Two books I’m not recommending to you …

Originally an email written on Mar. 25, 2010:

I’ve finished my 199th book (since I kept record from early 2007) and am reading the 200th which won’t take long …. I read more Chinese than English … But today, I’d like to talk about two books which I thought I’d want to recommend to you when I first borrowed/read but then I don’t really think so ….
The first book I don’t recommend is called "The God Patent" which I wrote a bit here :
I had guessed that the author (an old physicist and colleague of us at the Dzero expt. at Fermilab though I didn’t really know him … we probably have passed each other in the collaboration meeting)   would trash the religious group(s) and stand completely at the side of the scientific principles.  But the protagonist has a practical approach of an engineer : why don’t we build the machine which convert spiritual energy to real energy and see whether it really can violate the First Law of Thermodynamics… The novel does reveal the mischievous and dark political side of the religious groups but not in the strongest possible way. Therefore, I think you probably won’t like it.  The author was a tenured prof. in U. of Texas in Austin but went to California near the end of the era … Though he doesn’t seem to be as skilful as some accomplished novel writers, I do like his characters including the hot female Berkeley Prof …. After all,  where else would you have quite a few Feynman diagrams as part of the novel ?!
The 199th book I’ve finished reading yesterday was Leonard Susskind’s "The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the world safe for Quantum Mechanics".  I had great expectations for this book but it’s not as exhilarating as I had hoped for.  I read 4 other Chinese (pocket-book) novels while I was reading this novel.  That’s, I probably found it a bit bored and so I went to read some tens of pages of another novel before I went back to read this physics book.

I do learn quite a bit about the black hole horizon though I’ve known or read about almost everything Susskind mentions in this book from Brian Greene, Roger Penrose, Lee Smolin et. al.  Each author has their own take on the same subject which benefits his/her readers.  The more intense part that Susskind has described and that I feel quite new  is probably about what happened one goes through the black hole horizon.  The contradiction or complementarity of getting burnt or passing thru’ just a theoretical/virtual line without being aware is quite new to me and interesting … and I kind of feel that this is a very own take of Susskind — somehow this complementarity is at a macroscopic level, not even microscopic.  The Holographic principle, ADS or Juan Maldacena using string theory to derive/construct sort of a first example of holographic boundary  is becoming like my experience of learning Standard Model (of particle physics) — ie. one doesn’t seem to understand when you first learn it; but after hearing it many many times, one finally starts to feel that one understands it … even if it’s just an illusion.
Susskind, a Stanford professor who has been recognized as one of the founders of the string theory obviously is die-hard theorist.  Susskind’s string theory was first used to explain strong force.  In all other books, the usual description is that string theory gave way to QCD in terms of strong interactions (Gross/Politzer/Wilczek have got Nobel Prize anyway) but Susskind insists on interpreting gluons as hadronic strings and say that hadronic string is an established fact.   Hmm … I don’t know of anybody/any books putting it that way
Obviously, Susskind is quite self-centered.  I’ve also realized after finishing this book that what is interesting to yourself may not be really interesting to other people.  Like an epiphany: probably like most of my emails !!  He’d spent some paragraphs / pages describing what he heard in his college canteen or his near-sacred experience (though he’s not religious) in the Chapel of King’s College in Cambridge but somehow I felt that those were only interesting/relevant to him.  I’ve always enjoyed all the anecdotes or gossips and all physicists couldn’t help tell you some in their books hither and thither …. But they have to be interesting.
Susskind only wrote a few equations in probably 2 chapters. I like that he tried to outline Bekenstein’s mathematical argument for black hole’s entropy proportional to the area of its horizon … but it’s like he’s missing the last crucial step or doesn’t do it well at the end.  I put in some numbers (like his example of Schwarzschild radius) but his claim of the increase in horizon area as the square of Planck length doesn’t seem to be right or kind of made up — this book is supposed for layman readers !  There I kind of felt disappointed though I can’t exclude the possibility of my stupidity.
Towards the end, he’s selling the string theory and it’s like "Aha, this is his true color".   Due to my own slight bias against the string theory, though I always gain some tidbits of more string theory in every book, getting over it as quickly as possible  seems to be a true description of state.  This book is new enough that he talked about string theory’s first hope of association or relevance with the real world through nuclear physics expts. at RHIC at BNL (my Lab.!) — one would have expected particle physics expts. as the tool for any hope of in contact with the string theory — mainly due to duality (fundamental string vs nuclear string) like that introduced by Maldacena.
He seems to respect all the physicists he’s mentioned in his book except probably T.D. Lee who didn’t give him convenience to meet with Feynman when Feynman visited Columbia and he somehow met with Feynman in the bathroom.   I’m not sure whether Susskind was implying that Columbia used to be a focal point of high-energy physics when I. I. Rabi was there.  But when T.D. Lee was the "mandarin", Columbia’s reputation was in decline ?!
Overall, unlike Greene, Smolin or even Penrose mentioning his Twistor Theory, I can’t help but feel that Susskind obviously wants to tell us his contribution. It shouldn’t be a surprise even from the title.  Nevertheless, emotionally (as someone reads so many other emotional books) I feel that he pretends that it’s not all about himself, but actually it mostly is (in my very subjective judgement).  A tidbit of pretentiousness ….
One certainly can learn quite a bit about the black hole, entropy, the information loss (or no loss) after evaporation and string theory from this book … but it’s probably not the most efficient book for one to do so … and therefore, I (who don’t like the taste of the string theory) don’t recommend it.

About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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