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February 1-7, 2006

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Book Box


The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design
To date, the debate over intelligent design has focused on evolution, but physicists have their own version of the controversy—the Anthropic Principle, which states that the laws of physics are precisely set up so that life is possible. A decimal point here or there, and we wouldn't be around to peer through telescopes and study the universe. According to Stanford University physicist Leonard Susskind in his new book for the lay reader, a host of extraordinary "fine tunings" in various physical constants (especially the cosmological constant, which governs the expansion of the universe and which is damned close to, but not quite, zero) have resulted in just the right conditions to create ... us. Such a conclusion rankles physicists like Susskind, who prefer to interpret the universe as a product of mathematical inevitability and not an unknowable intentionality. Susskind, a pioneer in the field of quantum physics known as string theory, offers a way out of dilemma. In brief (Susskind does his best to simply some dauntingly complex processes), string theory generates a multitude of solutions to the equations governing the universe. Extrapolating from this mathematical cornucopia, Susskind posits that "our" universe is but one "infinitesimal pocket of a stupendous megaverse"—i.e., just one possible set of physical laws out of an infinitude of possibilities. Accepting this thesis, it is easy to imagine that statistics alone will allow for a few universes where physicists and fundamentalists both exist: "There is no magic, no supernatural designer: just the laws of large numbers." Of course, to work, Susskind's theory needs some way to prove that those other universes exist and aren't just doodles on a blackboard. That requires a form of communication that can cross the point of no return defined by the speed of light. And with this tantalizing suggestion, Susskind ends on the hopeful expectation that experiments and observations will eventually catch up to theory. Susskind will discuss his work on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 7:30pm at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. (By Leonard Susskind; Little Brown; 403 pages; $24.95 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant


Utterly Monkey
Warning! Don't read half of this book, have a beer and go online to enthuse about it. Be sure to finished the second half, which falls apart like a $99 suit. You'll lament your intemperate praise with bitter tears. The first half of this first novel by the 30-year-old Nick Laird is a joy: a well-written mix of Ulster slum-funk and the discontents of a starchy London job. A Northern Irish petty criminal comes to visit the flat of his childhood chum, an assimilated but bored lawyer, and the trouble starts right away. But then, everything frays: characters start dropping out as if they'd vanished through trap doors; there's a thickly written sex scene, a touristy visit to Belfast, a slow-speed chase through London and a would-be Hitchcockian finale at the Tate Modern. It all seems slammed together for the inevitable movie sale. Laird has the pleasure (and no doubt the embarrassment) of being married to the most beautiful and famous novelist in England. That's a strike against him being taken seriously in the English literary world. And the webpagish supplements to this novel (what's on his playlist and what poetry he's reading) aren't going to give him extra stature. Still: Utterly Monkey's first half shows a careful yet explosively funny writer who may surpass this first effort. (By Nick Laird; HarperPerennial; 344 pages; $13.95)
—Richard von Busack


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