By Syed Akbar
Paradox - The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Science
By Professor Jim Al-Khalili
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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
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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