Miscellaneous physics books


book review score+1

Controlled Thermonuclear Fusion
Jean Louis Bobin
2014, 197 pages

Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

Fusion is one of those projects, like Social Security and TARP, whose cost looks better when it's expressed in scientific notation instead of ordinary numbers. The total cost of the ITER project, for example, is estimated to be $1.94×1010, or 19.4 billion US dollars. Since ITER is expected to produce 400MW, that works out to 48 bucks a watt ... but alas, for only 400 seconds, and not until the year 2026.

If the reactor works, it will produce 570,000 watts of neutrons/square meter. That works out to 1014 neutrons / cm2 / second. So on a per neutron basis, they're less than 0.02 cents apiece. So it's actually pretty cheap. Liquid lithium, which absorbs neutrons, will be used as a coolant. Building this enormous machine and keeping it safe will be a tremendous technical challenge.

This book describes how ITER and other fusion reactors would work. But the target audience is not scientists. It's way too light for physics and engineering students, who will be better off with Chen's book. What we have here is a non-technical, easy to understand conceptual explanation of how fusion reactors work with very little math, suitable for non-science college students, laymen, and advanced high school students. Topics include plasmas, tokamaks, magnetic confinement, inertial confinement, and nuclear energy. Lots of colorful diagrams and photographs. Almost no discussion of nuclear chemistry. The author's native language is not English, so there are quite a few inscrutable sentences.

But what really matters is whether this book is worth the cost. It's nicely printed on heavy paper, so libraries will want it, but high school kids will never buy it, and for most of the rest of us the ratio of information per dollar is way too low.

dec 14, 2014

book review score-1

Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell
A. Zee
2013, 866 pages

Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

A. Zee's philosophy is that by creating enthusiasm for general relativity he will inspire readers to explore it in more depth. To this end he adopts a humorous approach will help some readers and grate on others.

Zee believes that people are intimidated by too much formality, so he makes his book chatty and fills its 866 pages with informal jokes, useless chit-chat, and reverse sexisms on almost every page. Maybe that works for some people, but it just wore me out.

I suspect that the reason most people have trouble learning the theory of general relativity isn't a lack of genderly equal pronouns and goofy jokes in the text, but inadequate explanation of the concepts. If you can't understand relativity because the the text isn't sufficiently egalitarian, or because there aren't enough jokes in the text, this book might help you. If not, it probably won't.

Update David Gelernter wrote a great article on this he/she biz.

sep 07, 2014

book review score+3

Radiative processes in high energy astrophysics
Gabriele Ghisellini
Lecture Notes in Physics 873
2013, 147 pages

Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

In the beginning there was Rybicki and Lightman's 400-page text Radiative Processes in Astrophysics (usually referred to as ‘Rybicki’). And it separated the earthly phenomena from the heavenly radiation. And it was good. More than good, it was rigorous, and lo, it struck terror into the souls of astrophysics students, and they were sore afraid. And it lived for 29 years until it went out of print and was no more, except on, where it retails for $295.36 a copy in hardcover.

Thus begat Ghisellini's Radiative Processes in High Energy Astrophysics, a little paperback oriented toward students who don't need or want Rybicki's rigor, weight, or thoroughness. Ghisellini explains the same general phenomena: electromagnetic emission and absorption, bremsstrahlung, radiative transport, scattering, and synchrotron emission, but in a more accessible way. This is no textbook; anyone needing more than a brief taste will need to consult the Holy Rybicki, since you will never understand the equations or know if they're really correct until you see them derived. The author writes with a heavy Italian accent, with many spelling errors and a few annoying stylistic faux pas. However, the printing is up to Springer's usual high standards, with color graphs and clear diagrams throughout. Um, amen.

sep 17, 2014

book review score-1

Our Mathematical Universe
Max Tegmark
2014, 421 pages

Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

Max Tegmark, a well known popularizer of science, writes his idea about the universe being composed of mathematics in this non-technical book. It's written in an in-your-face folksy, PC style (which I found to be really annoying), at a very low level, for people who enjoy wild speculation and chit-chat about Tegmark's personal life but know little about physics. The basic idea is crazy (not that there's anything wrong with that), but he's been effective at proselytizing for it, so it's gotten a lot of attention. His 2007 ArXiv paper is a lot shorter (although it's still 31 pages), and if you know any science I recommend reading that instead.

The level in this book was too low to hold my interest. But the chapter of interest here is the same as his Arxiv paper. In the paper he writes: “A mathematical structure is precisely this: abstract entities with relations between them.” The idea is very reminiscent of those early proofs of the existence of God. The logic is this:

  1. An external reality exists. He calls this the External Reality Hypothesis, or ERH.
  2. The ERH implies that a “theory of everything,” if it existed, would have no human concepts, which he calls “baggage.”
  3. Something that has a baggage-free description is a mathematical structure.
  4. Therefore, the universe is a mathematical structure.

This logic won't be very convincing to professional scientists*, but it's not intended to be. Tegmark's goal is to generate enthusiasm for science among the public, and that's a worthwhile goal. But readers with a background in science won't learn much.

feb 07, 2015

* It doesn't actually prove anything. It's only an assertion that a theory of everything has a mathematical structure. The ERH is just a red herring and the universe is irrelevant.

  1. ER exists, therefore All A's have a B. (The universe exists, therefore all theories of everything are baggage-free. This doesn't make any sense, but suppose we grant the result.)
  2. All A's have a B. (All theories of everything are baggage-free. This is his assertion.)
  3. Everything that has a B is a C. (All baggage-free things are mathematical structures, which is debatable, but suppose we grant it.)
  4. Therefore All A's are C's.

In other words, his logic is valid, but all it proves is that all theories of everything are mathematical structures.

See here for more discussion.