September 06, 2007


Fear of Physics: A Guide for the Perplexed. By Lawrence M. Krauss. Basic Books. $15.95.

The Physics of Star Trek. By Lawrence M. Krauss. Basic Books. $15.

      There is no way that a couple of nicely written paperbacks can cut through all the theoretical complexity and jargon-laden analysis that is modern physics, but Lawrence M. Krauss gives the field a heck of a run for its money – and in the process may help open up some of its mysteries to readers of a distinctly non-scientific bent. Fear of Physics and The Physics of Star Trek were originally published more than a decade ago – an eon or two in terms of the scientific progress since then – and Krauss, an astronomy professor and chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University, has done a fine job of updating both books. Admitting that “the way physicists approach problems, and the language they use, is…removed from the mainstream of modern-day activity for most people,” Krauss sets out to explain straightforwardly as much as possible of contemporary real-world physics – and of the possible and so-far-impossible physics-related background of Star Trek.

      Thus, Fear of Physics initially approaches the huge (literally huge) subject of exploding stars – supernovas – by explaining what happens if we think at a cow as a sphere. Krauss looks at gigantic numbers, and the importance of using orders of magnitude to describe them, by pointing out that “the size of the universe in centimeters [is] about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Displayed this way, all we know is that the number is big!” A chapter called “Creative Plagiarism” explains how scientists build on the work of those who have gone before. And so on. It would be a mistake to believe that Krauss reduces the concepts of physics to simplicity, since they cannot be so reduced. A typical sentence from “Creative Plagiarism” reads, “The only reason we have been able to enumerate the level structure of even the simplest atoms such as hydrogen is because we have found that the three-dimensional nature of these systems ‘separates’ them into two separate parts.” But Krauss deserves considerable credit for bringing modern concepts of space, time and matter into language that, if scarcely easy, remains far more intelligible than that in which these ideas are discussed among physicists themselves.

      Krauss takes one step beyond into popular culture (One Step Beyond was a TV series akin to The Twilight Zone) with The Physics of Star Trek, whose chapters are introduced by quotations from various Star Trek incarnations. The book opens with the memorable quotation heard “innumerable times” when Scotty spoke to Kirk: “But I canna change the laws of physics, Captain!” And the book’s three sections are given titles and descriptions intended to be highly reader-friendly, such as “The Invisible Universe, or Things That Go Bump in the Night: In which we speak of things that may exist but are not yet seen – extraterrestrial life, multiple dimensions, and an exotic zoo of other physics possibilities and impossibilities.” Beneath all this attractively superficial packaging, however, lies the same determination to make physics understandable that Krauss shows in Fear of Physics. He may cast a discussion of time travel in the form of a poker game among Newton, Einstein, Hawking and Data, but Krauss determinedly uses real physics to explain what is, or purports to be, going on in fiction: “Because the bottom mouth of the wormhole will be moving with respect to the space in which it is situated, while the top mouth will not, special relativity tells us that clocks will tick at different rates at each mouth.” Neither of these books will turn anyone into a physicist, or even necessarily make some of the field’s more far-reaching concepts clear. But both provide non-physicists with unusual accessibility to the way physicists think and the things they are currently thinking about – subjects that, as Krauss shows again and again, may be “out there” but also have important implications for our everyday world.

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