Book Review: A User’s Guide to the Universe

A User’s Guide to the Universe:  Surviving the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes, and Quantum Uncertainty, by Dave Goldberg and Jeff Blomquist

This book is targeted at a very specific demographic–a nerdy, ironic reader (probably male) with a bad sense of humor (particularly a love of bad puns), and a fondness for D & D, Star Trek, and science fiction in general but also a desire to avoid too many mathematical equations or any concession to theism or intelligent design.  While most of these apply to me, not all of them do, and therefore this book slightly misses its target.

The book is organized in a very straightforward manner, starting with an introduction that examines the question of what physicists do, then has chapters on special relativity, quantum weirdness (Schrodinger’s Cat, for example), randomness (statistical physics), the standard model of physics, time travel, the expanding universe (inflationary theories), the Big Bang, Extraterrestrials (and the troubling, to the authors, anthropic principle), and the future (which contains an attempt at examining Intelligent Design and String Theory by Popper’s criterion of falsifiability [1], and failing in the case of Intelligent Design, because the reader knew more about Karl Popper than the authors).

Despite the flaws of the authors’ anti-theist and anti-intelligent design worldview (unsurprising flaws given the occupational bias involved), the book nonetheless manages to do a very difficult task highly competently.  They manage to discuss a very challenging subject (relativity, quantum mechanics, statistical physics, string theory, and particle physics) with a minimum of equations (they cheat a bit on their promise to use only E = mc^2, but they really only use a very small number of equations) and a large amount of bad puns, most of which are helpfully pointed out footnotes that seem like they came straight out of my Terra Nullis essay [2], even examining the problem of interstellar travel and space colonization in a superficial manner.

Therefore, if you enjoy dry humor and are able to overcome the sarcasm and somewhat juvenile sense of humor of the authors, you are likely to gain a lot from this reasonably sized book (a little under 300 pages)–a good laugh, a quick read, and a layperson’s guide to modern physics.  There is not much more that could be expected of a work like this, which is probably the second or third best book I’ve read on Quantum Mechanics (the better ones being Feynman’s Lectures and a book on the New Physics of Starlight).  If you’ve got a few hours to kill and you’re looking to educate yourself on what physicists want an educated layperson to believe and think about physics, this is a good place to go, even when it is in error.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/the-pseudoscience-of-naturalism-a-popperean-analysis-of-biologys-most-dangerous-assumption/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/into-empty-lands/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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