Monday, February 22, 2010

The Black Hole War

Leonard Susskind's book is not just a popularization: it's a chronicle of discovery and of the people involved.  It echos Watson's Double Helix with Hawking playing the role of Pauling, but it's far more fair, yet unsettling.  Scientists stand on the shoulders of previous great scientists, and it's clear that Susskind and the many other scientists he describes stand on the shoulders of Hawking, but also they have surpassed him, and they know it.  At times, it is like reading words of physicists who arrived after Einstein like Heisenberg, Dirac, ..., in real time.  These are greats who in many ways moved passed Einstein.  Susskind and friends are the greats who have moved passed Hawking.  If only for this reason, this book allows the reader to be a fly on the wall of science history, and it's fun the read.

But it is much more.

My knowledge of nuclear physics, while not deep, is not trivial.  In the 1970's I worked in the Stanford Physics department and was well aware of the whys and hows of the linear accelerator and PEP.  Now, I might as well be a worthless witch doctor at Johns Hopkins.

Be ready to be dazzled.  Alice in Wonderland doesn't come close to the reality of the Holographic Principle - yes, Virginia, you're a hologram.  The wild woollies of string theory or the math of strings (spinning elementary particles) amazes and Susskind makes it fairly clear without any equations.  Smart guy holding the endowed Felix Block chair of Physics at Stanford.  He is no lightweight.  He does briefly state one or two objections to this "Plank Area" world. Basically, string theory has not been proven - it simply works better than anything else.  More subtly, it hasn't been shown to be unique.  Another mathematical approach may be more "true."  Even more importantly, the emphasis on dualism between elementary particles and protons/neutrons etc is questionable.  Physicists believe in dualism; perhaps too much.

Consider that recently the Poincare Conjecture was proven - so 19th century!  The proof required dealing with scale, getting close to a surface requires different math than being far away.  Physicists don't seem to know this issue may actually apply to them in subtle ways that their hubris may preclude.  And that's the rub.  All talk, no experiments, but for good reason:  to test out their theories would a take a linear accelerator the size of the milky way.  Oh yeah, one of the ideas of really modern physics is that small things are heavier than big things.  When this starts making sense, you become self-aware of your sanity: alt world is the world.

In short, Susskind delivers an accessible tour de force of science today from the view of giants.  If you're serious about knowing how the world really works, not in the simple political sense, read this.

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