How the Universe Got Its Spots is either the most unusual science book I’ve ever read, or the most science-oriented memoir. I was delighted by both aspects. Levin, a no-nonsense, for-real, theoretical cosmologist grapples with, among other things, the shape of the universe, her acknowledgedly irrational preference for it to be finite, and a relationship with a bluegrass musician and instrument maker. There’s some remarkably lucid writing about some seriously head-scratching topics like joining the boundaries of three-dimensional spaces (the book’s genesis was in a series of letters to Levin’s mother explaining her work in lay-person-friendly terms). Levin’s get-up-to-speed chapters on physics (from Newton, through Einstein, and into the quantum realm) cover ground that may be familiar to most readers with an interest in the topic, but with a unique and refreshing perspective. Carefully selected biographical details offer insights into the personalities of the figures whose work she describes. She evinces a perhaps slightly morbid interest in the frequency of depression and insanity among mathematicians. (A few moments obliquely imply that this interest may not be completely academic.)
How the Universe Got Its Spots was one of those books filled with paragraphs that begged to be read aloud to my tolerant wife. I’ll limit myself here to just one of my favorite passages:
During our month of wandering around the United Kingdom we intended to have fun and failed. Finding our flat was an ordeal and I won’t bore you with our tales of misadventure. I can’t help but remember the bedsit we found in Brighton as an act of desperation to end our wanderings. Electricity in the bedsit was coin operated. You ran out of coins, you ran out of light. I had always heard of such things in the old world,but in all my travels this was my first coin-op bedsit. I was feeling robust enough to be amused. Warren, on the other hand, sat on the edge of the bed catatonic, staring at the wood chip wallpaper.
needs more demons? James Clerk Maxwell is mentioned several times, but his famed little critters never come up. But I can’t really say that’s a flaw.