Friday, 11 October 2002

Janna Levin: How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space (2002)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002
Review number: 1123

It is not, generally speaking, usual for modern science books to be concerned with the private lives of their authors, even though it is inevitable that the scientific work that they have done will have been influenced by this. This is a result of the idea that scientific ideas should be valid without any cultural context, but the anecdotes which litter popular science books demonstrate how important some subjectivity is for interesting the reader - few people read textbooks for pleasure. An excellent example is Pais' 'Subtle is the Lord...', which is a biography of Einstein which places equal emphasis on his life story and an explanation of his ideas.

How the Universe Got Its Spots is based on a series of letters written by cosmologist Janna Levin to her mother, which seek to explain her work. I don't know how much Levin's mother already knew, but the letters don't presuppose significant amounts of scientific and mathematical education; which makes even writing the letters in the first place quite a brave thing to do; a parent is a far more difficult audience than some unknown reader. The letters also contain details of her personal life over a two year period, a diary of the gradual breakdown of Levin's relationship with musician Warren.

Levin's work is in the topology of cosmology, trying to come up with possible descriptions of the large scale shape and structure of the universe. This may be discernible as patterns in such measurements as the COBE map of variations in the cosmic background radiation. The ideas which are introduced to explain this include a fair amount of topology, which is one of the more entertaining branches of mathematics. The explanations of the ideas behind Levin's work are clear and simple (though as someone who has studied topology I might well not be a good judge).

It is for the combination of the science and the personal history that readers will pick up How the Universe Got Its Spots, however. The way that the two are put together makes the book reminiscent of a novel which was a bestseller a few years ago, Sophie's World by Jostein Gaardner. That book, though intended to introduce children to philosophy, was enjoyed by large numbers of adults; and if you liked it, you are pretty certain to like this.

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