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Paul Halpern - The Great Beyond

"Except for the agreement with reality, it is in any case a grand intellectual achievement." (Einstein, as quoted on page 98)
The Great Beyond was a surprise to me. It was surprisingly well written and a surprise in terms of subject matter. I was expecting something along the lines of The Search for Superstrings, Symmetry, and the Theory of Everything or one of the other treatments of a theory of everything. Originally, mostly because of the cover, I put it under the Astronomy/Cosmology category. After reading it I've also put it under Physics, Popular Science, and History of Science. It is this last category that it probably fits best under.

I was tempted to also include it in the category of Biography as this history of science includes sometimes brief, and sometimes not so brief, biographies of the players including Albert Einstein, Valentine Bargmann, Peter Bergmann, Richard Feynman, Theodor Kaluza, Oskar Klein, Niels Bohr, Carl Gauss, James Maxwell, Edward Witten, and more--many more in fact. This is the book's strength; some may say it is its weakness. Why is it a possible weakness? The characters make the book interesting and readable. However, by focusing on the history and the key individuals involved, the theories are glossed over. Those of us who wouldn't really grasp the theories even if they were described in more detail are left thanking Halpern for sparing us. Others may want more meat. The more meatier readings are left up to the reader to pursue in a 5 page Further Reading section located near the back of the book.

The Great Beyond isn't just a history of GUTs (Grand Unified or Unification Theories). More than a focus on GUTs, in fact, it is focused on higher dimensions. It focuses not only on the scientific uses of higher dimensions in constructing GUTs but also on the popular and mystical beliefs involving higher dimensions.

So while you won't come out of a reading of The Great Beyond understanding what the great beyond is, and you still probably won't understand what string theory, M theory, or higher dimensions are exactly, you will find yourself holding onto a greater appreciation for how physicists got to where they are now and where they may be going in the future. Halpern's prose makes it an enjoyable journey.

from the publisher:
The concept of multiple unperceived dimensions in the universe is one of the hottest topics in contemporary physics. It is essential to current attempts to explain gravity and the underlying structure of the universe. The history of how such an unfathomable concept has risen to prominence takes centre stage in The Great Beyond. The story begins with Einstein's famous quarrel with Heisenberg and Bohr, whose theories of uncertainty threatened the order Einstein believed was essential to the universe, and it was his rejection of uncertainty that drove him to ponder the existence of a fifth dimension.

Beginning with this famous disagreement and culminating with an explanation of the newest "brane" approach, author Paul Halpern shows how current debates about the nature of reality began as age-old controversies, and will address how the possibility of higher dimensions has influenced culture over the past one hundred years (visiting the work of H.G. Wells, Salvador Dali and others).

"A marvelous book–very clear, very readable. A brilliant introduction to the math and physics of higher dimensions, from Flatland to superstrings. Its greatest strength is a wealth of fascinating historical narrative and anecdote. I enjoyed it enormously." –Ian Stewart, author of Flatterland

"A remarkable journey from Plato’s cave to the farthest reaches of human thought and scientific knowledge. This mind-boggling book allows readers to dream strange visions of hyperspace, chase lightwaves, explore Klein’s quantum odyssey and Kaluza’s cocoon, leap through parallel universes, and grasp the very essence of conscience and cosmos. Buy this book and feed your head." –Clifford Pickover, author of Surfing through Hyperspace

"Halpern looks with a bemused eye at the wildest ideas currently afoot in physics. He takes us into the personal world of those who relish and explore seemingly outlandish notions, and does it with a light, engaging style." –Gregory Benford, author of Timescape

"Ever since Plato first told his students the allegory of the cave, people have wondered whether dimensions exist beyond the three we immediately perceive. An extra dimension—time—played a role in Einstein’s work, although he saw it only as a necessary evil to get his equations to work. Other scientists were more receptive: mathematical physicists Oskar Klein and Theodor Kaluza made higher dimensions an integral part of their attempts to discover a “theory of everything” that would tie together strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. Halpern explains that over the past century gravity has been the shadow flickering on the walls of the cave hinting at other realms. Why is it so weak compared with electromagnetism? With string theory, and its successor, M-theory, physicists speculate that gravity “leaks” back and forth between our reality, an 11-dimensional “brane” (or membrane) and other branes, perhaps as close as a millimeter away. Halpern masterfully creates word pictures to illustrate mind-bending scientific theories, and he paints highly detailed sketches of the scientists involved—sometimes too detailed, leading readers to lose the thread of the narrative. Science buffs won’t find much new here, but for average readers, this is an accessible account of the search for what lies behind our dim perception of reality." --Publishers Weekly

Paul Halpern, Ph.D., is professor of physics and mathematics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. He received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship award for the research that ultimately resulted in The Great Beyond. Halpern’s previous books include Time Journeys, Cosmic Wormholes, and The Cyclical Serpent. [an error occurred while processing this directive]