The Edge of Physics by Anil Ananthaswamy

One of the weird-but-cool things about being C-list famous on the Internet is that some publishers now send me unsolicited review copies of forthcoming books about science. These aren’t always the books I would really like to get free copies of, but, hey, free books.

Among the books I’ve received in the last year or so is Anil Ananthaswamy’s The Edge of Physics, which I got as an ARC several months ago– I read a bunch of it in Houston at the Sigma Xi meeting back in November– but I just realized that it’s due out next Tuesday, and I really ought to post a review of it.

As you can guess from the subtitle, “A Journey to Earth’s Extreme to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe,” this is a book of Extreme Physics Tourism. Not in the Garrett Lisi sense, though– rather, it’s a book about visiting the remote and inhospitable places where a lot of groundbreaking physics and astrophysics experiments are conducted. Ananthaswamy, a consulting editor for New Scientist, goes around the world from Mount Wilson to the remote desert of South Africa, from CERN to a mountaintop in Chile. He drinks vodka with Russians working a neutrino observatory in Lake Baikal, descends into the Soudan mine to look at the CDMS dark matter search, and watches balloon launches in Antarctica.

Each chapter finds him visiting a new place, and looking at a different problem in physics, by which he, like most writers, means “particle (astro)physics.” Stories about the history of the experiments and locations he visits are mixed together with short and readable explanations of the physics problems being studied, and why the experiments demand to be done in the odd places where they’re located.

For the most part, this is a very enjoyable read. The historical and other anecdotes are well done, the travelogue bits are fun and exotic, and the physics explanations are very good (if a little New Scientist-ish). The book really has only one glaring weakness: It needs pictures.

this may be something that will be fixed in the final edition, but in the ARC that I have, each chapter comes with a single, grainy black-and-white picture of some place or thing related to the experiment described in the chapter. Given that half of the attraction of the book is the idea of seeing physics done in exotic locations, it’s kind of a shame that there are so few images. You can get most of what you would like to see on the book’s website, but it would be nice to have more images, and higher-quality imgaes, in the actual book.

It’s also a little awkward to read about some of these experiments without a picture to refer to. Physics is a very visual discipline, in a lot of ways, and you can pack a whole lot of information into a few diagrams that end up explaining things a whole lot more clearly than you can do with words alone. Many of the explanations of what’s going on would benefit enormously from a picture illustrating the basic set-up.

I’m not sure why there aren’t more pictures. The ARC I was sent has a glossy color cover on it, which means somebody spent some money to promote it, and you wouldn’t think some diagrams would break the bank. Maybe they think non-scientists would find diagrams too intimidating or something.

Anyway, if you’re looking for an engaging read about the exotic places and ways people study particle astrophysics, this is a fun read. It doesn’t go too much into depth about any of the physics topics, but that’s not really the point. It covers just enough to give you a sense of how weird and cool the universe we live in is, and the exceptionally weird and extremely cool things scientists have to do to learn more about it.

Comments

  1. #1 Neil
    February 25, 2010

    “The book really has only one glaring weakness: It needs pictures.”

    Absolutely right. I simply ASSUMED it had pictures–so I ordered a hard copy. I could have saved a few bucks and ordered the Kindle version.

  2. #2 yogi-one
    February 26, 2010

    Sounds like a book that is properly targeted to help non-scientists get a look at the world of particle physics, and from what you have said here, apparently well-written.

    Yes, good pics would have helped to reach his audience. Good photography is one of the things that has helped science’s public image. I don’t see how the author overlooked that, given the purpose of the book.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    February 26, 2010

    To be fair to the author, the decision on whether or not to include photographs is one that was probably made well above his pay grade. The list of things that authors actually control is very short; everything else is ultimately the publisher’s decision.

  4. #4 Åka
    February 27, 2010

    Wow, seems like a book for me. I’m sort of fascinated in this kind of places. And I’m also in astroparticle physics myself, maybe that helps ;)

  5. #5 Jonathan Vos Post
    February 27, 2010

    So are you agreeing with the book review of Peter Woit at Not Even Wrong?

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    February 28, 2010

    It’s still Lent, so I am not reading Peter Woit’s review at this time.

  7. #7 William Hyde
    February 28, 2010

    I have an ARC of an older book here. It has no pictures but the book as published did. I should have guessed when I saw that the ARC had picture captions.

  8. #8 Russ Otter
    July 8, 2011

    Everything is Nothing and Nothing is Everything
    By Russ Otter July, 2011
    Provocative perhaps, weird, illogical: Yes indeed. But that is the paradox, the conundrum that fits into the open box of ideas and ultimate logic, as we ponder the nature of existence, which has no beginning and no end.
    To begin this story, I need to address some fundamentals, with a few leaps from the intuitive aspects of our minds. And that story begins with the physics, we live within, and how they operate, or at minimum from what we currently understand, which is not the whole story, to be certain. As the whole story involves “Infinity” which must defy understanding, save our ever evolving quest for knowledge, which will always come up wanting, as infinity, by definition is beyond complete comprehension.
    As you will hear me repeat over and over again and again, for if “Infinity” were comprehendible, it would have limits, and therefore defy its own nature, i.e., therefore becoming finite. It would be a mere fairytale, of our mental illusions. And truth is not an illusion. So make no mistake about the limits of your comprehension. They exist and will forever exist, save an impression found through instinctive logic or perhaps, better said instinctive illogic, but not from any firm notion through the pining efforts of mathematical truths, which are finite at best.
    But to begin this story, I will begin discussing some premises of physics, beginning with Quantum Mechanics, of which we all are born from. Quantum physics, seems in some sense to be the bridge between the Infinite and the Finite, but that is just a definition formed from the limits that words hold us to. In truth, I believe the Finite and the Infinite are absolutes and that never meet, but with some exception, by way of the Quantum world, which contains the weird-science, that mirrors both worlds, through “Entanglement” and “Superposition’s”, among other obscure physical realities, that defy explanation in either a finite or infinite form of definition.
    NOTE: This bridge that quantum mechanics bears, is a window into two existences. From which the mechanics of – actually allow life itself, as well as infinity to exist, or differently said, co-exist with the finite. As one is not possible without the other.
    Quantum Physics for those who do not know much about it, unlike our Classical Physics, which simply tells us that 2+2=4, is the bearer of our birth as sentient beings. Without the weirdness and mystery of the Quantum, we would dangle in despair trying to elucidate or impose the Classical model of life as the core of physics. And it is Not, save the world of the “Finite”. Our Classical Mathematics proves clearly that its own mathematics and science will never resolve the answer to “Infinity”. Infinities are the possible province only of the Quantum and of the Infinite. And for us as finite sentient beings, these
    obscurities that trump mathematical formulas to understand, will so, and be so forever – or at the very least preach of an agnostic truth, which will be all that is left to human sciences, save perceptions – perhaps…
    To hopefully clarify: The Alpha and the Omega have no beginning and no end. To suggest otherwise would be to live in a fairytale, which we often do to find answers, when we should actually admit to our ideological selves and rather commit to reality as it spells itself out, with answers, and non-answers.
    After all: These are just the simple facts of the finite existence we occupy, as consciousness is a confined term… If we were Infinite, or omniscient, we would not be conscious, as that would limit us. Again, this may seem to be a foggy concept, but it is really very basic and important to understand. I will continue to repeat and hound upon this premise above, while I explain the fundamentals of existence, as they exist, regardless of my point of view.
    A Brief Explanation NOTE: Quantum and Classical Physics have never fully resolved themselves with similar physics, yet both exist: The Classical World is made of objects we can see and touch, such as: Plastic, Metal, Humans, Animals, Stars, as well as conceptually Space and Time. The Quantum World is made of micro particles, such as atoms, electrons, photons, quarks, neutrinos, and the list goes on. But these micro particles make up the macro particles of us: Human Beings, Cars, Dirt, Asphalt, and the matter we see and touch. To briefly touch on this subject and the objective distinctions: I will give you a couple of examples: If in our Macro-World (Finite Matter), If I through a Baseball at 2 windows on a wall it will go through one of the windows, but in the Micro-World of the Quantum particle world: if I throw an electron or a photon at that same window it will go through both at the same time. Logically is makes no sense, but it has been proven by experiment. Additionally we have a premise in the Quantum Mechanical world called “Entanglement”: It defies the speed of light, and treats all objects as if they were local to one another, rather than separate. In other words, if I had two micro particles, such as a photon, millions of miles apart, and I changed the spin of one companion particle photon, its counter-part millions of miles away will change its spin at the very same time. This has also been experimentally proven. But logically in a Classical Physics world, this does not happen, as we are bound by the laws of the speed of light, or what is known as local and non-local behavior.
    Even beyond the Quantum science we are now observing from within our finite world, quantum mechanics still defies complete explanation. It is a reality we will never fully know, as it is un-caged by Infinity itself… I would suggest that the Quantum world, is the link between a twain that will never meet: The Infinite and the Finite, yet they co-exist through our necessary quantum partnership.
    To reiterate: In fact, the truth-be-known: “Everything is Nothing and Nothing is Everything”, thanks to the Quantum, which bears us our very life’s – as sentient beings. As it is from quantum particles, that we form matter, in the form of our finite selves. Beyond that province of Sentiency, we are captives of a mystery, forever unresolved, but not unacknowledged…
    Infinity is and will forever be of a weirdness to the Classical mind, as the mind itself is finite, yet quantum truth, is outside that circumscribed realm, hence it is additionally of infinite bias.
    Even though some physicists will assert that Quantum Physics, works within the Classical physics and mathematics of our finite world, and I will agree in degrees, at a molecular level. It does not. Note: with the exception of degrees, I pointed out, but in general it does not.
    In this reality or our own macro based matter, interdependence emerges that makes it possible for our Classical World of Physics to even exist, coupled with the Quantum, from which we are born. The Classical world is not inevitable, but plausible, given time, which actually does not exist, or more appropriately exists within a superposition within the quantum world. [ Figure that one out, however you will never really know, other than to possibly gaze the truth of a logic not seemingly possible. ]
    But do not even try, other than in a quasi-reality of inquisitiveness, as infinite reality is beyond our finite sentient minds. Infinity cannot and will not be defined. To make is so would violate its very nature, in an un-circumspect manner, as its very definition of “Infinity” is something beyond our finite comprehension.
    If it where comprehendible, it would therefore be circumscribed, i.e., defined. Infinity by implicit definition – is not defined. It is Omniscient. As if it where understandable it would be defined, hence circumscribed, and therefore no longer infinite.
    It is a conundrum, that haunts the obscure ends of knowledge, and confines us to live in an unknown not-fully defined existence, as well as encourages us to pursue knowledge forever… As to not pursue knowledge would be to withdraw from life itself… Or at least a full and productive life that has the potential through knowledge to build bridges, that bring us together in more common terms, rather than live in the divides we exist in today, albeit those divides were even worse in times of ancient pasts. Just review your history, and the beliefs of many saints and sinners, that slavery, concubines, cast systems, and the torture of witches, and infidels were of goodness, and right, for which today the majority of the world would argue the opposite. Our history, and technological advances have given us a much better assessment of the cultures that have gone before us, and we are improving for the most part I would hope.
    One of the Greatest of “Thought Problems” or “Thought Equations”, is similarly based on the concept of a God, or an Omniscient Deity which is based on “Faith”, not “Reality”, as most Theologians and Scholars would agree. [Ref A] And it today still is causing great hardships and divides between peoples, when it should be bringing us together, if one believes in the goodness of such religions and theoretically humane philosophies.
    I will describe such an ancient “Thought Problem and Solution”, hence “Thought Equation” below: However the Solution, within our current multi-cultural reality will be abridged by those who believe in ideologically faith and culture versus fact as their truth.
    1. Sentient Bings are “Finite” and for the sake of argument co-exist inside the “Infinite.” In other words: Finite life is not omniscient, but “Infinity” is so, just as a possible God is described as such, however correctly or erroneously. NOTE: I hope this “Thought Equation” will define that answer for you, even if the correctness of the answer fundamentally proves out to be agnostic.
    If we can agree that Finite things are only possible within an Infinite (Omniscient Existence) [Ref A], as “Infinity” encompasses our “Finite” world we all live within, then the following “Thought Equations” holds true: Otherwise we would be of a “Duality” both Finite and Infinite. And there is no mathematics or logic that would hold to a finite object being infinite. Simply not possible. Finite and Infinite definitions are implicitly not the same. As Finite is finite, and Infinite is Infinite. ] Never will the twain meet. One is limited, and one is not. A Very Simple Logical Proof…
    a. Hence Proof number 1 is an Absolute than cannot violate itself.
    2. Infinity by definition, has no center-point, is boundless, has no beginning and no end, hence it will never be understood by a sentient mind, by way of philosophy, or mathematics which hails from the finite world we all live within together. Thus Proof 1 and 2 are sacrosanct, as finite mathematics breakdown and fails when describing the Infinite. [ NOTE: Ask any mathematics major. ]
    3. I want to also note that within an infinite existence, there can be no love, no joy, no pain, no knowledge, no ego. As to apply any attribute to the infinite, it to limit it and define it. And that which cannot be understood, such as “Infinity”, cannot be defined in our conventional terms. Such as a=a. Again, such provinces of mathematics and philosophy exist solely to the “Finite” species.
    4. Infinity is actually impossible to comprehend. Logically it is impossible, yet we know it is. For instance: The notion of no Alpha or no Omega? (No Beginning and No End?) How does that make any logical sense? However the inverse of that illogic is the Finite, which grows and lives by way of hopeful logic, along with selfishness and illogic as well. But the decent goal for sentient beings is the “Golden Rule” and the growth of Knowledge to better humanities health and caring. But I do digress – somewhat here. My primary point is that logic keeps on track based on our finite existence, not based on our Infinite notions of Deities, which would be by definition circumscribing God or Infinity, and the Omniscient to a thing, or finite object. And Infinity, will not be tamed, with such wishful illusions. [Ref: A]
    5. In summary the finite may transition to the infinite, or the infinite to the finite, but they will never, and can never meet. “Just to repeat myself.” Just do the math: Or ask any mathematician if Infinities can be defined? In a word, No. So we only can inject faith, to find a God or God’s, we will never and can never know the truth of such a question, in point of fact. [Ref: A] Forever and a Day! It is a fickle life we lead, quite radically and factually.
    So what does this mean, regarding classical and quantum physics? It means we know less than we think we do, too often. By the way: “I am included is Spades!!!” Yet theoretical physicists and cosmologists, among other philosophers and pursuers of truth, are rubbing up upon the wisp’s of truth, that we are not all we seem to be, and even more… They are doing this by the measures of science coupled with intuitive perceptions, which would have been unthinkable, just a century ago. In fact they would have been the Copernicus’s and Galileo’s in another time, that would have had them killed for such heretical, non-cultural thinking believed to be ideologically sacrosanct in times past.
    So we are on the verge of a highly valued knowledge, not bound by ideology, or faith, but by knowledge, inspiration, brought about largely by science, that is peeling away, not only at legacies, which some hold
    inviolable building blocks, but at the legacies of their own science’s. They are reaching to a vision of scientific weirdness, possibly hard to swallow, yet possibly of fact, more than fiction. Clearly we may never know, as this journey is peering into the relationship of the infinite, the quantum, and our home foundations built upon the finite from the highest levels of sentiency. It is a co-existent venture, to examine the possible, with the so-called impossible, or the finite with the infinite, but that is where we are headed. And the results may reveal those bridges that I spoke of to mend past wrongs and improve our daily lives, not for just some, but for all. A lofty notion, but a result that lays in wait, as the knowledge of science and philosophy of this world improves.
    In 1935 Erwin Schrödinger came up with a thought experiment, whereby the micro and macro worlds collide. His seemingly logical supposition was that a micro-world radioactive atom could both decay and not decay at the same time, and if linked to a bottle of cat poison, based on “Superposition’s dual state proven in quantum physics.” Therefore a macro-world “Cat” could either be dead or alive all dependent upon the mere observation of a human opening up a cage and looking at the cat.
    Hence “Everything is Nothing and Nothing is Everything”, if you will. However I have often found this premise of a micro-world (atom) and a macro-world (cat) superposition state, as not being accurate. To negate my own thesis. But it holds an interest, or novelty at any rate for me. But it is not the sacrosanct proof I find compelling.
    Even though, Vlatko Vedral, a professional physicist has entertained the notion that the quantum world also works in union far more than we realize with the macro-world. Please read his very substantial and intriguing article in Scientific American. Ref: [1] I believe that Vlatko Vedral is glimpsing the true realm of physics as it will progress… He touches on the known and unknown as equals in my view. And this is where real physics of the future is headed.
    But I also want to note another article from “New Science”, by Anil Ananthaswamy, who points out other experiments and rationales regarding the distinctions between the Quantum and the Classical Physics worlds. Ref: [2]
    The sum total of these articles rubs up against the very nature of existence, which is not definable by my believe system or by logic in my view, but they are grasping at the core of an open physics system that may open our philosophical gazes to new hopes and heights.
    In Summary, we are living in a system which is for all practical purposes of our lives both local and non-local, but for Infinities sake, may debunk every known mathematical formula ever devised, as both bring a balance to the chaos of entropy, and allow for both to exist as disparate and as equals at the same time.
    To answer the question what is reality. Co-existence of the Finite and Infinite, hence complete abstraction and Scientific proofs posits “Balance” as to be the only final answer. As to propose otherwise, would explode and dismantle the logic of an educated mind to extinction, as it grasps the impossible nature of no beginning and no end, and allows for life within a closed environment that sees no further than the logic of the self within bounds, we hold as true, even if they are not.
    In a truth, what I mean for most of us, is that we will never have the misfortune to engage, endless infinities of reality within our own minds: Which, if we are common and fortunate will never experience such and experience of truth in an educated detail, which would mentally cause a compulsive phobia, unrelenting. That truth is the experience of “Infinity” and in essence “Endlessness”, which would cause purpose and the necessity of a conclusion or answer to be found. And such an end conclusion will never be found. Therefore the mind can only dismay itself to pain and demise in that experience.
    Today in 2011, we only experience for most of us, the notions of black and white, of yes and no, of a wrong and a right. But the truth of life is that these notions are found more truly in the gray areas of life, in the mix of realities, the truth that entropy is part of some realities, such as the finite, but not the infinite, that quantum physics within the areas of “entanglement” and “superposition’s”, defy common sense and finite definitions. Coupled with other intuitive queries into subject’s, such as: 1) Time may have other dimensions, 2) along with multi-verses. All of these queries into the plausible are not beyond the intuitive nature of thought, but many well be beyond the mathematical proofs or enormous energies required to prove. Ref: [3] (Simply for food for thought: (Thermodynamic violation of the 2nd law))
    In other words existence/life is in balance, even as entropy wildly abounds via its finite roots, coupled by way of its non-existence – through the “Infinite” nature of existence. For which no one can explain. NOTE: Here is a riddle for the ages: Do all things, through the ebb and flow of existence, exist and not-exist?)
    Actually put: “Everything is Nothing and Nothing is Everything” gives us Logic and Life/Existence via “Balance.” In other words there is “Time” and there is “No Time”, there is “Space” and there is “No Space”, everything is connected, and yet is separate: certainly given Entanglement, Superposition’s, and the Infinite which supersedes any hope for understanding. These conundrums reinforce a science, so fundamentally raw, and necessarily incomprehensible, which gives rise to the firm and balanced mechanics of existence in general. Make no mistake, it is a violent and turbulent Universe we are engaged in, at this point of our existences, but that is Nature in Symphonic rage and glory, yet, I believe exists, as a result of Perfect Balance out of a realm of nature without an Alpha or Omega. That premise is essential, and yet incompressible. But the virtue of that Irony is that it gives us nature, as it always has been and always we be. If we understood it – the balance would be gone and that I find impossible. NOTE: That “Balance” is no respecter of humanity [Ref: [ 5 ] A wise human biblical reference: “God is no respecter of persons.”) or its often violent and harsh human torments, it is only a respecter of its own nature. We living within the finite, must take on the horror of natures and humankinds tragedies alone and together. Therefore is it fundamental to put away youthful visions, imaginations, superstition’s, and mythologies, as such of the ancients, whose knowledge was of a child’s knowledge based on our science of today. To quote a wise biblical human made phrase: “1 Corinthians 13, Verse 4: “When I was as child, I spoke as a Child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” We should take heed…
    The novel and interesting potential fallout of the relatively empty endless abyss we exist within has no logical answer, if you programmed computers that were as large as a solar system, they would literally
    burn themselves out into failure, as the circuit boards burnt out at the impossible task of understanding infinity. We too as humans and some of us have, have glimpsed the ultimate jail and inevitability of existence and it too can become a suffocating mental breakdown for some people, sometimes. At least for me on occasion. My point is that if we are truly honest and fully focused, our minds would breakdown if we ever fully looped onto the endlessness, and seemingly pointlessness of existence. My only relief is to imagine an ebb and flow of existence, which fully dies as we know it, and is reborn, again and again, then the hopelessness of no end, seems ironically less confining… “As without conclusion, what is the point of anything?” A riddle, I have been challenged with for a life time.
    That is the only way it can be, if we are a part of “existence” in either a finite or impossible infinite form, as there is no twain, even via quantum mechanics illumination of its potential mysteries, which will never combine both finite knowledge and the Infinite as a sentient or otherwise type of conscious thought or equation.
    But the sentient search is essential to improve on life, and inevitable… Forever, as I logically believe sentiency will come and go… As Time however multi-dimensional or not, also will come and go in a relative manner, if you choose to believe so… Still for us as sentient beginnings, and objects of matter, we are finite, and for me: If a tree falls and no one hears it. It still makes a sound. Time and Space are immutable to the conscious mind, even if they are of a bizarre nature that really does not exist… as I believe Infinity connects us all. Quite the Story, this existence we are engaged end.
    The big picture or grand reality, beyond our mere selves – is and will be a riddle, an enigma, a paradox, and a conundrum, undisposed forever.
    Simply said, with the only means available through a poetic depth: “We are in Balance”, by being both local and non-local, by existing via the only describable manner capable: We are and we are not. Everything is Nothing and Nothing is Everything. [ Period ] The Perfection of Balance, which will never find any other description…, save illusion.
    However the Pursuit of Knowledge for our roots (the quantum and science per se’) is a humble and humane effort that must trump all obstacles, as it will, if we follow the Golden Rule, find our commonality, and better our health, lives and understanding, through the diminution of torment and harm that a world of a misguided diversity only seems to continue with its useless ego’s and destruction.
    References:
    [1] Author: Vlatko Vedral, Article: Living in a Quantum World, Magazine: Scientific American, June 2011, Page: 38, 43
    [2] Author: Anil Ananthaswamy, Article: Quantum reality is what you make it, Magazine: New Scientist, June 2011, Page: 13
    [3] Author: J. Miguel Rubin, Article: The Long Arm of the Second Law”, Magazine: Scientific American, October 2008, Pages: 63-67
    [*] My Own Personal Reference: Author: Russ Otter, Article: Is Reality Analog or Digital, Website: FQXi Community, February 2011. http://fqxi.org/data/essay-contest-files/Otter_Our_Universe_Digital_1.pdf Additionally posted @ http://otterwrite.blogspot.com/2010/10/our-universe-science-and-potentials-in.html
    [5] Author: Biblical Reference in several places: Gen: 4:4,5 ; Acts 10:34, 35 Rom. 2:9-11, among many others within the Judeo-Christian Bible
    [A] Author: Exodus 33:20 (Referring to God) “For no one may see me and live.” [ This illustrates some ancient and wise individuals, who understood the divide between the Infinite (Omniscient/God, if you will) and the Finite.)

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