Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Lisa's Warped Passages

Some of my friends in Germany frequently send me newspaper articles whenever the word physics appears in whatever context. Some months ago they sent me an article about Lisa Randall's new book which started by describing the "world's most cited theoretical physicist" as "blond, small, wiry and - female". Jörg commented about this very nicely "When Lisa Randall is small and wiry, then what are you - a dwarf?" Thanks Jörg ;-)

Anyway, I bought the book and read it, I actually read more of it than I thought I would. For the simple reason that she starts every chapter with some lines of lyrics! (Something I did in all my failed attempts to write a book -- as the Stefans might remember, who very bravely made their way through all of them.)

Though I initially did not like the book, I changed my mind in chapter 5. ANDI!! It's the Billy Bragg quotation:

"The laws of gravity are very, very strict
And you're just bending them for your own benefit."
~ Billy Bragg

Lisa's book is titled "Warped Passages" and explains about everything you need to know about high energy physics and physics beyond the standard model.

From the cover: "Lisa Randall demystifies the science and beguilingly unravels the mysteries of the myriad worlds that may exist just beyond the one we are only now beginning to know."

I don't see any point in giving you another detailed review on the book's content, you might want to check out those at instead. Let me just say that the book provides you with a fairly self-consistent introduction into the idea of extra dimensions, covering general relativity, quantum mechanics (even quantum field theory) the standard model of particle physics, and string theory.

It successfully captures the excitement and the beauty, but it makes also clear what we know - and what we don't. It is well written, entertaining and very structured.

For a popular science book, it is very precise in the statements and it covers a lot of ground. If you are not familiar with the subject, you probably will have to think about it for a while. On the other hand, this makes the book also interesting for those with an education in physics.

Most subjects are explained with analogies - sometimes a confusing amount of them. E.g. the bulk is "a huge tennis stadium", perturbation theory fails for strong coupling because "it's like trying to reproduce a Jackson Pollock painting by randomly pouring paint", duality works like a five-course menu "pre-organized and prepared into salad, soup, appetizer, main course, and dessert", a small black hole evaporates more quickly than a big one "just as a small drop of coffee evaporates more quickly than a full cup" (something I still wonder about) etc.

For me, the analogies were the true challenge of the book. I admit that I find papers with equations more easy to understand. On the other hand, these analogies are the reason why I find Lisa's book enormously useful. It gives my the words to explain my work to other people.

I admit, I had been hoping for more gossip, and of course I was curios to know if it ever mattered to be not only "blond, small, and wiry" but also female. However, having thought about it, I think I wouldn't have made a point out of being a women in my first book either.
(Relax, I am not planning on writing one.)

I don't particularly like the stories with Alice and Ike as I generally don't like characters without character, but a huge plus are the short summaries of the most important points at the end of each chapter.

To summarize:

The book is really dangerous. If you are not already an high energy physicist, you probably want to become one after having read it. So, if you had in mind giving the book to your daughter as a gift, think twice.

Your citation-dwarf, Bee.

PS: And I learned the word jungle gym.


  1. Dear Bee,

    maybe if sometime or other you happen not to know what to do with your time (I doubt that this could occur any soon, though ;-), you really should start again writing, be it about physics, or some novel or short stories.

    That's because you can write - it's really a pleasure to read your blog entries, for example, which are witty, elegant, and which contain lots of interesting stuff.. (OK, I may be a little bit biased in my judgement ;-). Anyway, that may be a reason why your co-bloggers (including me) do not write more, since you have raised the bar quite high ;-)

    About Lisa's book - it's a funy coincidence, but I have started reading in it last Sunday, in the chapter about the Higgs mechanism. I have skipped this story in the beginning of the chapter, and did not pay attention of the poetry either, I have to admit. Also, I was a little impatient with some of the long verbal explanations, which I simply skipped. There are really lot's of analogies in the text. Did you mark them in the margin, maybe for later use? Sharing your experience, I also would have prefered sometimes an equation instead of being obliged to guess what she wants to convey with this analogy or that long circumscription. But with your praise of the book, maybe I should really going on reading it!

    All the best,


  2. Did you mark them in the margin, maybe for later use?

    No, I cut them out - just kidding. Anyway, thanks for the nice words, B.

  3. I am about half way through the book, up to the Higgs Mechanism, and I would agree with Stefan that the verbal descriptions get a bit long winded & repetitive, but I guess for the general public that provides an easier understanding & reinforcement of concepts. I am hurrying really to get to the "real" stuff on extra dimensions & particularly their relevance to the new physics the LHC should uncover & what we should be looking for there & how. I was wondering if either of you noticed a contradictory & incorrect sounding sentence on page 97, 2nd paragraph, 3rd sentence, quote - "This fact-that the acceleration is independant of the mass of the accelerated object-is unique to the gravitational force, because the strength of no force other than gravity depends on mass." ?? Also, on page 210, 2nd paragraph, 3rd sentence - "On the other hand, withot an internal symmetry to eliminate two of the polarizations, the theory of forces makes incorrect predictions when the gauge bosons have high energy." Shouldn't this just be eliminating one polarization? The one in the Z axis direction? What do you think?

    I love reading Bee's Blog, lots of interesting stuff & I have learned a lot from it.

    Roy J. rank amatuer physicist.

  4. I bught the book because i like the way lisa randall looks, she is hawtg. I had only seen pics of the book but when i got it i discover it was really thick and it had no pictures. when there were pictures but i cannot make out what they were about

  5. I bought the book.It's interesting


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