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23 September 2011

Introduction to the Theory of the Universe: Hot Big Bang Theory
By Dmitry S Gorbunov and Valery A Rubakov
World Scientific
Hardback: £103 $158
Paperback: £51 $78
E-book: $200

Introduction to the Theory of the Universe: Cosmological Perturbations and Inflationary Theory
By Dmitry S Gorbunov and Valery A Rubakov
World Scientific
Hardback: £101 $156
Paperback: £49 $76
E-book: $203

When a field is developing as fast as modern particle astrophysics and cosmology, and in as many exciting and unexpected ways, it is difficult for textbooks to keep up. The two-volume Introduction to the Theory of the Early Universe by Dmitry Gorbunov and Valery Rubakov is an excellent addition to the field of theoretical cosmology that goes a long way towards filling the need for a fully modern pedagogical text. Rubakov, one of the outstanding masters of beyond-the-Standard Model physics, and his younger collaborator give an introduction to almost the entire field over the course of the two books.

The first book covers the basic physics of the early universe, including thorough discussions of famous successes, such as big bang nucleosynthesis, as well as more speculative topics, such as theories of dark matter and its genesis, baryogenesis, phase transitions and soliton physics – all of which receive much more coverage than is usual. As the choice of topics indicates, the approach in this volume tends to be from the perspective of particle theory, usefully complementing some of the more astrophysically and observationally oriented texts.

The second volume focuses on cosmological perturbations – where the vast amounts of data coming from cosmic-microwave background and large-scale structure observations have transformed cosmology into a precision science – and the related theory of inflation, which is our best guess for the dynamics that generate the perturbations. Both volumes contain notably insightful treatments of many topics and there is a large variety of problems for the student distributed throughout the text, in addition to extensive appendices on background material.

Naturally, there are some missing topics, particularly on the observational side, for example a discussion of direct and indirect detection of dark matter or of weak gravitational lensing. There are also some infelicities of language that a good editor would have corrected. However, for those wanting a modern successor to The Early Universe by Edward Kolb and Michael Turner (Perseus 1994) or John Peacock’s Cosmological Physics (CUP 1999), either for study of an unfamiliar topic or to recommend to PhD students to prepare them for research, the two volumes of Theory of the Early Universe are a fine choice and an excellent alternative to Steven Weinberg’s more formal Cosmology (OUP 2008).

John March-Russell, Oxford University.

The Poetry of Physics and the Physics of Poetry
By Robert K Logan
World Scientific
Hardback: £42 $64
Paperback: £30 $43
E-book: $83

Robert Logan is a physicist who since 1971 has taught an interdisciplinary course, “The Poetry of Physics and the Physics of Poetry”, at the University of Toronto. In this book, which grew out of the course, he introduces the evolution of ideas in physics by first briefly recalling the ancient science of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China before addressing in detail the revolutions that started in the 16th century and the more modern advances, including the birth of the Standard Model of particle physics. Sprinkled with quotations from leading physicists of the respective times, the book reports in an interesting way the historical connections that lead from one discovery to another and the impact physics had on (and received from) other branches of science, philosophy, arts, theology, etc. Thus he hopes to convey not only the poetry or beauty of physics but also how physics has influenced the humanities.

The word “physics” derives from the Greek word phusis, meaning “nature”, and Logan wonders what physics would be without the ancient Greek philosophers. However, even with them, interest in science declined as theology became the dominant concern of the day. It was mainly thanks to René Descartes, who refused to accept past philosophical truths that he could not verify for himself (“Cartesian doubt”), and to other contemporary philosophers, that a change in attitude towards science began to develop in the beginning of the 17th century. During that period, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and several other scientists uncovered many mysteries of nature, which eventually led to Isaac Newton’s breakthroughs. In return, the philosophy of the British (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) and French (Voltaire, Condillac, Diderot, Condoret) movements was heavily influenced by Newton’s physics: their reflections were based directly on the scientific method.

Moving on, the scientific advances of the 20th century would not have been possible without the abstract mathematical concepts developed in the 19th century or technological breakthroughs such as the invention of the vacuum pump, which paved the way for the study of all gas-discharge experiments and led to the discovery of X-rays and the electron. Logan connects these and other discoveries very naturally, claiming along the way that the distinction between physics and chemistry is artificial and a “historic accident”.

Breakthroughs in science are based on the gift of abstract thinking, astronomy being one of the earliest examples. It is interesting to realize that the structure of certain languages is intimately connected to abstract thinking. According to the Toronto school of thought in communication theory, to which Logan has contributed, “the use of a phonetic alphabet and its particular coding led the Greeks to deductive logic and abstract theoretical science”. This was probably one of the main reasons that “abstract theoretical science is a particular outgrowth of Western culture” – as opposed to Eastern cultures, which use a much more complex alphabet.

Apart from discussing major physics discoveries, Logan also triggers readers (or at least his students) to acquire a critical attitude, quoting thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper: “Science cannot prove that a hypothesis is correct. It can only verify that the hypothesis explains all observed facts and has passed all experimental tests of its validity.” After all, a physics course is more than just conveying acquired knowledge.

I can gladly recommend this book to anyone wanting to refresh their physics basics or who would like to learn about the implications that physics has for other disciplines, and vice versa. I certainly enjoyed reading it and nostalgically recalled several moments from my undergraduate studies. It is a pity that there are many misprints and some unclear sentences.

Hermine K Wöhri, CERN.

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