Nothing: A Very Short Introduction (Anglais) Broché – 25 juin 2009
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Revue de presse
An accessible and entertaining read for layperson and scientist alike. (Physics World)
The Void is well worth reading. (Robert Cailliau. CERN Courier.)
It covers very complicated concepts in a mostly accessible way. (Lawrence Rudnick, Nature)
A fascinating subject covered by a fascinating book. (Marcus Chown, Focus)
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The book is written in an interesting and easy-flowing style, and it does not overwhelm the reader with technical details and arcane jargon. There are hardly any equations in it, and the ones that are present are straightforward and used in order to illustrate a point that otherwise would be too cumbersome to describe. Overall, this is a very good book with a fresh and engaging perspective.
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To explore this question, the book embarks on a breakneck tour of the history of science. Though it seems to veer from the void in many places, it always returns to nothing. Those familiar with the basic history of Newtonian Mechanics, Relativity and Quantum physics will likely trod familiar territory. But those who don't know about the innards of an atom, the architecture of magnetic and electromagnetic fields, the inverse square law, the historic controversy over the ether, curved space time, the expanding universe, quantum uncertainty, pair creation, the Higgs vacuum, or just what that Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is supposed to discover, will learn enough to say that a new conceptual world has opened. One of the more interesting ideas discussed involves the self-sustaining universe, in that the majority of the universe may only need a speck of energy (a gigantic quantum fluctuation) to exist nearly forever. The book's final chapter "the new void" once again waxes philosophic, but this time with 300 some years of science supporting the speculations. He begins: "Everything came from nothing" and "Modern physics suggests that it is possible that the universe could have emerged out of the vaccuum." We may originate solely from an eruption from inflation. But what if more universes exist? Or more dimensions? Such questions may remain mere interrogatives until a marriage of quantum mechanics and relativity occurs. Or perhaps our human sensibilities weren't fashioned to contemplate the essence of creation? A final paragraph asks a deeper question, one asked of many religions: what brought the universe into existence? Or, to avoid latent anthropomorphism, why did it emerge? Or, as Close puts it, "I am still confronted with the enigma of what encoded the quantum possibility into the void." The book ends with an appropriate quote from the Rig Veda. Though we seem to know more than the toga-clad sky starers of previous millennia, each discovery seems to open new questions.
"Nothing" provides an introduction to far more than nothing. It aims some 2,000 years of speculation at the void. Some of the narrative will more than challenge the scientifically nescient, so perhaps the "introduction" in the subtitle slightly misleads. Nonetheless, those seeking to initiate or expand upon scientific knowledge will find that "Nothing" provides a fascinating background on which to explore such brain wrinkling concepts. This book may look flimsy and may even fly away in a strong breeze, but this belies the density of information it contains. Perhaps it goes a bit too deep in places, and this may prove frustrating to readers seduced by the word "introduction." In any case, persistence will pay off as the history of science unfolds from the void as we are simultaneously revealed through it. This book provides a weighty read that bequeaths substance onto nothing.
If you are at all scientifically curious this little volume should be a pleasure to read, especially if you know you are not going to be tested on it. Frank Close presents complex subject matter in a manner that is understandable even if you don't have a physics degree. But "Very Short Introduction" does not mean superficial -- the concepts it deals with are quite dense after all.
It is mostly about particle physics and cosmology. Close constructs accessible explanations of, for example, the composition and behavior of atoms and sub-atomic particles, relativity, quantum theory, the Big Bang, and the theory of Higgs bosons.
His unifying theme involves the Aristotelian idea that nature abhors a vacuum, a notion that was not over-turned (seemingly) until the seventeenth century. But it turns out that something is there after all, that all space is filled with energy.
Close renders the material (and energy) comprehensible through clear prose, reconstruction of helpful "thought experiments," enlightening metaphors, and a limited number of pictorial illustrations. For instance, he offers a graphic "mental model" of the uncertainty principle, one which I found very helpful. Yet he never lets the reader off the hook -- you will be required to think throughout.
This is publication number 205 in the Oxford "Very Short Introductions" series, which covers all manner of subjects. It is small and conveniently portable, but not unduly skimpy (I estimate about 43,000 words). An index makes it potentially useful as a reference book.
This little book wasn't easy for me to read but it was worth every minute spent doing it.
As well as finding possible solutions to at least some of these questions, a reading of Nothing left me reflecting that the giants of classical and modern physics, Newton and Einstein, weren't so off-the-wall after all, even when seemingly at their least inspired. Newton's insistence on the existence of ether anticipates the modern view that there is no such thing as 'empty' space - if all matter is removed then it is filled with energy, from which matter can be created at levels exceeding 2mc². (Elsewhere, in Close's words, 'an example of "ether" is an electric field.') Einstein's hypothesised Cosmological Constant (or Lambda force), meanwhile, which he considered his biggest mistake, may actually have been detected, even if its value is almost immeasurably small, and even if Lambda is no longer required to counterbalance gravitational attraction in an expanding universe (as opposed to the stable one of received opinion in 1915).
This is a challenging book from the very first chapter, in which early ideas about the vacuum are discussed. According to Close, the Aristotelian argument for the absence of a void expresses these in its clearest form, although I for one found Aristotle's reasoning more akin to word-play than irrefutable logic. Subsequent chapters tackle the next 2000 years' worth of ideas. Most of us non-physicists will probably be left reeling, but Close is attentive to the non-specialist, keeps his explanations jargon-free and uses wide-ranging analogies from impressionist art to roulette so that abstract (and bizarre!) concepts acquire more concrete form.
The text is accompanied by excellent graphics which illustrate, for example, how the angles of a triangle can total 270°, or how particles can materialise 'from nothing'. An absorbing, challenging and rewarding read, then, for anyone with an interest in current theory, CERN's Large Hadron Collider, the nature of the universe and the origin of everything in it.