Friday, 24 August 2012

Book Review: Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science

By Syed Akbar
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Paradox - The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science
By Professor Jim Al-Khalili
Transworld Publishers
61–63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA
A Random House Group Company

The world is full of paradoxes and mysteries. Some intriguing and some interesting. Some 
funny and some seemingly simple. And yet the more we try to understand them, the more 
complex they turn out to be. There are some paradoxes or problems, which science may 
never be able to answer, while for some we can find reasonable answers in the next few 
years. Understanding the most fascinating scientific paradoxes and demystifying them is 
indeed a challenging task.

Theoretical physicist and science communicator Professor Jim Al-Khalili in his latest 
book, “Paradox - The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science”, lucidly explains each of these 
paradoxes while trying to uncover the mystery associated with them for ages. “Paradoxes 
come in all shapes and sizes. Some are straightforward paradoxes of logic with little 
potential for investigation, while others sit atop icebergs of entire scientific 
disciplines,” Al-Khalili says.

The Iraqi-born British scientist cuts through some of the greatest scientific paradoxes 
like the Game Show Paradox, Achilles and the Tortoise, Olbers’ Paradox, Maxwell’s Demon, 
the Pole in the Barn Paradox, Paradox of the Twins, the Grandfather Paradox, the Paradox 
of Laplace’s Demon, the Paradox of Schrödinger’s Cat and the Fermi’s Paradox.

After solving some of them, Prof Al-Khalili points out that many of these can be resolved 
by careful consideration of their underlying assumptions, one or more of which may be 
faulty. He argues that “these, strictly speaking, should not be referred to as paradoxes 
at all, since once a puzzle is solved it ceases to be a paradox.”

Prof Al-Khalili, while winding through the plethora of paradoxes, discusses many 
interesting problems, which science can solve in near future and those it ever cannot 
solve. There are a few problems “that many would argue are in principle within the remit 
of science, but which I fear science may never be able to answer”. They include questions 
like a) Do we have free will? b) Are there parallel universes? c) What caused the 
Universe to come into existence? and d) Did we invent mathematics to describe the 
Universe or were the equations of physics always out there just waiting to be
discovered?

He says there are two as yet unresolved puzzles in particle physics that made headlines 
around the world in 2011; both are being addressed by experiments carried
out at the particle accelerator in CERN, Geneva. The first is whether particles can 
travel faster than the speed of light; the second is whether the elusive Higgs boson, the 
elementary particle that gives substance to the Universe, actually exists.

In both cases, results to date have been inconclusive, and in both cases, further 
experimental work is required.

“I believe the speed of light will preserve its world record. But I would love it if 
neutrinos could indeed travel faster than light. Such a discovery, if confirmed, would be 
heaven for physicists around the world. Blackboards would be scrawled on, heads scratched 
and Nobel Prizes tantalizingly within reach for a new Einstein able to
solve the Paradox of the Neutrinos.”

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