no longer be an issue :)

    How "round" is the upcoming BD? [Please ignore if you think it's impolite of me to ask.] :)

    Best, Henry

  25. BigHenry,

    Well, a lot of things could happen in two decades, including that the whole economy turns upside-down. I'm not much of a futurologist, so I'll refrain from speculating on that. I'm turning 40 on Sunday. No, I don't think it's impolite, don't worry. Best,



  26. Sabine, being a physicist father of twins (exactly the age of yours), I am wondering HOW you can read many books.
    Reading was one of my major occupations, but with a hard job and two terrible kids to take care of, I simply do not have time.
    So: how do you do? Less sleep ;) ? Help from grandparents? Mine are too far away...some 6000 Km..

  27. Kay,

    I presently do almost all my reading on weekends. The twins have learned to occupy themselves and if not, they pick on daddy rather than mommy, because if they push me I'll merely read incomprehensibly boring stuff from a book they don't understand (they don't speak English). In any case, a book used to take me a couple of days, now it's more like a couple of months (I've been working on this stack for a year or so). Best,


  28. Sabine, you should also read Janna Levin's book on "How universe got its spots" . Also Kirshner's book on "exploding stars and dark energy".

  29. Of these two, I've read Kirshner's book. It's one of the better popular-science books I've read.

  30. There is a lot to learn from reading out of date science books. I grew up reading the likes of Loren Eiseley, JBS Haldane and Harlow Shapley who were well before my time but available on my parents' bookshelves. There was a lot of strange stuff that conflicted with my newer sources, but those books gave me insight into how scientific theories change. Important data is often sitting out there waiting for someone to pick up on its salience. I remember reading a book on the Bohr theory of the atom from the mid-1920s and realizing how well Bohr managed to anticipate quantum theory.

    I know you are probably reading for stylistic purposes and to calibrate the content of your own book, but there is nothing like seeing the same thing from a number of different points of view to get a sense of it.

  31. Regarding the Stewart book on symmetry: yes, it is indeed hard to write a book one will recall after a period of time. I bought a used copy after reading your post. Only after reading two or three chapters did I realize I had read it just a few years ago.


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