Archive for category Books Reviews


Posted by on Wednesday, 1 June, 2011


I try to keep my writing reasonably lively so as to keep my readers awake. This time, however, you’re kinda on your own to keep your head off the pillow. Sorry. My blog, my (sometimes deadly dull) topics.


Dr. Brian Greene:

The Elegant Universe is my favorite book. It describes string theory. My copy’s old and I don’t “get” it all. But each time I read it, I learn something.

Readers of my blog should be as lucky.

Here’s what bothers me, Brian Greene. You say strings are one dimensional . Most of them are so tiny (.000000000000000000000000000000000001 meters) that they’re as small as anything can get – the “Planck length”. Nothing physical gets to be smaller than the Planck length.  Not everyone’s on board with the idea that space is “granular” (things have a minimum size) but it’s gaining acceptance.

Anyway, I’m kinda stumped. I’m a three dimensional guy in a multidimensional world. Strings don’t have width. Or depth. They have a volume of zero, right?  Nothing to grab on to. More like thought experiments. Vibrate them in the right modes, and they “real up”, each becoming a particle or a force. One of these strings accounts for each particle in the universe.

But how does a one dimensional string trick itself out with additional dimensions? Is  it the “moving around” thing?  And aren’t strings long in one dimension and skinny in the others? Isn’t that the idea behind calling them strings? Except they don’t HAVE other dimensions. And if they DID have such things, they wouldn’t be any smaller than the Planck length, right? So a “string” would be a cube?

My poor head!

Another thing. Strings, you say, are being pulled apart by a tension force of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000  tons. As a former structural engineer,  I worry about them breaking.

So, dividing 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons of force by the non existent cross section of a string, I arrive at something more-or-less like an infinite tensile stress.

This is bad.

In The Elegant Universe, you emphasize the superior nature of string theory over the prevailing “Standard Model” of physics which,  you say, suffers from too many infinities (like when the denominator of a fraction is zero?) I realize that strings, which are saved from being infinitely small by the Planck length, are also saved from “midriff bulge” (thickness across the middle) by their one dimensional nature. Maybe this vaccinates them against having to worry about internal stresses. But there’s still a big-force, small-object thing going on here that’s a little confusing, okay?

Elegant Universe

I do think I’ve answered one of my own questions which is how this tension force manages to maintain itself. After all, why doesn’t the string just  shrink till it doesn’t HAVE to shrink anymore, relieving its own internal tension?  It’s not like it’s tied to anything.  However, the string seems to be “Plancked out”. It can’t get smaller than that stupid Planck limit.

What a world!

Strings are distinguished from one another (I gather) by their modes of vibration and the way they wrap (open or closed). Except that 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons isn’t a small  force. It’s what  a rock  with mass equivalent to  hundreds of billions of stars  would weigh here on earth. Those pictures in your book of strings wrapped around things? Or vibrating, away in different “modes”? How do they stay so curvy with that kind of tension trying to snap them straight?

All I’ve got. And thanks for your patience,

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad


Credit, once again, to xkcd, it’s fine and funny drawings (top).
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Harvard, Ice Cream, and Quantum Mechanics

Posted by on Saturday, 13 February, 2010



A long, long time ago, Joel, Doug, and MISTER ScienceAintSoBad were in line for an ice cream cone in Harvard Square.

I can’t remember, exactly, why, but Joel said (not for the first time) that “People are morons.”

Mister (not at that time) ScienceAintSoBad sturdily defended you.

“Not all of them.”

“That’s what YOU think. They don’t know crap!”

“You do?”

Three guys in line for ice cream.. You don’t want the whole transcript. However, it led to a “test” (we were young, remember). We decided to ask people in the line about electrons.

We would be easy graders. The interviewee didn’t have to know a lot. The answer could be “part of an atom”, “a tiny something that’s part of stuff”, “a particle”, “some small shmatta from physics” – just some indication that he.she knew what we were talking about.

So we did the survey. We asked ten customers, one by one. And this is what happened.

Nobody knew the answer.

One person – a high school girl, I think – knew it was “something in science” so she got a passing grade.

Everybody else was stumped. Most of them shrugged their shoulders or looked confused or were afraid that they were on Candid Camera.

Why bring this up?

Not because Joel was right about people being stupid. THEY weren’t making idiots out of themselves in an ice cream shop. But if this shop, which was a few hundred yards from Harvard (gasp!) University was even a little representative of the intelligent beings that inhabit our planet, then they (those intelligent beings) certainly didn’t give a lime sherbert’s damn about physics. Or abstract theories. Or natural philosophy. Or what-have-you.

You’re gonna say you have some issues with my methodology. That is wasn’t scientific.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that the “deeper” more abstract things are a hard sell with the average person. It’s just not what people think about.


MISTER ScienceAintSoBad can tell when you’re interested.

You know that little shmagegge on the upper right of the screen? It counts the visitors.

When we do an article about PRACTICAL things like the effects of salt on your health or a new cancer drug or a new breakthrough in hypnotic suggestion that turns teenagers into sweet, docile, uncomplaining saints, that thing GOES! The individual numbers get blurry and it goes whirr, whirr, whirr.

BUT when we do something really INTERESTING, something of PROFOUND SCIENTIFIC IMPORT such as the continuing effort to understand dark matter or dark energy or research into the true nature of the universe (quantum mechanics or string theory, for example), it stutters, hesitates, shivers, and staggers like it’s developed a case of frozen neuron disease.

This tells me that if I want lots of customers (and, by the way, the readership of Science Ain’t So Bad has been growing and thank you) I should stay away from deep science.

Unfortunately, because of a contract I have with myself, that’s not gonna happen so you can either go away with something new or (more likely) just skip the good stuff.

I hope you’ll, at least, give me a chance on the esoterica. It’ll make you a better person.

And, how can you be sure it won’t come up in a job interview?

You’ll be SO happy to learn that I’m adding book reviews to Science Ain’t So Bad and the first review – not finished yet – is going to be Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.

Which doesn’t have a THING in it that’ll relieve the symptoms of a cold.