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The Biggest Ideas in the Universe

by Sean Carroll

Pub Date: May 14th, 2024
ISBN: 9780593186602
Publisher: Dutton

The author’s second volume on the laws that govern the universe.

In 2022, Carroll, professor of natural philosophy at Johns Hopkins, published The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time, and Motion, in which he explained the first fundamental description of nature in physics: classical mechanics, from Newton’s gravity to Einstein’s relativity. In the classical world, the workings of particles of energy are often complicated and even bizarre (general relativity is both), but they make sense. Adding that no one, physicists included, can sensibly explain quantum mechanics—even though it’s “the way the world works”—the author emphasizes that this book follows naturally from its predecessor. Although Carroll maintains that his field contains an enormous amount of material that he will “boil down to its bare essence,” readers may wish that he had kept the pot on longer. Science writers dealing with complex areas—e.g., DNA, immunity, brain function, quantum mechanics—traditionally start with easy material, usually the history, proceed to basic concepts, and slowly add complexity. Carroll, however, is a take-no-prisoners popularizer, and he dispenses with history in a dozen pages. His first equation appears on page 14, and it’s a doozy. Torrents of others follow as he eschews analogies, metaphors, and amusing stories for straightforward explanations of matter, fields, and forces as well as quantum behavior that he argues is less bizarre than other authors claim. That may be true, but most readers will agree that concepts such as entanglement, spin, symmetry, antimatter, and gauge theory are difficult to comprehend. This should not be anyone’s introduction to quantum theory; for that, try Quantum Mechanics by Leonard Susskind and Art Friedman. Readers who have forgotten first-year college physics and calculus will struggle. Those who remember and pay close attention will receive an unvarnished education on how the universe works.

Quantum theory for serious readers.