String Theory Made Easy

Two books tackle one of the most complex theories known to man'with surprisingly satisfactory results

book covers
 

String Theory for Dummies
By Andrew Zimmerman Jones with Daniel Robbins; Wiley, 2009; 384 pp.;
US $19.99; ISBN: 978-0-470-46724-4

The Complete Idiot's Guide
to String Theory

By George Musser; Alpha/Penguin, 2008; 368 pp.; $18.95; ISBN: 978-1-59257-702-6

There's a Complete Idiot's Guide or For Dummies book for just about everything, from caulking your bathtub to mastering JavaScript. How do they compare head to head? And how well do they handle the thorniest and most difficult topics in science today—say, string theory?

It's the big enchilada, the theory that unifies physics' greatest 20th-century achievements: relativity and quantum mechanics. String theory syncs these distinct views of the universe by hypothesizing seven additional dimensions of space plus a near-infinity of parallel universes that also can never be seen. Somewhere within this cauldron, infinitesimal loops of various vibrations wobble, giving us the "familiar" world of electrons, quarks, and neutrinos—as well as a menagerie of undiscovered particles that the theory predicts must exist.

Science journalists Andrew Zimmerman Jones (String Theory for Dummies) and George Musser (The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory) have taken on the herculean task of summarizing the universe, in all its photon/graviton/black hole/big bang glory. And that's just for starters. Each must then argue why we need string theory, explain its extraordinarily complex hypotheses, what it all means, and why readers should care.

Zimmerman Jones makes an admirable effort. Struggling to explain a 25-dimensional (!) precursor theory, the author enlists a Slinky toy for a deft little metaphor. He then summarizes the case against string theory masterfully, candidly pointing out, for instance, that its acolytes never predicted "dark energy," one of the biggest physics discoveries since string theory's emergence in the 1980s. Nevertheless, if rankings must be made, award Zimmerman Jones the silver.

Musser is a joy to read. With an easy grasp not only of the central theory but its chief competitors—loop quantum gravity and other lesser-knowns—he condenses complex tenets like particle spin and statistical mechanics via clever comparisons to "The Newlywed Game" and salsa dancing. And his extended conceptualization of string theory as a corporate merger between two hostile companies is nothing short of brilliant.

Ironically, the best introductory tome would combine the two contenders, just as string theory itself does. Musser's breezy pages could use a little more of Zimmerman Jones's candor, such as the fact that there's no such thing as string theory but rather a vast number of theories.

In the end, the reader begins to feel for the seemingly impossible expectations heaped on string and related quantum gravity theories: Unify all known forces and particles while also making sense of the dawn of time, cosmic inflation, black holes, time machines, dark matter, and, while we're at it, dark energy, too. One gets a picture of Cinderella tasked with endless chores by wicked stepsisters hell-bent on breaking her. And more than anything else, it's clear she hasn't even met her fairy godmother yet.

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