How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of Finite Time in a Finite Space by Janna Levin (Anchor)
D r. Janna Levin's new book is not a masterpiece, but it's a triumph. It's triumphant in making easy reading of some pretty heady astrophysics through an ingenious narrative construction involving a series of letters from Levin to her scientifically illiterate mother. The structure forces Levin to convey ideas with the most colloquial English possible, and yet, because it's her mom, she talks about more than just science. She discusses her boyfriend, her apartment, her obsession with suicidal mathematicians, and so on, and the details from her personal life serve as welcome breaks in the dense flow of astrophysical information.

Levin's particular interest in How the Universe Got its Spots is in trying to discern the exact shape of space, a feat accomplished by observing the subtle pattern of background radiation that permeates the entire universe, i.e. it's "spots". Different topologies yield different spot patterns. Before we ever get that far, though, Levin treats us to the most lucid description of the cosmological basics I've ever come across. Had I had access in college to her explanations of Newtonian mechanics and Einstein's theories of relativity I may have actually enjoyed physics.

Things start getting really interesting when Levin discusses the topology of the universe. Her main argument in the book is that the universe is finite, not infinite, as many people still believe. But if the universe is indeed finite, it must have a shape. Most likely, it doesn't have an edge, but rather closes back on itself, so that if you were to travel long enough through space in a straight enough line, you would arrive back at your point of departure. Depending on which direction you are flying, you might also be upside down from your original position.

Such fascinating insights are only the tip of the weirdness iceberg in How the Universe Got its Spots, and in the field of astrophysics in general. The field is jam-packed with bizarre and captivating tales about our own beloved universe; it just takes a brilliant mind like Levin's to translate them for us. AARON BEAM