Book Review: The Cosmic Landscape

When you think you have all the answers, it’s time to stretch boundaries. Physicists get to do this all the time, and their boundaries seem to have no end. Leonard Susskind in his book The Cosmic Landscape takes the reader along to share his perceptions of the ultimate boundary; the one about our universe. However, rather than stretching the boundary, it’s about the existence of a boundary itself that keeps that makes this book well strung together.

Most people consider the boundary to our universe to be the detection limit based on our senses. But with particle accelerators and space based telescopes, we can discern much more than solely using the Mark 1 Eyeball. Physicists combine new observations with earlier ones to organize our existence into some type of meaning. Joining the physicist’s dash into the extremes are the mathematicians. They keep pace with and sometimes exceed the expanding boundary of our knowledge. Observations and rules lead to field theory, topology, the Planck scale, the cosmological constant and of course really neat differential equations. String theory is one technique still hovering around the boundaries of the physicists as it shows much promise in linking aspects of our universe. It also raises the question of uniqueness. That is, though string theory may tempt us into thinking we’ve got a handle on gravity and space/time, this handle is only one of many. Other handles may exist which relate to other universes which may, in some manner, share an existence with our own.

Considering our universe as being one of many seems all the rage these days. Susskind, with his book, leaps into the foray and uses cheerful wit and colourful images to turn some pretty extreme physics into common consideration. He targets the lay person as the general audience and is bang on target. As seems to be standard, though somewhat sadly to my thinking, there are no equations. Susskind gets about as adventurous as mentioning the size of a googolplex. Yet, he doesn’t short change the reader, after all he’s been at the leading edge of discovery in physics for sometime. Using an approach that is part historical and part empirical, he takes the reader through the ideas of the interconnectedness of properties, relations and entities and then aligns them with the idea of intelligent design and the Anthropic Principle. Specifically, he addresses the question as to whether the universe is the way it is because we see it that way or because of another reason. Susskind’s answer to this question is in his book, but it is not a straight forward yes or no. As with many good authors, he gives enough information to the reader to help them understand the complexity of the question and make their own conclusions about universes.

Providing the basis for the universe is no trivial manner. Yet this is the focus of most of the book. As Susskind says, he establishes his view based on hard science rather than aesthetics and emotions. Presenting this with the absence of mathematics leads to many thought experiments. Allies help him. For example, there’s continuing tribute to Feynman and his representative diagrams, as well as the invented fyshicists that look out from their own watery world. However, don’t expect this to be the be all and end all for explaining physics. It is neither expansive nor exhaustive. Yet he does dote upon gravitons, bosons, fermions, Higgs field, glueballs and many other of the more esoteric concepts. Susskind shows a wonderful ability to portray their relevance without overloading the reader. Of course, those readers with a priori knowledge will get more from this book, but there’s nothing stopping the uninitiated from drawing out their own worthwhile conclusions.

Though Susskind uses his idea of a landscape to tackle the question of intelligent design, he’s not always clear on his direction. He provides a good summary of small particles/high energy physics. These are certainly a basis to our universe, but he doesn’t make a clear connection to his argument. Also, he goes through an insightful history of string theory but, again, doesn’t clearly connect the history to his landscape. Overall, the writing is well edited for clarity, but not all his points relate to the topic. For the general reader, there may be insufficient background to follow the rational. However, for those who’ve delved a bit deeper in cosmology or high energy physics, this book will provide an interesting viewpoint of what’s on the other side of the boundary of our universe, assuming there is one.

Perhaps we feel a sense of impertinence in trying to determine what’s outside our universe. But not many years ago, the same was said for those who thought there was something outside the celestial spheres that encompassed the Earth. Leonard Susskind takes this view in his book The Cosmic Landscape, and may be impertinent. But he’s using well known and determined physics, together with years of teaching, to present the reader with a chance to broaden their own boundaries.

Review by Mark Mortimer