If mathematically challenged aliens (who had somehow acquired a spacecraft) landed on Earth and requested a single book to sum up our species' understIf mathematically challenged aliens (who had somehow acquired a spacecraft) landed on Earth and requested a single book to sum up our species' understanding of space, time, and physics, we would do best to give them The Fabric of the Cosmos.

Pop sci books on physics have a nasty habit of either aiming too general and leaving the reader with only a fuzzy sense of awe or aiming too specific and leaving the reader with a few random facts and a general confusion over how scientists can get so excited about algebra and atoms. Greene avoids both. This is hands down the best popular intro to modern physics I've found. Even with half a B.S. in physics and formal courses on many of the topics covered, this book consistently kept my interest and taught me new things.

Two unique aspects of this book I haven't found elsewhere are (1) its focus on space and time and (2) its enthusiasm. As for (1), most pop sci books on physics focus on trying to convey one or more specific theories (quantum theory, special relativity, string theory, etc) and may discuss space or time in the context of one of these theories but don't make connections between them. Greene actually makes space and time the main character of this story and follows them throughout history and across theories. As for (2), not since Richard Feynman have I found a physicist whose writing makes me shiver with childish delight at the wonders of the universe. Some might find his poetic geeky gushes cheesy, but others (like myself) will spend the next several evenings lying outside on their lawns, staring at the stars, and just basking in the awesomeness of it all.

That said, don't expect a book without mathematics to convey a full picture of our current understanding of physics. Nature seems to be written most naturally in the language of mathematics and that is the language in which she must be read. Hopefully though, if you haven't gotten over a particularly frightening encounter with mathematics as a young impressionable child, this book will convince you that it's worth doing.

If you:

are interested in modern physics but don't know where to start
have read a few pop sci books or many pop sci articles but want to see how many of the ideas fit together
or curious about our past and current understanding of space and time

...then I highly recommend this book, regardless of your background. ...more

Light on "science" and heavy on "popular", this is the kind of "popular science" that makes me cringe.

The Black Hole War is a book that fears offendinLight on "science" and heavy on "popular", this is the kind of "popular science" that makes me cringe.

The Black Hole War is a book that fears offending any reader by asking them to think for an entire chapter. Genuinely interesting yet shallow islands of physics are sprinkled in a vast sea of mundane travel stories, idle cultural speculations, and weakly veiled self-aggrandizement.

The central physical question of the book, the black hole information paradox, is a very fascinating issue that has led to powerful new ideas (such as the holographic principle) and offered new insights into old ones (such as information and entropy). Unfortunately, this "central physical question" is spread so thinly over the book's 400+ pages that potential readers will likely save much time and boredom by instead referring to the Wikipedia links above.

Two important caveats though:

1) I listened to this on audiobook on long runs and in the gym. Your experience may vary.

2) Leonard Susskind is an excellent lecturer and his free video lectures on everything from Hamiltonian mechanics to special relativity to quantum mechanics are some of the best available. So he can be a great communicator of physics when he tries....more

At last, a somewhat respectable introduction to chaos for anyone not repulsed by a bit of math. Lorenz may not be as polished a writer as James GleickAt last, a somewhat respectable introduction to chaos for anyone not repulsed by a bit of math. Lorenz may not be as polished a writer as James Gleick, but his knowledge of the field, its mathematics, and its development is unrivaled.

The majority of the book is spent exploring several examples of chaotic systems in detail. The book is not necessarily packed with equations (those are saved for the appendices) but it does require some "mathematical maturity" (essentially, you must be able to read slowly and do some thinking as you go). Lorenz is not afraid to take his reader for a stroll through phase space and neither will he protect him or her from subtle jargon such as asymptotic orbits, homoclinities, and Lyapunov numbers. Though the toy examples used to explore these concepts mostly involve artificially idealized pinball machines and mogul-hopping sleds, Lorenz also includes fascinating looks at the chaotic elements of our own atmosphere, his area of specialty. I would have liked more detail on these "real-world" models, but there's just one problem: we're still not quite sure what those models should be. Meteorologists and climate scientists have been handed an unwieldy problem and Lorenz's early insights into the "sensitive dependence" of our weather only reinforced the need for reserved expectations.

That said, I highly recommend skipping Chapter 4: Encounters with Chaos. Lorenz spends 50 pages giving a highly biased and shallow account of the history of chaos, concentrating mostly on his own contribution. For the history of chaos, James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science is a much better account. ...more

This book goes down like a high school cafeteria salad bar - plenty of variety but overwhelmingly mediocre.

It seems as though Ruelle simply sat down oThis book goes down like a high school cafeteria salad bar - plenty of variety but overwhelmingly mediocre.

It seems as though Ruelle simply sat down one Saturday and thought, "Hey, I think I'll write a book" and proceeded to regurgitate his stream of consciousness onto paper for the next several hours. Ruelle gives a somewhat shallow introduction to a huge variety of interesting topics but jumps from one to the next so fast that nothing sticks. "Chance and Chaos" reads more like a series of blog posts than a unified book. This book might be useful to someone who has never heard of a Turing machine, algorithmic complexity, or sensitive dependence on initial conditions but those who have will likely walk away unsatisfied.

Ruelle also harbors an odd obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis and awkwardly cites it as often as possible. I had thought Freudian psychology held about as much scientific clout as intelligent design but perhaps it's still quite a contender in continental Europe.

On the upside, Ruelle is an entertaining writer and offers many interesting and effective analogies for difficult concepts as well as an abundance of color commentary and stories on how science is (or should be) done. I plan on looking into some of his more focused and rigorous texts and papers on statistical physics and chaos, as I suspect he might shine when reined in a bit.

And so, my search for good popular books on information and chaos continues......more