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A User's Guide To the Universe 153

alfredw writes "Have you ever wanted to buttonhole a physicist at a cocktail party? Do you have the burning desire to sit down with a professor and ask a laundry list of 'physics' questions about time travel and black holes? Do you want to know more about modern physics, but want to do it with pop culture experiments instead of mathematics? If you answered 'yes' to any of those questions, then you're in the target audience for A User's Guide to the Universe: Surviving the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes, and Quantum Uncertainty." Keep reading for the rest of alfredw's review.

Submission + - Book Review: A User's Guide to the Universe

alfredw writes: "[NOTE TO EDITORS: Disclosure: I am a graduate student in the same department as one author (Goldberg). I've taken his Cosmology and Graduate Electricity and Magnetism class. He's not my academic advisor, nor is he on my thesis committee and he has no determination of my grades or future performance. I also shared an office with the other author (Blomquist) for about a week in 2008, when I was joining the department and he was leaving. We're casual acquaintances only.

Please publish only my obfuscated email address.

I have chosen to review this book because it was released recently (end of Feb, 2010).]

Have you ever wanted to buttonhole a physicist at a cocktail party? Do you have the burning desire to sit down with a professor and ask a laundry list of "physics" questions about time travel and black holes? Do you want to know more about modern physics, but want to do it with pop culture experiments instead of mathematics? If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, then you're in the target audience for A User's Guide to the Universe: Surviving the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes, and Quantum Uncertaintym

A User's Guide to the Universe (hereinafter "A User's Guide") is the physicist's answer to Phil Plait's Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End.... What Goldberg and Blomquist have created is a fun, light read about interesting areas of modern physics that will entertain while it educates. The book assumes very little scientific background on the part of the reader. Those with some knowledge (this is Slashdot, after all) will find the explanations of well-known concepts (the double slit experiment, for example) lucid, direct, brief and entertaining.

A User's Guide covers topics like relativity, time travel, the Standard Model of Particle Physics, and alien life. It does so with a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, and footnotes that act as the authors' very own peanut gallery. While this humour lightens up what could otherwise be a few dry areas of discussion, the littering of the text with pop-culture references is bound to make the book feel a bit dated in years to come. For now (March 2010), though, A User's Guide is so fresh you might call it ripe.

Unlike Death from the Skies, this book is well illustrated. The pen-and-ink cartoons are omnipresent, and serve to both illustrate the text, and to take every opportunity for a joke (cheap or otherwise) that presents itself. Overall, I felt that the cartoons were a strong addition to the book, as they can provide a needed laugh in a serious section, or can eliminate the proverbial thousand words when describing an experiment or concept.

The chapter on time travel is a stand-out. It presents several "practical" designs for time machines, which use black holes, cosmic strings or wormholes as components. I am an avid reader of pop-sci books, and I found designs that were new to me. The discussion of the Grandfather Paradox (if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, then you were never born and could never have committed murder) and ways around it are very helpful and present a solid physical framework for thinking about these issues. When the Grandfather Paradox is reformulated using pool balls, instead of thinking humans, it becomes clear that the issues are physical and not metaphysical. Also, the authors helpfully include a chart ranking sci-fi shows and movies for their time travel savvy.

You'll also find a strong and entertaining treatment of inflationary cosmology, including discussions of the evidence behind the theory and a look at some consequences. This book avoids both a heavy technical treatment and a historical look at the development of the theory (see, for example, Alan Guth's The Inflationary Universe for that) and instead dives right in to the juiciest parts. This style is well-suited to the reader who wants the funs bits without all of the baggage.

If you're curious about quantum mechanics, the second chapter contains a one of the best introductions in the field. By asking questions like "can we build a Star Trek transporter?" the authors drive a quick and satisfying tour through the weirdness of the microscopic world. This "evil genius hands-on" approach is this book's most important contribution to pop sci literature, and its most endearing feature. You'll start by looking at Star Trek, but end with the mysteries of the double-slit experiment, wave-particle duality and the uncertainty principle.

Finally, at the end of the book, the authors helpfully include two sets of references: one to the pop sci literature, and one to the technical literature. Many of the best pop physics books of the past are listed, and the bibliography could serve as useful direction to more depth for the interested.

Overall, A User's Guide accomplishes what it sets out to do. It combines a hands-on, question-driven approach to physics with a tongue-in-cheek, pop-culture-based sense of humour. And then it throws on a layer of great cartoons to make the entire package something that most science books aren't: enjoyable. This book is fine, and you may well learn something in the process."

Submission + - Early graduation for college et al?

hahafaha writes: "I am currently a high school student. My school offers a program by which students can graduate in three years rather than four, by essentially completing all the requirements. This is generally very difficult, because the school requires four years of math, science and English, but I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can easily do it by simply taking two English classes next year, for which I am already signed up (the way I am accomplishing this is by taking math a year ahead, and by taking two science courses this year). However, I am unsure how great of an idea it is in terms of admissions into college. How much would this harm my chances?

I think that academically, I am doing well. I am president of the Computer Club, participate in the math team, have good grades, etc. My dream is to get into MIT. But for any college/university, not just MIT, how much would early graduation hurt my chances? If I get great SAT scores, AP scores and GPA, would that outweigh the 5 (or so) less classes I take than everyone else? Note, also, that I am older than most others in my grade, so the whole age thing should not be a problem.

Does anyone in the Slashdot community have any experience with early graduation?"

Submission + - Einstein's twin paradox resolved

slashthedot writes: "An Indian American scientist Subhash Kak from Louisiana State University has resolved the 100+ years old Einstein's twin paradox. "The fact that time slows down on moving objects has been documented and verified over the years through repeated experimentation. But, in the previous scenario, the paradox is that the earthbound twin is the one who would be considered to be in motion — in relation to the sibling — and therefore should be the one aging more slowly. Einstein and other scientists have attempted to resolve this problem before, but none of the formulas they presented proved satisfactory. Kak's findings were published online in the International Journal of Theoretical Science, and will appear in the upcoming print version of the publication."
"The implications of this resolution will be widespread, generally enhancing the scientific community's comprehension of relativity. It may eventually even have some impact on quantum communications and computers, potentially making it possible to design more efficient and reliable communication systems for space applications."
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-02/lsu -lpr021407.php"

Submission + - Microsoft dirty tricks that were never revealed

Conrad Mazian writes: Robert X. Cringely has an article on the Technology Evangelist web site where he claims that Microsoft destroyed evidence in the Burst vs Microsoft case. Specifically Burst's lawyers had asked for certain emails, Microsoft claimed that they couldn't find the backup tapes the emails would be on, and while this was happening the tapes were in a vault at Microsoft — until they mysteriously disappeared.

http://www.technologyevangelist.com/2007/02/micros oft_dirty_tric_1.html

It's a fascinating story — even names one person at Microsoft.

Submission + - Linux.com | Linus fires latest shot in GNOME Wars

Rav3L0rd writes: "Some bad blood between Linus Torvalds and GNOME developers is flaring up again. Previously, Torvalds has said that Linux users should switch to KDE instead of GNOME because of the GNOME team's "users are idiots" mentality. Now he has "put his money where his mouth is" by submitting patches to GNOME in order to have it behave as he likes. http://www.linux.com/article.pl?sid=07/02/16/19372 37"

Submission + - MythTV better than Series 3?

gizmateer writes: "Does an open source solution like MythTV stand a chance against TiVo's Series 3?

According to this article MythTV actually has several features that a TiVo will never be able to compete with but is considerably harder for the non-geek to initially setup and then maintain. A huge ding against MythTV is the fact it does not support CableCARD like the Series 3. Since I'm OTA, that's not as big of a deal, but what are your thoughts? MythTV vs Series 3?"

Submission + - Opportunity is knocking. Should I open the door?

infinite9 writes: "I hear about startups all the time. But most of the time, it's just talk. So I don't take them seriously. But this time, someone has really caught my attention. I'm an independant IT consultant with many years of experience. I'm in my 30s. I make an excellent hourly rate and would most likely continue to do so. But a friend of mine has offered me part ownership as a founding share holder in a new business. I can't talk about what I would be doing, but it's spectacularly awesome. It's the stuff I dreamed about making when I was a kid. I'm usually very skeptical about these things. But in this case, their business plan is rock solid. They have several investors interested already. But when I heard about one potential investor in particular who they've already met with, it floored me. Everyone here would instantly recognize his name. If this person trusts these people and their business plan, shouldn't I? Here's the problem. For the first few years, I would be making what for most people is a great salary. But for me, it's a significant pay cut, almost half. But I'd be working from home a lot. I'd have a lot of control. I'd be working with my friends doing something extremely fun and satisfying. Currently, I put quite a lot of money a year in an IRA/401k. I'd have to stop that. But in exchange I'd get quite a lot of shares. If they just hit the conservative estimates in their business plan, i'd be very comfortable. If they exceed plan even a little, which is likely if they succeed, I'd never have to work again. Worst case, I walk away with valuable business experience, good technical experience, and no IRA/401k. I would be around 40 at this point. So what would you need to justify leaving your comfort zone and taking a risk like this? Other than obvious due diligence, what would you want to know or consider up front?"

Microsoft Blasts IBM Over XML Standards 323

carlmenezes writes "Ars Technica has up an article discussing Microsoft's latest salvo against IBM. Microsoft's open letter to IBM adds fresh ammunition to the battle of words between those who support Microsoft's Open XML and OpenOffice.org's OpenDocument file formats. Microsoft has strong words for IBM, which it accuses of deliberately trying to sabotage Microsoft's attempt to get Open XML certified as a standard by the ECMA. In the letter, general managers Tom Robertson and Jean Paol write: 'When ODF was under consideration, Microsoft made no effort to slow down the process because we recognized customers' interest in the standardization of document formats.' In contrast, the authors charge that IBM 'led a global campaign' urging that governments and other organizations demand that International Standards Organization (ISO) reject Open XML outright."

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