Book Review: Reality is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli

Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum GravityReality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reality might not be what it seems, but at least it isn’t a simulation. Possibly.

Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist and has a background in the history and philosophy of science. His field of research is quantum gravity. This makes him an ideal person to write a book about the history of quantum physics and the current state of affairs with scientists trying to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Rovelli is one of the founders of loop quantum gravity theory, a candidate alongside string theory for an explanation of quantum gravity. As there are many books, videos, and proponents of string theory, Rovelli thought loop quantum gravity deserved a book too. So while string theory is mentioned, the focus is on the history of quantum physics leading to loop quantum gravity theory.

This was a particularly well-written book. The history, starting with my favourite thinker Democritus, and the explanations were (relatively) easy to follow. At no point did I feel lost in spin foam or uncertain about what is really complicated material.

But I also came away from the book feeling as though I’d missed a section. Maybe I need to re-read the book (doable, as it isn’t particularly long) as I felt like the discussion of loop quantum gravity was actually a brief overview* compared to the sections on the background to its development.

Reality is Not What It Seems is a very good overview of quantum physics, I just wanted a little bit more.

*Loop quantum gravity doesn’t try to string together gravity with quantum mechanics but extends quantum mechanics as a granular geometric equation into the macro realm of what we understand as special relativity.

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Book review: Doughnut by Tom Holt

Doughnut (YouSpace, #1)Doughnut by Tom Holt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Life is like a box of doughnuts. Mmmmmmm, doughnuts!

Theo Bernstein is on something of a losing streak. He lost his money, he lost his wife*, he lost his job, and he lost the visibility of one of his arms. Given how high profile the reason for losing his job was – who knew people would miss a mountain? – it’s a wonder he is able to find any work at all, first at an abattoir, then at a hotel. The hotel gig might be easier than hauling offal, but it’s a weird job, made weirder by the strange bottle left to him by his old professor, Pieter van Goyen. How can this bottle be the future of entertainment? And is there a doughnut shop nearby?

In the middle of last year, an author friend – Kaaron Warren** – recommended The Management Style of Supreme Beings to me. It was one of the nominees for an international award she was judging and she spoke glowingly of it. I’d previously enjoyed one of Tom’s books under his KJ Parker pseudonym, so I decided to track it down at the library. Obviously, I was unsuccessful, as instead, I ended up with Doughnut.

This explanation is a roundabout way of saying that I had high expectations for this novel. In some ways, Doughnut managed to rise to those expectations. Holt is a very sharp and inventive author. There are plenty of genuinely funny moments and ideas in this book. But somehow I felt it was all a bit pointless and inane.

In some ways, this is a product of the very British bumbling protagonist used in this novel. It tends to influence the way the story is told, usually in a way that is deliberately frustrating but with the reward of large doses of humour. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this was quite funny enough for the narrative style.

So while this was quite entertaining, I had hoped for more, particularly in the humour department.

*Lost his wife in the sense that she decided to leave him, not the lost in the ‘we were just walking through the Xmas sales and she let go of my hand for a moment and now I can’t find her in this crowd’ kind of way.

** Read her books: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show…

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Book review: A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Briefer History of TimeA Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, that was brief.

In the late 1980s, Stephen Hawking became the name synonymous with smart people, science, and computerised voices when he released A Brief History of Time. In the intervening 27 years (this book was published in 2005) a lot of progress has been made in physics and our understanding of the universe, so this is an update on curved space, quantum gravity, black holes, Newtonian physics, relativity, the Big Bang (everywhere stretch), wormholes and time travel, and the search for a grand unifying theory of reality.

Obviously, this all sounds like very complicated stuff that you’ll battle to wrap your head around. I have to admit, when I read A Brief History of Time in my 20s I struggled with it. Imagining 4-dimensional space was confusing, imagining another 6 dimensions on top of that with string theory was just too much for me. So maybe I’m older, wiser, smarter, and have added centimetres to my head circumference, because I found this book clear and easy to understand. Or maybe this updated version is clearer than the original. Or maybe I’m just more familiar with physics now and can kid myself that it isn’t that hard to understand.

Either way, I found this to be a clear, concise, and easy to understand overview of spacetime physics.

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Why Comic Book Movies Suck

an-origin-story-is-coming

With the run-away box office success of some of the comic book movie adaptations, you could be excused for thinking that comic book movies don’t suck. Sure, stick Robert Downey Jnr. in a movie and you are bound to bask the movie in his reflected awesome. Put Joss Whedon in the director’s chair and he could make paint drying fun to watch. But when all said and done, comic book movies are fatally flawed for the following reasons.

Origin Story

I was bitten by a cat. No increased agility, but I do clean myself with my tongue now.
I was bitten by a cat. No increased agility, but I do clean myself with my tongue now.

Did John McClane need an origin story? Did we need to see him join the police academy, walk the beat in montage form and get his detective shield before taking on Hans Gruber? NO! So why do we need to go back and see how every superhero became a superhero? If Charlies Angels can get away with having us believe that three rake thin girls can successfully beat the crap out of a group of guys twice their size whilst wearing stilettos without an origin story, I think we can just take it on faith that The Punisher has issues with criminals.

Superhero beating up normal people

doctor-octopus-spiderman-2
Super arms, normal pudgy body ripe for the beating.

He can leap tall buildings in a single bound, he can change the course of rivers with his bare hands, but he still needs to punch a normal person like he’s Ali squaring off against Foreman. Let’s face it, if a superhero actually wound up and threw a punch like we see in the movies (or comics for that matter) to hit a normal person, their fist would go clear through the person’s body, which would be kinda cool to see on the big screen.

The most egregious use of this strength imbalance, in my opinion, is in Spiderman 2. Remember how Spiderman stops a speeding train using just upper body strength? Remember how he then has an extended fight with Doc Oc where he repeatedly punches the mad scientist in the face? Now I know that the Doc did have some cool new appendages attached to his body, but the rest of his body is still pretty normal. Yet we are meant to believe that Spiderman can’t throw a punch to save his life or that Doc Oc’s head can withstand a blow that is stronger than a speeding train.

Spandex/Lycra

In reality land, never a good look.
In reality land, never a good look.

I’m almost certain that superhero costume designers and comic artists are BSDM fans, nothing else can explain Catwoman’s costume. Now being a heterosexual male I find nothing wrong with the casting of attractive women to be wearing spandex or lycra bodysuits. Sure, it must be hard for the women to stay in shape, kick ass and say their lines, but we sure do appreciate it! I’m sure the flip side is also true, that the female audience members love to see the chiselled muscle of the male actors displayed either shirtless or clad in the most figure enhancing costumes possible. I’m sure that the LGBT crowd have their respective tastes sated as well.

But here is my problem with spandex and lycra: no-one actually looks good in it and it is not very practical. If Batman were really deciding on what to wear when fighting crime, he wouldn’t be deciding on a cape and cod piece, he’d be looking for body-armour and a backpack for lugging around all of his Bat-gadgets. What about pockets? Where do you keep your phone and spare cash? And what happens if the superhero hasn’t had a chance to fight crime recently or has had a lot of charity dinners of late? Spandex and lycra are just going to display those meals and extra flab straight away. They’d become too self conscious to leave the house to fight any crimes. Norman Osbourne has taken hostages down-town  Sorry, I have a muffin top and can’t be seen in public.

Gratuitous PG rated violence

I'm a science nerd, that means one graph per article, minimum.
I’m a science nerd, that means one graph per article; minimum.

After an epic fight that levels half the city the bad guy goes to prison and we have ambulances treating all the poor people who sustained a few cuts and bruises. After beating the living crap out of each other for 20 minutes, the good guy and bad guy have a sum total of a bloodied lip and a bad case of out-of-breathness. Then, of course, the bad guy dies in some elaborate death scene that cuts-away just before the gory bit.

On the plus side, there is plenty of shooting, explosions, car chases, fight scenes and general mayhem to keep anyone amused. But no tits. Definitely no tits. Because we wouldn’t want kids to see anything that could harm their little minds.

The laws of physics don’t apply

iron_man_12-t2
I may weigh over 110kg, but this seat thinks I’m 50kg.

You know how when fat people sit down on something you hear it complain? What about the bowing that occurs? What about those permanent dents that your poor couch has from your fat uncle at Xmas time, not to mention the smell? Well, in the movies that doesn’t happen. Iron Man sits on a couch and doesn’t look a gram over 80kg, yet all that armour should be making it bow like your fat uncle after a plate of turkey. But it isn’t just that. Where are the crumple zones in that suit? What about air-bags? What about how squidgy Tony Stark would become being rattled around inside that suit?

Superheroes defy all sorts of laws of physics, whether it be jumping off a building and landing on the ground in high heels as though they just needed to tie their shoes, or casually picking up a car to throw at someone without their fingers tearing straight through the light aluminium panels. Also, why is it that the superhero always has super-clothes? Whether it be Wolverine’s amazing self healing singlets or the general indestructible nature of most costumes. Whoever designs those things could make a fortune!

Secret identity that isn’t really

The mask makes me look less like Ryan Reynolds, don't you think?
The mask makes me look less like Ryan Reynolds, don’t you think?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s quite clearly Clark Kent without the glasses.

How stupid are the people of Gotham? A Dark Knight rocks up wearing expensive high-tech gadgets, driving a really cool car at the same time a troubled billionaire returns home: how much of a leap do people have to take here? Even Hal Jordan was unmasked by his girlfriend, how long would it take other people to catch on? At least Tony Stark just came out and admitted it.

Big ass explosions

They're cool because they aren't looking at it.
They’re cool because they aren’t looking at it.

This is related to the physics point. Explosions in real life are never as spectacular as movie explosions. Car falls off a cliff: instant fireball. Helicopter stops helicopting: instant fireball. Gas from the stove left on for a few seconds: house explodes into a million pieces. Captain America ducks his head behind his shield as grenade explodes: doesn’t have exposed legs blown off.

In comic book movies everything explodes at the lightest touch. Somehow The Hulk crushing a car causes it to explode, rather than just leak. But not just explode, EXPLODE!!! I don’t know how much high-octane petrol and C4 the average person keeps in their car, but it must be a lot more than I do.