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Book Review: The Unobservable Universe: A Paradox-Free Framework For Understanding The Universe by Scott M. Tyson

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Why are there so many paradoxes in our scientific understanding of the universe, and can we rebuild our system so that they’re eliminated? That’s what The Unobservable Universe sets out to work out and resolve.

Along the way, you might learn some things about science that you haven’t heard before (although these could be things that everybody knows — I’m not well versed in physics). For instance, I’d never heard of potential energy and the concept would never have occurred to me naturally. I thought it sounded a bit like some techno-babble from Doctor Who. We’ve also never come to a scientific consensus about how to define an observer, which he tells us during an analysis of the old riddle “if a tree falls over in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?”. He seems to come to the conclusion of “no”, although I must say I prefer Bart Simpson’s answer

My main problem with the book is that I found it very difficult to get through, due to a combination of factors. The first one was that a few of the concepts went over my head, making much of it difficult to understand (although I appreciate that’s a problem with me rather than the book, it does give an insight as to how much you’ll be able to appreciate it). The secondary problem is that Tyson, for good or for ill, is not a writer who can dumb down concepts to the level of the layperson, which makes a lot of it hard to understand. Not helping matters was the fact that though the book was 282 pages of learning, the pages were bigger than a normal paperback but retained the normal font size as far as I can tell, which has a psychological effect if nothing else (“I’ll finish this page sooner or later…”).

I do like Tyson’s style of writing though. I enjoy the way he can slip in an anecdote or two and I was totally blindsided by the way that he casually slipped in a reference to Paris Hilton being a void in the universe (I forget the precise phrasing). If he did another book in the same writing style but about a different topic, I’d read it and probably enjoy it a lot more. The paradoxes themselves that the book sets out to discuss weren’t that interesting (with the exception of why the theory of relativity doesn’t work on a microscopic level) but I do agree with the fact that if paradoxes are coming up then we probably need to re-evaluate our scientific principles to make one coherent understanding. If we can get that done, then maybe we can come closer to finally reaching a complete unified theory of everything.

How much you will get out of The Unobservable Universe ultimately depends on how well you know the various fields of physics under discussion here. If you know hardly anything about quantum physics, relativity or the space in-between atoms, then this book probably isn’t for you. Otherwise I’m sure it will be a thought exercise (which is why it’s a shame I fall into the former camp). 

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