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Alex Vilenkin


The search for other universes

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Alex Vilenkin is a Russian cosmologist now living in the USA. Here he presents his account of the present state of play regarding the Big Bang, inflation, the anthropic principle, bubble universes, and other topical questions at the speculative edge of physics. As he tells us in his Prologue, the world view that at least some physicists now favour is astonishing and paradoxical. suggesting as it does that the universe is both finite and infinite, evolving and stationary, eternal and yet with a beginning. The theory also predicts that there are remote regions containing planets exactly like ours, down to the smallest detail.

This is the first time Vilenkin has tried to write for a non-technical audience and I am not sure that he has wholly succeeded. His style is certainly popular, light and jokey (too much so at times, perhaps) and there are cartoons which are meant lighten the tone still further but don't really add anything in respect of comprehension. So he scores highly for approachability. The trouble with the book, however, is that there is a profusion of ideas but these are not connected with one another in a way that is easy to follow. It has four sections but the logic of this is not completely obvious; there is a lot of overlapping of ideas among the sections. This makes the book almost impossible to summarize in a review. In other words, Vilenkin is a good tactician but a poor strategist.

Like some other popular science books I've read recently, this one contains a fair amount of chatty stuff about the personalities of the researchers mentioned in the text. I have a suspicion that editors in the USA ask for this material to be included to make the book more accessible to readers who don't generally tackle science books. I think this ploy can easily be overdone, in which case it becomes a distraction and an annoyance rather than an enhancement.

This may seem like a carping review, in which case I am sorry. I do like the book; I just don't think it succeeds as well as it might in what it sets out to do. Anyone who came to it not having read anything about modern cosmology previously would, I think, find themselves becoming pretty confused before long, and even those who are reasonably familiar with the ideas will have to concentrate quite hard. Vilenkin does convey a sense of the excitement that is felt by scientists like himself who are at the forefront of cosmology, but if you want an up-to-date overview of the whole subject I'd recommend Paul Davies's The Goldilocks Enigma.

19 November 2006

%T Many Worlds In One
%S The search for other universes
%A Alex Vilenkin
%I Hill and Wang
%C New York
%D 2006
%G ISBN 0-8090-9523-8
%P 235 pp
%K cosmology
%O illustrated

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