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Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas In Science by Professor Jim Al-Khalili

01/07/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas In Science in the USA - or Buy Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas In Science in the UK

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pub: Bantam Press/Transworld Books. 234 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-593-06929-5.

check out website: www.transworld-publishers.co.uk

It's hardly surprising that a book such as 'Paradox', that looks at the nine biggest enigmas in science would not touch on ground that is very much Science Fiction territory. Author Jim Al-Khalili not only explains what each paradox is, but also the science so you see if you can come figure it out, and often giving the solutions, as far as they can go.

The opening chapter on game paradox is more to do with probability theory and how the margin for error can determine the odds can be in your favour. I do think that the number of people in a single room having the same birthday is helped a little by more people being born in the winter months than the middle of the year though which must change the odds a little. The Monty Hall Paradox as to the odds in one in three, based off an American TV show, 'Let's Make A Deal', shows an element of being fixed. I did wonder if that's where the term 'the Full Monty' came from.



Statistical elements comes into working out why the hare could never beat the tortoise so it's a good thing the former was never a statistician or he would have never placed such a bet. I did ponder over Al-Khalili's rational for entropy using playing cards because statistically, I would have thought it possible that by chance it would still be possible for the cards to be shuffled back into numeric order without cheating.

When it comes to the SF elements, Al-Khalili's dilemma with the speed of light and relativity is enlightening although I'm not entirely sure that if someone running at such a speed with a caber and being compressed at he enters a barn and has the doors shut just won't charge straight through them. After all, he wouldn't be a beam of light and anything that compressed would be denser than the barn door. He does however explain the importance of time keeping for spatial position for GPS satellites to accurately gauge your position on this planet.

We're into home ground when it comes to exploring time travel and 'the grandfather paradox', although Al-Khalili thinking that the time traveller to be psychotic is a little unjust. After all, most of the time, we SF fans put the word 'accidentally' in. I doubt if any time traveller is likely to tempt fate and kill an immediate ancestor, but it doesn't mean statistically something will happen because of being there. Personally, I favour the possibility that just because someone you think is your grandfather is killed doesn't necessarily meant he provided your genetic material. It's either that or someone else will step into fulfil the role of being your ancestor. Whether this is going to be your true ancestor would mean genetic tests before and after, although how it can be proven with reality slightly altered is hard to say. That is more Oscam's razor going for the simplest solution than multi-universes.

Oddly and I'm surprised Al-Khalili doesn't make the connection to another paradox relating to Laplace's Demon where the flap of a butterfly's wings can ripple through events and applied it to time travel which would be an all-out tsunami of change.

There is much discussion on quantum theory and yet Al-Khalili doesn't consider that the reason that we can't distinguish between the particle and wave-length nature of the electron is because we haven't been able to create sensitive enough equipment yet to match velocities.

The inevitable Schrödinger's cat is discussed, I'm glad Al-Khalili considers doing the experiment without harm to any feline. I tend to consider it is the observer being there that affects the outcome.

Fermi's Paradox explores the absence of detectable other sentient life in the universe and Al-Khalili goes through all the options. If all alien species have the same tools as us, there has to be some naivety to send out signals seeking other life before, as Stephen Hawking pointed out, general caution takes over in case it brings hostile species to your home planet. Mind you, without faster-than-light travel, it would be doubtful if any species would arrive within the lifetime of another species.

Al-Khalili points out twenty-four problems that haven't been solved or had a solution yet for you to speculate on.

Although I've offered my own comments more than Al-Khalili's in this review, this should be seen as how much thinking I had from reading this book. Any book that will make you think has a lot to offer and I did a lot of thinking with this book, even if it was often with things that I thought Al-Khalili over-looked. If you're not like me, then don't worry, you'll come away from reading this book with a lot more knowledge than when you started and even some solutions that make for good discussion points.

GF Willmetts

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