Paradox – Reviewed

Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in PhysicsParadox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics by Jim Al-Khalili
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“He’s quite a man, he is. In his spare time he studies the universe.”

– Sid Waddell on Raymond Van Barneveld.

I used to find this funny, then I realised it was me too.

Paradox, a great read that leaves you begging for more. Al-Khalili explains complicated scientific concepts without patronising.

The first chapter wasn’t really about paradoxes at all, more counter-intuitive mathematical problems which I have read about umpteenth times elsewhere, so I skipped through them. I didn’t like the second chapter, it was about Zeno’s so called paradoxes. Read: silly ideas that do not represent the world but take a bit of reasoning to disprove. They do have their own place in the world – think “The Quantum Zeno effect” (observation can affect particle state), I just didn’t enjoy reading about them.

Obler’s paradox was my favourite chapter. Why does it get dark at night, given that there an infinite number of stars and galaxies? I reasoned it was the inverse square law. Al-Khalili counters, if there are an infinite number of stars, then that wouldn’t matter. Turns out, it is due to the expansion of the universe, and light from distant stars has not yet reached us and perhaps never will. I really liked the chapter on time travel too. Einstein’s theory predicts wormholes, so time travel is theoretically possible. How do we consummate the paradox of going back in time and killing your grandfather? Or the fact that we have never met any time travellers? Multiverse theory plays the deus ex machine here. I’m not a fan of this theory, but I have to admit it ties things up quite nicely. The chapter on Fermi’s paradox is also excellent.

My criticism of this book, is that the author never explains why time dilation or length contraction occur at or near the speed of light. He only says, that this has been seen experimentally. Al-Khalili shows us his brazen anti-semitism, when he titles a section “What’s the final solution?” I think this was an innocent mistake.

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