Thursday, September 24, 2009

River of Gods: supersymmetry

Just finished a couple of books linked in a curious way.

1. River of Gods - Ian McDonald

I came to this after reading Brasyl. McDonald is a very fine writer and this tale of future fissiparated India is richly inhabited by well-drawn characters including : the self-delusional gangster, the cyber-policeman and his unhappy wife, the perverted civil servant, the stand-up comic become CEO, various scientists and the nute. The link is provided by the desperate attempts of the three remaining "level-3 AIs" which are thousands of times smarter than humans to escape eradication.

The writing is literary brilliance, but the book feels to me overwritten. It's an effort to get through the dense metaphor, elaborate descriptive writing, atmospheric invocations of mood and just get on with the plot. Still, at 575 pages it's never less than a tour-de-force.

2. Nature's Blueprint - Dan Hooper

Subtitled "Supersymmetry and the search for a unified theory of matter and force", this was my attempt to penetrate the mystery of sypersymmetry. Not so much what it is - at some level a proposal to introduce a new set of particles - bosons get fermion partners and conversely. Since 'matter' is fermions and 'forces' are bosons' this is the promised unification.

But what I really wanted to know is why? What problem does supersymmetry solve? Here Dan Hooper is less forthcoming. The major motivation seems to be that the new particles allow the still-unseen Higgs boson to mass in the 100+ GeV range rather than 1015 GeV without supersymmetry. OK, that sort of makes sense. But Hooper never explained how supergravity worked, or the connection with string theory, so although I started out encouraged, by the end of this book I was deflated. It's well-written though, apart from the occasional bouts of puerile humour, and we do get some fresh anecdotes about Dirac.

The loose connection? The specifically-SF underpinnings of Ian McDonald's novel call upon the resources of the famous multiverse again (here different components of the landscape with different vacuum energies) and post-Witten "M-star theory" which purports to explain them.

We're off to Basingstoke later to see "He's much to blame", a 1798 comedy-satire in five acts.