Cover Image: The Biggest Ideas in the Universe

The Biggest Ideas in the Universe

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I was recently asked to review a copy renowned John’s Hopkins faculty, physicist-author Sean Carroll’s new book, the first in a series, called The Biggest Ideas in the Universe. It was an honor to be contacted, and I’ll say right off that #BiggestIdeas is an enormous and extremely interesting project. Carroll writes easily, with the skill of someone who's taught his fair share of undergrads, and he knows how to communicate complicated ideas.

In the book’s introduction, Carroll details his project here as nothing less than making the vast majority of non-physicists party conversant on not just sci-comm buzzwords like blackholes and string theory, but to be able to competently discuss the difference between classical mechanics and Newtonian mechanics. He doesn’t ask us to solve equations and answer problems, but he doesn’t shy away from equations and explaining what the variables mean, in fact–that is exactly what he wants to explain the most! Carroll provides practical examples and writes in clear language. The text is direct and to the point, aimed at the “Biggest Ideas in the Universe”, but Carroll’s dry wit still echoes on every page.

Not many folks attempt to sell a textbook as a Trade Non-fiction, and this cross-over special must have been in contract negotiations for a time, but it’s a gutsy endeavor overall. Now wait! I know you’re thinking, I just wanted a little jaunt around the cosmos, to hear your theory on everything, I don’t need a three-credit course on the entirety of physics. But a couple of things. First, physics relates to everyone. Throw a ball across the room, play a videogame which mimics literally anything in life, determine the length of a long trip. And sure, you might say, I can do all of those things without knowing anything about physics–but Sean Carroll says, “Wouldn’t it be nice if you did?” “Haven’t you ever wondered how?”

If that’s you, this book is for you. Maybe you were considering a science major but practical life considerations took the reins. Maybe you started on a science trajectory but you ended up in finance. But you’re curious, and you spend the time asking why things work like they do.

Ultimately, you might ask me, well do you understand the equations better now? Minus the practice problems? Yes and no. Some of them track better for certain now, but like many buildings, if a building is started on a cracked foundation, it will only get so tall before it becomes a danger. And unlike a physics class, if Carroll glosses over something in the text that you just need a bit more time on, you can’t raise your hand. But, it’s a lot easier to find the answer now even if you need the extra help, and $19.95 beats college tuition prices any day.

Bottomline, I will have this book for a long time, and I will use it.
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Sean Carroll is an excellent writer as well as, I'm sure, an excellent physicist. This book was absolutely engaging as a read, and I can't wait for more volumes in this series to be released.
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16-Year-Old me would have loved this

Sean Carroll is the author of several books about physics. Although he is justly famous for his popular physics books, he is also the author of one of the best General Relativity textbooks, Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity. There are equations on almost every page of Spacetime and Geometry, but very few in his previous popular physics books. I say "previous" because, with The Biggest Ideas in the Universe, that changes. Carroll argues, incontrovertibly, that without the math you don't really understand the physics. He proposes to fix that,

"The Biggest Ideas in the Universe is dedicated to the idea that it is possible to learn about modern physics for real, equations and all, even if you are more amateur than professional and have every intention of staying that way. It is meant for people who have no more mathematical experience than high school algebra, but are willing to look at an equation and think about what it means. If you’re willing to do that bit of thinking, a new world opens up."

The Biggest Ideas series (this one is intended as the first book of a trilogy, which he likens to The Lord of the Rings -- no hubris here!) will present the Biggest Ideas in the Universe together with the math necessary to understand them. He proposes to do that using this One Weird Trick,

"Most popular books assume that you don’t want to make the effort to follow the equations. Textbooks, on the other hand, assume that you don’t want to just understand the equations, you want to solve them. And solving these equations, it turns out, is enormously more work and requires enormously more practice and learning than 'merely' understanding them does."

And,... We're Off! Starting with first-year calculus and proceeding all the way to tensor calculus, Carroll teaches you the mathematical basis of classical physics, up to and including General Relativity.

I am a 66-year-old retired professor with a PhD in Applied Mathematics. There was little here that was new to me. (But I was happy to read because Carroll is an insightful thinker who frequently manages to tell me something I already knew but didn't know I knew.) I asked myself, as one does, "Who is this book intended for?" And in a flash I realized, "I would have loved this when I was in high school." It would have been extremely challenging for sixteen-year-old me, mind-breakingly hard work, but in return I would have perceived (accurately) that I was being initiated into the Deep Magic That Makes The Universe Run. Mind blown, I'd have gobbled it down and asked for more.

There is almost nothing out there like this. Two other books come to mind, Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe and Leonard Susskind's The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics. The Road to Reality is to 66-year-old me what The Biggest Ideas would have been to 16-year-old me: super-challenging, but full of insight. It is not accessible to most readers. As for The Theoretical Minimum, although there is a book, it originated as a series of truly excellent YouTube lectures, and should really be consumed in that form. It is aimed higher than The Biggest Ideas: Susskind assumes his watchers are facile with basic calculus. 16-year-old me would not really have been able to follow. It's also a big time commitment. I estimate the entire series comes to well over a hundred hours of lectures. This first installment of The Biggest Ideas took me two evenings to read, perhaps six hours, or, say, twenty when the full trilogy is available.

Some of the footnotes of The Biggest Ideas were a delight. For instance, I learned that Carroll is responsible for Natalie Portman's mentioning Einstein-Rosen bridges in the 2011 film Thor. Also, one footnote is a joke that literally made me laugh out loud. I won't spoil it.

One last thing: in the EPUB ARC I read on kindle, there are a lot of math typesetting errors. For 66-year-old me they weren't a problem -- I knew how they ought to read. 16-year-old me would have been totally baffled. Dutton and Carroll, since you intend to release this for kindle, please, please, please have SOMEONE WHO UNDERSTANDS THE MATH proofread it ON A KINDLE. I will update when the book is released 20-Sep-2022. I hope to be able to simply delete this paragraph.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Group Dutton for an advanced reader copy in exchange for a candid review. To be released 20-Sep-2022.
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I enjoyed reading through this.  I tend to check out new titles on astronomy and astrophysics, and this was a combination of good refresher and a little background on recent (and not-so-recent) events.  I don't know how large the intended readership is, since it's a balance of layman discussion with just enough math to scare away popular science readers.  I suspect those of us who remember calculus won't need the refresher, and those who don't know or don't remember won't be helped by the light treatment.  The early parts were slow for me (too basic_ but should be good for those readers, while the later chapters where I started paying attention might be enough to stop them in their tracks.  If you're OK with this approach, here you go!
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Sean Carroll is a master of these books.  Rigorous and serious enough to be palatable to a knowledgeable reader but also readable and accessible enough to maintain the interest of a reader coming to this with a blank slate.  Fantastic read, I learned a lot.
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This would be a good introduction for people that are very new to basic physics concepts. It would help them get acquainted with the fundamentals. For people with technical degrees or the equivalent experience, it might be a refresher.
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