Sep 132011

A User's Guide to the Universe: Surviving the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes, and Quantum Uncertainty
A User’s Guide to the Universe: Surviving the Perils of Black Holes, Time Paradoxes, and Quantum Uncertainty by Dave Goldberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m pacmanning my way through theoretical physics books these days as background reading for my next novel. I think if you want to learn complicated concepts, talking to different people or reading different books on the same subject means you get a three-dimensional explanation rather than a one, which means you’re more likely to “get it.” After reeading Stephen Hawking’s A Briefer History of Time and The Grand Design, this book seemed rather long. Relatively speaking, for it wasn’t wordy, and it went into more depth than Hawking did in those two books. On the other hand, Hawking says much more in fewer words.

Overall, I much preferred Goldberg’s examples to Hawking’s: they were more relevant, visual, and understandable. The one thing that really started to grate on my nerves was that pretty much all the physics characters were boys: Rusty, Patches, Dr. Hyde, Billy. When I finally came across a female character, she was, well, relegated to the kitchen. I definitlely got the impression that theoretical physics is a boys-only club. Girls are there to feed not feel physics.

Being as I was most interested in time travel, I really liked how in two places in the book they commented on the methods of time travel used in some TV shows and movies. But they left out Doctor Who! How could they leave out the one show all about time travel?!! Argh!

Illustrations are a must in these kinds of books, and I liked the cartoons that littered the pages of A User’s Guide to the Universe. In the ebook, some of the lettering was hard to make out, and it wasn’t possible to magnify the cartoon, only the printed text. I did a lot of staring at one of the Big Bang cartoons till I finally made out “Birth of Elements”…at least I think that’s what it said.

It’s rather funny that a science book would not be designed well as an ebook. The hard-to-read lettering on some of the cartoons was pretty minor compared to the real problem: the publisher made it a pain to read and frustrated learning.

First off, we have the [epithets deleted] DRM, which makes you waste time trying to figure out which app on the iPad will read the darn thing (not iBooks, only Bluefire Reader), to get it onto the iPad if you buy it from the “wrong” ebook store, and then prevents you from taking advantage of the format and makes it less useful than a print book. Imagine that – a science book publisher who designs an ebook to be primitive compared to a print book. Oh sure, they managed to get the endnotes to be clickable, most of them anyway, which is better than many ebooks I’ve read. But then they don’t use that simple tool to link references to previous chapters and previously discussed ideas to those chapters and ideas. So if you want to refresh your memory, you have to do a Search (which in apps and my Sony Reader is forward first before going back to the beginning and going forward from there). Searching an ebook is in some ways slower and more cumbersome than a print book if you have a visual memory. But that wasn’t the only way the publisher frustrated ebook readers. There are many terms used in this book that one would not use in real life, like leptons or mu neutrinos or Casimir something-or-other. The great thing about an ebook is they could make these terms clickable (not necessarily a different colour or underlined as that would make the text harder to read) so that a reader could click the word and get the author’s definition. Oh sure, eReaders include dictionaries but believe it or not, they don’t always define physics’ terminology beyond sub-atomic particle, real helpful. Worst of all, because of the DRM, I could not print out the Rogue’s Gallery appendix at the end of chapter four to keep in front of me while I continued to read the ebook because God forbid I “pirate” the ebook for my own use. Publishers are so petrified and anal about ebook technology that they forget the fact that anyone can photocopy those same pages from a print book — thereby making it more useful than the ebook — and that people have been lending/passing on print books ad nauseum for years so that total sales probably don’t reemotely reflect total readers. I probably have about 10 readers for each purchase of my book Lifeliner. I guesstimate that because everyone who proudly tells me they passed it on talk about lots of people, not one or two (I could buy groceries for a week in those lost sales from just one original buyer). Somehow publishers have managed to stay in business this past century or so with all this “pirating” going on and readers could also, gasp, read their print books wherever they wanted and in whatever light levels they wanted. But if I want to read this book at night on the iPad, versus sunlight on my Sony Reader, I had to jump through hoops to get it to work. And I couldn’t be bothered wasting an hour to break the DRM just so’s I could make it easier to read and to print out the appendix to make the ebook easier to follow. Yes, publishers, your DRM is breakable, which means the only readers you’re pissing off are the legit ones.

The one thing the authors are responsible for in this frustration factor is in not including a glossary. Hawking did. A glossary is essential, with or without clickable terms. And since this ebook didn’t have clickable terms and clickable internal references and it had the DRM, a glossary was mandatory.

On the frustration factor alone I would give ten demerit stars. But that’s not fair to the authors and the work they’ve done. So I will delete one star for publisher idiocy. And remind me never again to buy an ebook from a mainstream publisher.

Aside from all that, this book makes a nice complement to Hawking’s, especially in the few areas they seem to diverge. Forget the overpriced ebook. Buy the print book. You’ll be helping to keep the publisher in the 20th century, where they belong and are comfortable, and it won’t want to make you want to tear your hair out.

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