Warped Passages by Lisa Randall

I have nothing useful or interesting to say about electoral politics, but I suspect that’s all people will want to read about today. So here’s a book post that’s been backlogged for quite a while.

Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions dates from 2005, and was, I think, part of the huge spate of string-theory-related books at that time (just before the String Theory Backlash books of 2006). It includes the usual survey of the Standard Model and the problems thereof, with an emphasis on the sort of extra-dimension theories that Randall and Raman Sundrum are famous for.

I wanted to like this book– it offers a relatively reasonable perspective on the issues of particle physics, coming at the problem from a model-building perspective rather than a loopy anything-goes theory perspective. Ultimately, alas, I found it kind of a frustrating mess.

There are a bunch of different things going on in this book, and none of them really fit together all that well. There’s a fairly standard overview of theoretical physics, but it’s presented in a slightly odd and idiosyncratic order and interrupted by lots of other stuff. There’s a kind of personal memoir of the development of the Randall-Sundrum theories, but it only surfaces occasionally. And there’s a set of whimsical stories involving “Ike” and “Athena” doing some kind of Mr. Tompkins thing where they explore hypothetical worlds at the start of every chapter.

The problem with the book is that none of these elements is fully developed and integrated with the others, so rather than being charming, they become kind of annoying. The odd ordering of the survey makes it a little hard to follow, the personal history bits pop up just often enough to come off as name-dropping, and the Ike and Athena stories are too disjointed to provide any kind of unifying theme (sometimes, they’re barely even mentioned in the chapters themselves), so they end up feeling irritatingly cutesy. And I say this as a man who wrote an entire pop-science book (and who is working on a second) using a talking dog as the hook.

It doesn’t help that my reading of this was spread out over a period of several months, of course, but the frustrating aspects of it are the whole reason why it took so long to read– I kept picking it up, and making it through a chapter or two, then saying “Oh, to hell with this…” and reading something else instead. It felt like something that could’ve been shaped into one of two or three really good books, with a bit of careful editing, but as it is, there are really good moments, separated by a lot of muddled stuff.

This is, obviously, not a widely held opinion, given that there’s a big “NY Times Notable Book” badge on the front cover of my paperback, but that’s my take on it. It may be that I’m far more burned out on the whole topic of particle physics than I realized, and somebody less jaded would find this enchanting. Maybe some other brane holds a version of me who is a huge fan of this book, but in these four dimensions, I can’t really recommend it.

Comments

  1. #1 Bee
    November 4, 2010

    I wrote a review on Randall’s book some years back: see here. While I liked the topic and the fact that a book was written about it at all, I wasn’t too convinced by the presentation either.

  2. #2 onymous
    November 4, 2010

    The extended analogy between the renormalization group and a bureaucracy convinced me that she was trying way too hard to make sophisticated concepts comprehensible. Also, I’m not really sure that analogies are the best way to explain concepts to people without using mathematics.

  3. #3 Johnny
    September 30, 2011

    I had been eyeing this book up for a while, but it doesn’t seem to be getting many good reviews. I may be in the same boat you are that I am just burnt out on the whole subject.

  4. #4 JM
    September 30, 2011

    She has a new book out:

    “In Knocking on Heaven’s Door, she explores how we decide which scientific questions to study and how we go about answering them. She examines the role of risk, creativity, uncertainty, beauty, and truth in scientific thinking through provocative conversations with leading figures in other fields”

    http://www.harpercollins.com/books/Knocking-Heavens-Door-Lisa-Randall/?isbn=9780061723728