Review of “Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas In Physics” by Jim Al-Khalili

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Ever wonder if it is possible to time-travel, why the night sky is not brighter, why it is impossible to build a perpetual motion machine, or why we have not had any communication from intelligent beings from other planets? This little book by Jim Al-Khalili, a quantum physicist at the University of Surrey, answers these and several other difficult questions in easy to read language with no equations.

Paradoxes are puzzles that are logical brainteasers, and the author utilizes them in his effort to bring physics to a broader audience; that is, to show that not only can physics be fun, but that once you understand the nature of a paradox, everything becomes much more clear.

The author treats nine classic physics quandaries and a few more philosophical conundrums with comprehensible analysis, showing that they are not actually unresolveable, but merely difficult problems subject to resolution with careful thinking. His explanations, such as why you can’t go back to the past and kill your grandfather, are witty as well as illuminating. (Like other physics popularizers, he includes the wonderful 1923 limerick by Reginald Buller in his text), viz:

“There was a young lady named Bright
Who traveled far faster than light.
She went out one day
In a relative way
And returned the previous night.”

The author’s musings on the tension between determinism and free will are especially enlightening. As a special bonus, he also provides an intelligible solution to the famous “Monte Hall” problem that bothered game show fans for years, in the process giving us a painless lesson in probability calculation.

Evaluation: This book is deceptively profound, appearing simple because the writing is so lucid. The author, in addition to having a resume that would make most scientists blush, is a regular radio and television science commentator – not surprising given his flair for rendering the abstruse lively and accessible. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the philosophy of science.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Broadway Paperbacks, a trademark of Random House, Inc., 2012

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11 Responses to Review of “Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas In Physics” by Jim Al-Khalili

  1. sandynawrot says:

    I find all these mysteries fascinating, but I’m not sure I’m fascinated enough to read a book about it! How about Jim just highlights it to you and I over drinks?

  2. bookingmama says:

    I know I’m not smart enough for this book but I love that Jim tackled it!

  3. I’m pretty sure this is way over my head but I bet Carl would enjoy it if he had the time to read a book.

  4. I know my husband would love this, (he’s an engineer) and I think I would too.

  5. zibilee says:

    I am betting that my husband would love this book, and thanks to you, Jim, I now have a stocking stuffer for him that he won’t be able to ignore! Thanks for the awesome review! I think this one sounds excellent!

  6. I saw this one somewhere and thought about getting it, but decided against it because I wasn’t sure if it was going to be too dense and complicated. It’s nice to know that it was clearly written.

  7. Yes!! Love, love, love this book. If you are on the fence about, read it! I am a scientist at heart and by educations (chemistry degree) but all that is not necessary to enjoy this one. As Jim mentioned it is written in a very fun, witty and digestible way. Zibilee is right it would make a great stocking stuffer!

  8. Jenners says:

    “with comprehensible analysis” … but comprehensible to a science-deprived, math-hating fool like myself?

  9. I wish I could wrap my mind around all of that!! 😀

  10. stacybuckeye says:

    I can always count on Jim for books that I can recommend to Jason. He thinks I am a genius because I always pick winners for him and I’ve been out of ideas for a few weeks. Please thank Jim for keeping my genius status intact.

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