THE WHOLE SHEBANG by Timothy Ferris


A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report
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 As Virgil led Dante through the thickets and circles of the inferno, so Ferris, a science writer's science writer, guides the reader through the clouds and bubbles, the singularities and uncertainties that characterize cosmology today. What is so rewarding about the Ferris tour is that he is authoritative without being prescriptive; even-handed without being all-accepting; and above all rational. When an author wites of James Trefil commenting about ``looking in the face of God,'' or Stephen Hawking concluding that a unified theory of physics would mean that ``we would know the mind of God,'' and describes it as so much God-mongering, you know you are in safe hands. Yet thinking about the structure and origins of the universe, and about the weird world of quantum mechanics, has much of the nonrational about it. Ferris (Coming of Age in the Milway Way, 1988, etc.) not only provides chapter and verse on the paths leading from Einstein and Bohr to Feynman and Gell-Mann to Wheeler and Bohm, but he also deftly limns the backgrounds and personae of today's rival theory-makers. In the end we find ourselves contemplating a 10-dimensional universe (possibly one in a ``multiverse''), in which six of the original dimensions shrink to all-but-nothingness, leaving our own familiar four (space-time) populated by microcosmic superstrings. The universe is essentially ``flat'': Wherever we look it appears to be made of the same stuff relatively evenly distributed among galaxies and dark matter and the like. Close up, random fluctuations account for the accretions of matter that gave rise to our ``local group'' (which includes the Milky Way) and other larger clusterings. Indeed, it is the tools of Hubble and other ingenious probes that are turning cosmology into a science. There is much joy and beauty in this passage from speculation to demonstration, and we have Ferris to thank for his superb rendering, both of the shebang and of the science that studies the shebang. (Book-of-the-Month Club split main selection; History Book Club alternate selection)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-684-81020-4
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1997


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