Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Books I'm Reading: The Theory of Almost Everything

Periodically, I subject myself to a little reading about physics. It's a difficult subject, but it interests me, and I can't help thinking that an educated person ought to understand how the universe works. Typically, I find it hard to retain the sometimes mind-boggling ideas that modern physics forces us to accept. Each time, though, I feel like I come a little closer to understanding.

I just finished reading Robert Oerter's The Theory of Almost Everything (Plume, 2006) and feel like I've made a quantum leap (pun intended--but the phrase is apt). Perhaps it's just because I've continued to read about physics over the years--it was bound to make more and more sense just by virtue of exposure--, but I feel Oerter's book is exceptionally clear and well written. It puts the whole progression of human thinking about the stuff of the universe into historical perspective, from Newton to string theory (and made it clear to me for the first time how string theory developed out of earlier models). The book talks a great deal about why none of the theories we have today is yet good enough (for example, all current models more or less ignore gravity). At the same time, however, the author makes it clear just how brilliant the currently accepted Standard Model is, despite its deficiencies. The book is something of a celebration of the Standard Model, which Oerter calls the crowning achievement of human thought in the past 100 years. Illuminating, and, given the difficulty of the subject, remarkably easy to follow. Highly recommended--if you like this sort of stuff, that is.

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