Warped Passages by Lisa Randall

By Scarlett Thomas
Monday 29 April 2013 06:50

Our maths teacher, in contrast, seemed to have an instinctive understanding for the kind of thing that connects artistic people with scientific things. "If you can cover one side of paper with the same five-sided shape with no gaps," he told us one day, "you'll have done something no one has ever managed to do before." There was romance in that, somehow, and it kept me busy for about a year before I gave up.

Good popular science writers understand something of this romance. After all, the impossible is pretty exciting. Something can be wrong in a very compelling way. Of course, there will always be people who will want to make little electrical circuits and never think about which way the current "really" flows. But popular science readers want an excuse to think about what really happens as a result of Schrödinger's Cat (God or the multiverse - you decide); a chance to daydream about bigger (and smaller) things than seem possible. Simon Singh understands this, as do Brian Greene, J Richard Gott and Paul Davies. So does Michio Kaku, although he occasionally makes the same mistake that Lisa Randall makes here - not understanding that you can't fob these readers off with the equivalent of "electricity doesn't flow like that but don't worry about it".

The problem in this book begins with a ham. Randall is introducing us to the components of our three familiar dimensions before beginning to explain the possibility of more. She says: "For example, when you order ham at the deli, the three-dimensional lump of ham is readily exchanged for many two-dimensional slices." It turns out that you can also think of pages in a book as two-dimensional; and the walls of a house. Of course, Randall does point out that none of these things is actually two-dimensional, and that two-dimensional "things" don't have any thickness at all. But my brain had already crashed: all I know is that if something has no thickness, it can never be a "slice" of anything, even in a metaphor. You could put a million of these "things" together and never make anything three-dimensional.

It was at this point in the book (page 22) that I realised that I wasn't going to be able to understand any of it, even the concepts I have come across many times before. A slice of two-dimensional ham is just not a foundation you want to build anything on - and the image of infinite slices of it may not haunt me forever, but it did ruin the rest of the book.

Randall's descriptions are often a lot better than this. In a similar manner to Brian Greene, she invokes an image of the universe as a sort of cosmic Homebase where two-dimensional entities may be curled up like a hose, and gravity is a water-sprinkler. There's a lot of background information - almost 200 pages of Particle Physics 101 - and it's tough going.

It's not that Randall doesn't try hard to be popular and compelling - each chapter starts with a pop lyric and a little story about the characters Ike and Anthea, who do things like visit OneDLand and Gbay - but there is simply not enough narrative in this book. It's certainly not one to read in bed with hot chocolate: you need a desk, and reference books to look up the bits Randall doesn't explain (like the puzzle of the ham). It's very tiring being told things, rather than shown them. Simon Singh explains the Doppler effect via a pond with a frog in it; Kaku does it with an accordion. In this book it's an awkward, unexplained connection between the frequency of light and a motorbike going past. A text like this somehow just happens to you, and you never get the chance to participate in it.

Randall is a brilliant, cutting-edge scientist and, although she is a good writer, she's not quite good enough to make her most exciting concepts - of branes and the possibilities for a multidimensional universe - seem as exciting, or potentially real, as they should.

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