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Black Holes: The Key to Understanding the Universe

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Professor Brian Cox CBE FRS is Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester and the Royal Society Professor for Public Engagement in Science. He has worked on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the HERA accelerator at DESY and the Tevatron accelerator at Fermilab. Cox has written and presented numerous TV series for the BBC, including the Wonders Trilogy, Forces of Nature, The Planets and The Universe. He is also the co-presenter of The Infinite Monkey Cage. Also, as a reader who is not using these texts for any academic purposes, I think Cox’s writing is so much easier to ‘digest’ (and much more enjoyable in general) than Hawking’s (only comparing this to a few of Hawking’s books that I’ve previously read). I think it might be important to clarify that – I’m not comparing them based on ‘who’s the better (astro)physicist’ or whose ‘work’ was more ‘important’; but only of whose writing/books I had found more ‘enjoyable’. Hope that helps? While saying this, I think the authors try their best to convey these complex ideas to the layman. I have read considerable amount of books about the universe and this is the hardest so far. But even though this it's hard to read, I think we can see through these theories from a mathematical point of view. Because at the end of the day it's all about maths. All of this disregards entirely that I am already sort of tied up with a pseudo-career in a different scientific discipline and do not relish the thought of attending university again. Nor am I particularly skilled at focussing on multiple things, fond of starting over, or withholding anything of value from the theoretical physicists that they haven't already got covered. This is the ultimate vindication of research for research’s sake: two of the biggest problems in science and technology have turned out to be intimately related. The challenge of building a quantum computer is very similar to the challenge of writing down the correct theory of quantum gravity. This is one reason why it is vital that we continue to support the most esoteric scientific endeavours. Nobody could have predicted such a link.

This is definitely a hard read. I had to read some chapters again and again to understand ( not fully though). So if you are going to read this book, and understand it thoroughly, you should spend some time on it. My reason for being sceptical is that I assumed this book would be a fairly watered-down affair with the usual dose of hand-wavy analogies that end up obscuring or misconstruing most of the real physics. Well, I was very wrong! PROFESSOR BRIAN COX CBE FRS is Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester and the Royal Society Professor for Public Engagement in Science. He has worked on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva, the HERA accelerator at DESY, Hamburg and the Tevatron accelerator at Fermilab, Chicago. Cox has written and presented numerous TV series for the BBC, including Wonders of the Solar System, Wonders of the Universe, Wonders of Life, Human Universe, Forces of Nature, The Planets and The Universe. He is also the co-presenter of The Infinite Monkey Cage radio series and podcast. Cox has written numerous bestselling science titles with Jeff Forshaw. For many years, he has lectured the introductory Relativity and Quantum Mechanics course at the University of Manchester, with Jeff Forshaw. Professor Jeff Forshaw is a theoretical physicist and Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester. Together with Professor Cox, he has written three bestselling science titles: Why Does E=mc²?, The Quantum Universe and Universal. He was awarded the 1999 James Clerk Maxwell Medal by the UK’s Institute of Physics to recognise outstanding early career contributions to theoretical physics and the 2013 Kelvin Medal for outstanding and sustained contributions to public engagement. I suppose owning a “Schrödinger’s cat: Wanted dead and alive” t-shirt didn’t actually qualify me to understand this book (although it certainly increased my nerd cred).A brilliant exploration of the most exotic objects in the universe by Professor Brian Cox and Professor Jeff Forshaw. The first sign I was wrong is when I noticed a myriad of Penrose diagrams throughout the book - that is not something I’ve see in popular science books before. Sometimes you will get spacetime diagrams and usually very simple ones at that. As someone who studied physics 20 years ago as an undergraduate (and took a subject on relativity) I can honestly say I’d never seen a Penrose diagram before and I found them a really useful learning tool in the book. As I said, I’ve read a lot of books on this topic and adjacent ones (Thorne, Greene, Smolin, Carrol, etc) and I was genuinely glued to this one. The story of modern physics has been one of reductionism. We do not need a vast encyclopedia to understand the inner workings of Nature. Rather, we can describe a near-limitless range of natural phenomena, from the interior of a proton to the creation of galaxies, with apparently unreasonable efficiency using the language of mathematics. In the words of theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner, ‘The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it.’ There’s an old saying I think by Stephen Hawking that every equation you include in a popular level science book will half the effective book sales. Well, Cox and Forshaw deserve credit for taking a brave plunge (and by my estimate forgoing 99.999999% of their book sales based on Hawking’s formula) because one of the highlights of this book is the scattering of equations that are accompanied by careful explanation and insight. It’s always tempting to bask in the self-congratulatory delusion that if I just really concentrate on something hard enough I’d be able to understand it. But this book proved me wrong from the very first spacetime Penrose diagram that slowly sent my protesting brain over the event horizon and to the singularity while being simultaneously vaporized and spaghettified.

The authors try to describe the spacetime by something called Penrose diagrams. I think I did a good job understanding it to some extent. But when it came to quantum entanglement in the last chapters, I kind of gave up. Because the equations involved with those chapters were more complex than the rest.

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