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How the Universe Got Its Spots

by Rob Friesel

You might have come across Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots the same way that I did—by seeing it show up in io9’s “20 Science Books Every Scifi Fan (and Writer) Should Read”, or some such similar list of “must read” science books. Of Levin’s book, io9’s Annalee Newitz writes:

Levin is a physicist who studies the origins of the universe, and is also a writer whose language is both clear and poetic. Something about cosmology invites poetic meditations, and Levin manages to combine somewhat melancholy explorations of her own place in the universe with complicated physics formulas to create one of the most interesting books you’ll ever read.

Which is a pretty good characterization for ≈60 words. What’s left out of that 60-word characterization is that Levin (like Smolin—who happens to be a good friend of Levin’s1) waxes elegiac over the scientist’s role in the life of science, and science’s role in the life of the scientist.2 Not that How the Universe Got Its Spots is some 200-plus-page dirge of miserable introspection into a scientist’s regret—far from it, Levin is engaged and enthusiastic about the science just as often as she is stymied and despondent. What Levin gives us is a highly readable book—half of it personal musings on her at-times-troubled life as a scientist and the other half a layman’s-terms explanation of modern cosmological research—a treatise cast as a diary of letters to her mother, and ultimately a book about topology’s role in cosmology, asking one of the most difficult questions facing physics: Is the universe really infinite? or just really big? (And if it isn’t infinite: what shape is it?)

AN ASIDE ABOUT OUR COLLECTIVE (OR MAYBE JUST MY PERSONAL) FIXATION ON PHYSICS

It is probably worth noting that no other science is really emblematic of The Whole Big Shebang of Science quite like physics. Maybe we can blame Einstein for that—good ol’ Albert Einstein. The Einstein that gets mentioned in every modern book about physics, all of them paying homage to his pivotal role in the discipline. The Einstein whose crazy-haired mustached visage shows up as the icon of science throughout 20th century popular culture. The Einstein that seems infinitely quotable from his writings and instantly relatable from every anecdote ever told about him. The Einstein who was maybe right about almost everything, or almost right about maybe everything, and/but definitely wrong about a few things because of… not quite hubris, but a kind of stubborn younger brother to hubris. (Making him all the more relatable: see? he’s just as fallible as us!)

Or maybe we get stuck on physics when we get stuck on science because it’s… a (the?) science of everything? Physics: the science that attempts to describe and explain the very very smallest things and thus must be in all other sciences. Physics: the science that attempts to describe and explain the very very largest things and thus must encompass all other sciences. Physics: indistinguishable from math to so many layman, but also equally indistinguishable (to those same layman) from chemistry, thus deriving biology, psychology, engineering…. Physics: the seed for our science fiction fantasies of time travel, of trans-light speeds, wormhole portals, self-organizing and self-aware nanomachines, etc.

Yes, indeed: that physics.

END OF ASIDE: A LITTLE MORE ABOUT LEVIN’S BOOK

One thing that separates Levin’s book from so many other physics books that I’ve read is its focus. Feynman, Greene, Hawking, and Smolin—they all give us great books3 but they’re tackling so much—arguably too much. Physics without some dangling sub-discipline of a qualifier is a big subject—perhaps the biggest and broadest subject. The best you could hope for (in most cases) is a halfway decent survey that glosses over the basics of the fundamentals. If you’re really ambitious, you could spin this off into a discussion of your chosen specific area; but if you’re trying to keep the appeal of your book pretty broad (read: “accessible to lay-folk”) then you’re almost certainly doomed to recounting a bunch of personal anecdotes that shed little (if any) useful light on the subject matter.

How do you get around that?

Do what Janna Levin did: don’t try to cover all of physics, just focus on your area. Even if your area is niche. Especially if your area is niche.

Levin still gives us what I’ve come to think of as “The Obligatory Digest of Modern Fundamental Physics that You Should Have Learned in College (or Your Fancy High School)”; but she glosses over some stuff covered in other Physics–but-Accessible-for-Laymen books—and this is more than “just fine”, because every principle of physics that she describes is laser-focused on getting to her point(s) about infinities and about topology and how those fit in with cosmology and (more specifically) how they fit in with her specific questions about cosmology—all of that “is the universe finite?” and “what exactly is the shape of the universe?” stuff. It is all very endearing because she knows better than to bore her readers with every detail of modern physics—those books are all already out there—and instead she focuses on painting a vivid and fascinating picture of the known universe and asks one of those difficult and/but so-obvious-and-yet-so-arcane questions about that known universe. You cannot help but get swept up in her prose4—there is science, but there is also a story.

And there’s where that star slips off the rating—dropping from a full five to four. Levin is such a great writer, and her own story is so important to the telling of her cosmological tale, and she is so articulate about the science… but I could have used another fifty pages about that same science. I was left with some unanswered questions (e.g., “Tell me more about your theories on the size/shape of the universe…”) and with that feeling that I was biting my tongue, waiting for the other shoe to drop on string theory (which gets a little lampooned over the whole “no one knows what the ‘M’ in ‘M-theory’ means” thing, but then also gets an oblique bye on a technicality related to the attractiveness/convenience of having so many dimensions5).

Nutshell version? Levin brought us a beautiful book about modern cosmology, and about the life of a young scientist; and I recommend it to everyone with even a passing interest in science, and especially as a companion piece to Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics.

  1. Levin’s and Smolin’s book should be distributed as a box-set. The themes are so close and inform each other so well that you’re really missing out if you don’t put the messages of both books together. []
  2. And the scientist’s loved ones. []
  3. I’m being generous to Greene though; really only the first third (first half?) of The Elegant Universe is great; the rest is basically navel-gazing. (And Hawking’s book borders on that a few times but is also mercifully much shorter than Greene’s.) []
  4. And that’s what it is, too: prose. Maybe she has some secret advantage over other physics writers. Feynman was humorous; Greene is lucid; Hawking is accessible; Smolin is cogent; but only Levin is expressive enough to really have a physics book that also qualifies as having “prose”. []
  5. I’ll spare readers of this review yet another of my rantings/ravings about string theory. I’ll just recommend Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics again. (And sure: go for Greene’s The Elegant Universe to get the whole picture; but it is getting harder to convince me that string theorists have their collective shit together enough to deserve continued funding.) []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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