Monday, October 19, 2015

Book review: Spooky Action at a Distance by George Musser

Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time--and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything
By George Musser
Scientific American, To be released November 3, 2015

“Spooky Action at a Distance” explores the question Why aren’t you here? And if you aren’t here, what is it that prevents you from being here? Trying to answer this simple-sounding question leads you down a rabbit hole where you have to discuss the nature of space and time with many-world proponents and philosophers. In his book, George reports back what he’s found down in the rabbit hole.

Locality and non-locality are topics as confusing as controversial, both in- and outside the community, and George’s book is a great introduction to an intriguing development in contemporary physics. It’s a courageous book. I can only imagine how much headache writing it must have been, after I once organized a workshop on nonlocality and realized that no two people could agree on what they even meant with the word.

George is a very gifted writer. He gets across the most relevant concepts the reader needs to know on a nontechnical level with a light and unobtrusive humor. The historical background is nicely woven together with the narrative, and the reader gets to meet many researchers in the field, Steve Giddings, Fotini Markopoulou, and Nima Arkani-Hamed, to only mention a few.

In his book, George lays out how the attitude of scientists towards nonlocality has gone from acceptance to rejection and makes a case that now the pendulum is swinging back to acceptance again. I think he is right that this is the current trend (thus the workshop).

I found the book somewhat challenging to read because I was constantly trying to translate George’s metaphors back into equations and I didn’t always succeed. But then that’s a general problem I have with popular science books and I can’t blame George for this. I have another complaint though, which his that George covers a lot of different research in rapid succession without adding qualifiers about these research programs’ shortcomings. There’s quantum graphity and string theory and black holes in AdS and causal sets and then there’s many worlds. The reader might be left with the mistaken impression that these topics are somehow all related with each other.

Spooky Action at a Distance starts out as an Ode to Steve Giddings and ends as a Symphony for Arkani-Hamed. For my taste it’s a little too heavy on person-stories, but then that seems to be the style of science writing today. In summary, I can only say it’s a great book, so go buy it, you won’t regret it.

[Disclaimers: Free review copy; I know the author.]

Fade-out ramble: You shouldn’t judge a book by its subtitle, really, but whoever is responsible for this title-inflation, please make it stop. What’s next? Print the whole damn book on the cover?


  1. "You shouldn’t judge a book by its subtitle, really, but whoever is responsible for this title-inflation, please make it stop. What’s next? Print the whole damn book on the cover?"

    I notice that almost all books I review have subtitles.

    I do confess a short spot for the subtitles of old, much longer than the title itself, e.g.

    The Celestial Worlds Discovered: Or Conjectures Concerning The Inhabitants, Plants And Productions Of The Worlds In The Planets (Christiaan Huygens, 1722).

    Of course, now we have the internet, and I don't have to find examples I recall so that I copy them correctly into this comment; rather many are available by just following a link.

    One of my favourite bands, Fairport Convention, was actually in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest song title: "Sir B. McKenzie's Daughter's Lament For The 77th Mounted Lancers Retreat From The Straits Of Loch Knombe, In The Year Of Our Lord 1727, On The Occasion Of The Announcement Of Her Marriage To The Laird Of Kinleakie" (usually just "Sir B. McKenzie" on the set list).

  2. Quantum graphity is a pun on "graphs" and dates back to 2008. It never went very far.

  3. I am not sure if I will buy the book!But the topic is certainly interesting and confusing.Sometimes people mean by non locality propagation faster than light,sometimes not.I think, to all theoretical physicists who believe in relativity and *local* field theory, propagation faster than light would be absolutely forbidden and non locality may be just a confusing word. Unfortunately Bell used the word non locality for non factorizability. I would appreciate a blog from you stating your opinions on this subject.

  4. Given a model of the universe that perfectly works - general relativity - we know it cannot be complete for failing inside black holes (from wherein nobody can report). Given models of the universe that are empirically sterile no matter how many parameters are added - quantum gravitation, macroeconomics, and SUSY - we postulate they must be true because they are rigorous and elegant.

    The singular test of theory is how it can be made to fail, not how it should work if it succeeded. The practice of physics is vigorously defective for not challenging its own sacred beliefs. Through the 1970s everybody who was anybody knew you could not displace good leaving groups from vinyl and aromatic systems. It was proven, theory and Pyrex. That is why nearly the whole of palladium catalysis has Japanese name reactions. The Japanese did not know enough to fail.

  5. Emergence - it's what for physics. Perturbation treatments specifically exclude emergence, but the universe does not.
    "Emerging Quantum Order in an Expanding Gas"
    Phys. Rev. Lett. 115 175301 (2015)
    arXiv:1505.05150, doi:/10.1103/PhysRevLett.115.175301

  6. An older colleague has some strong words to say about Arkani-Hamed, which I had better not repeat here. But can someone please tell me: what has he *actually done* to deserve such fame...or is it only notoriety? I mean, I understand why Juan Maldacena is famous: open hep-th any day --- he has changed the whole course of theory research. And I understand why Alan Guth is famous --- open astro-phys any day. But measured by those standards, NAH's influence is negligible. So how? I'm told that while his recent work is admittedly junk, he did great things in the past. Like what? Large extra dimensions? Who cares about that any more? So what?
    Can you really have an enormously successful physics career just by giving a lot of talks and shouting? Is it true that he is actually the love child of Michio Kaku and Kim Kardashian's mother?

    1. Rastus, if you see Nima's twistor amplitude research as junk, you clearly are behind in your mathematics education. Please rush to the mathematics department immediately and learn motivic cohomology. When you are up to speed, return and comment sensibly.

  7. OK, kneemo, I take it back. I'm sure that when we all learn motivic cohomology, we will then recognise NAH's transcendental genius and repent of our sins. Get back to me when that project gets going, ok?
    Meanwhile, back in the real world, another strange thing about NAH is the hilarious disjunction between his talks and his papers. The papers are sober, rather dull, no doubt making a worthy if not very significant technical contribution. The talks, by contrast, make all sorts of megalomaniacal claims about explaining the Universe, the meaning of life, etc. Why doesn't he make these claims in print?

  8. Why don't you make an elementary search on INSPIRE to find out that Nima has 30,000 citations from 100+ papers, which is still over 300 citations per paper? The same search gives Juan 40,000 from 140 papers, about the same league. Nima's top papers include 14 above 500 cits and 13 additional above 250 cits, and so on. The search for R. Odinga yields zero which is also the amount of stuff you should write about other physicists' influence if you had some decency.

  9. Why is this idea of citations impressive, when it's about a theory that has massive arbitrariness? I mean yes, you can write endless papers! All your friends and family can get involved and write more papers. And you can all cite each other. So, how about an answer to the very reasonable question asked by Rastus? What has he DONE?

  10. Nima has a big personality, and is opinionated. No matter how good you are, that is always going to get people's backs up. Sometimes it's good to tone it down a bit.

    Bee: "For my taste it’s a little too heavy on person-stories, but then that seems to be the style of science writing today."

    This is one of my pet hates in popular science books, as it always comes across as padding, trying to get the word count up. My other pet hate is "geek humour" which just drives me up the wall. If I wanted to buy a humour book, I would have bought a humour book.

  11. I apologise to Ms H for turning this into a discussion of NAH, but in one sense it is relevant. Mr Musser gives the impression of being someone who does his homework, yet somehow he has gained the impression that [a] NAH is someone very important and [b] that NAH is an authority on the information = physics thing, whereas in fact he has never published in this line and is just emitting more gas. It's perfectly natural that science journalists should try to assess the importance of something by looking at who is working on it, though it is risky. In this particular instance, Juan Maldacena really *is* someone important, in fact he is probably the most influential physicist currently active, and furthermore he does in fact work on info = physics. So it would have been good if Mr Musser could have been steered in that direction. Alas, we professionals have failed him. Again.

    The fact that NAH has the same order of magnitude of citations as Maldacena ought to put the final nail in the coffin of the citations cult. Comparing the two is like comparing Lady Gaga with Artur Schnabel.

  12. Maldacena is also mentioned in the book. If you want to name and quote, you pick people who others like to talk about. I think you're proving the point nicely...

  13. I definitely need to pick up a copy at some point.

  14. How would compare this book with "The Age of Entanglement" as far as science writing.

  15. Michael,

    I don't know because I haven't read that book. Maybe someone else can answer your question.

  16. Einstein complained that the non-locality of QM was "Spooky action at a distance", but in the Quantum Gravity upgrade, space is only created by entanglement interaction, so it becomes "Spooky distance at an action".


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