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Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe Hardcover – September 6, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0465021987 ISBN-10: 0465021980 Edition: First Edition

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (September 6, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465021980
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465021987
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,048,955 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“Cheerful but not dumbed-down…  Every educated reader should know what these numbers mean. Stein casts his net widely, delivering an entertaining history of each, often wandering into areas of science only distantly related but no less worthwhile.”

“In the explanatory power of fundamental numbers, Stein discerns the fundamental harmonies that emerge in the most profound science. Stein teases these harmonies out of their formulas and then weaves them into a broader conceptual fabric…By turns amusing and poignant, Stein’s engaging style eases general readers past their fears of scientific math, while also guiding them into a deeper appreciation of the stubborn human complexities of the scientists behind that mat…Numbers become portals to mind-expanding questions.”
The Boston Globe
“A brisk, fun ride…Stein is good at extracting drama from the brilliant minds and experiments that fill his book, and it’s impossible to read it without gaping in awe at just how much science got done in the days prior to statistical analysis software and multicore processors.”
New Scientist
“Amid seemingly endless strings of equations, a handful of numbers stand out.  These are the physical constants, numbers that hold their true value in any situation—the unbreakable scaffolding of reality.  In Cosmic Numbers, mathematician James Stein offers a tour of some of these constants…These are numbers we take for granted today, but Stein stresses the lengths people went to determine them.  There is plenty of interesting background too.”
Washington Independent Review of Books
“The author cajoles the reader to enjoy the spirit of discovery with him, keeping a light style of narrative. Nevertheless, Stein does not shy away from introducing mathematical formulae as well as precise descriptions of the science involved, sometimes in a rather condensed form. The nonscientific reader need not be intimidated by these….This book will appeal to a wide audience of readers who are curious to know more about the discovery of the laws that govern our universe….[A]n enjoyable and informative read.”
Ian Stewart, author of The Mathematics of Life
“A vivid exploration of today’s science, from the forces that keep our planet in orbit to the origin of the atoms that form our bodies. Clear and concise, easy to read, and enormously informative, Cosmic Numbers relates the stories behind some of the most important numbers in science—where they came from, what they tell us, and how they changed the way we view our world.”
John L. Casti, Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Vienna, and author of Mood Matters, Paradigms Lost, Five Golden Rules, and The Cambridge Quintet
“Most people use numbers like 1, 2, 3 . . . to count. But the numbers that really count are the ones described in this book! They tell us why we see the universe we do and not see something else. After reading this very enlightening, informative and entertaining book, you’ll see why some numbers are just a bit more equal than others.”
Leonard Wapner, El Camino College
“We memorized them in our high school science classes.  Now Jim Stein teaches us to appreciate nature’s constants by giving us the stories and the personalities behind their discovery. It’s an enjoyable and thought provoking read.”
Paul J. Nahin, author of Number-Crunching and An Imaginary Tale
“It would seem trivially obvious to say all numbers are not equal. Some numbers are especially important, however, not because of mathematics but because of physics. This book discusses the history and ‘use’ of thirteen such numbers, which if only slightly different would make the world we live in a vastly different place—or simply not even possible. After reading James Stein’s Cosmic Numbers you’ll understand why existence itself is ‘in the numbers.’”

The Guardian (UK):
“[Cosmic Numbers] is a story of man’s lust for measurement… and also a persuasive explanation of why it is worth measuring such apparently arcane phenomena very exactly.”

Wall Street Journal
“[O]ur understanding of the universe depends on assuming that constants stay constant. Which is why the slew of digits discussed in James D. Stein’s Cosmic Numbers are so important. These numerical values define reality. . . . [E]ach constant is more than a numerical value. It unpacks to provide a story, giving historical context to what might otherwise be a dry piece of physics. . . . In a book about numbers, of course, readers getting lost in thickets of math is always a danger—call it a constant. But Mr. Stein succeeds in guiding us quickly back to the matters of most interest in his rewarding essays on the foundations of the universe.”


San Francisco Book Review
“Great fun ….Stein is a lively teller of this exacting tale of scientific discovery.”



“Stein writes in a manner readily accessible to the uninitiated and liberally sprinkles the book with humor… Rewards for [readers] lie in the fascinating details about the lives of some of the scientists discussed that are not generally known.”

About the Author

James D. Stein received his B.A. from Yale University and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a professor of mathematics at the California State University, Long Beach. He is the author of three previous books: How Math Explains the World, The Right Decision, and How Math Can Save Your Life. He lives in Redondo Beach, California, with his wife.

More About the Author

Jim Stein received his B.A. from Yale and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a Professor of Mathematics at California State University in Long Beach, California. He has served as a consultant to educational and textbook review committees for Texas and California, and has worked on projects involving mathematics education for both the State of California and the National Science Foundation. His background includes working on projects related to the moon landing in the 1960s and as a stock options trader during the 1980s.

His books focus on what mathematics has been able to tell us about the Universe we live in, and how that knowledge can be used to improve our lives. Unfortunately, he has yet to find a way to use mathematics to improve his ability to play either tennis (to the relief of his opponents) or piano (to the despair of his neighbors).

Customer Reviews

3.1 out of 5 stars
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See all 16 customer reviews
Shame on Stein for not doing his homework.
Why didn't he have some of his physics colleagues review the manuscript to comb out the obvious errors?
Donald E. Fulton
The author writes in a very friendly and chatty style.
G. Poirier

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By G. Poirier on September 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is the third book that I've read by this author and of the three, in my opinion, this is clearly the best. It's a popular science book that's great fun to read yet goes over some very profound science - in this case, mainly physics. The book has thirteen chapters, each one devoted to a particular universal constant, e.g., the gravitational constant, the speed of light, etc. The author goes over some of the history and the science associated with each number as well as introducing the key individuals involved.

The author writes in a very friendly and chatty style. His prose is clear, lively, accessible, engaging, occasionally humorous and peppered with many personal reflections and anecdotes which add a nice human touch.

On the down side, books as widely-sweeping as this are occasionally prone to a few weaknesses. Here are some examples that I found in this book: i) Some statements can be a bit misleading. For example, on p. 125: "... technetium ... formed from the radioactive decay of much heavier elements such as uranium". Actually, technetium does not form part of any of the uranium decay chains; however, it can arise from the spontaneous fission of uranium and other fissile radionuclides. ii) The odd error has also crept in. For example, p. 134: "... producing a kilowatt of energy for a second constitutes a kilojoule of power". Actually, "energy" and "power" should have been interchanged in that phrase. iii) The purposes of some discussions are a bit unclear. For example, on p. 158, I don't see why the author elaborates on the Coulomb repulsion between two electrons in discussing nuclear fusion when the Coulomb repulsion between two nuclei, e.g., two protons, would seem more appropriate. iv) Finally, the book contains absolutely no figures or diagrams whatsoever.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By R. Holmes on February 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Given the praise on the back cover from, among others, one of my favorite mathematics authors (Ian Stewart), I had hopes for this book which it failed to live up to. In fact I stopped reading about 100 pages in. Stopped to protect myself: After seeing how many errors he was making in basic physics, I was worried I'd pick up misinformation, too, on other subjects I know less about.

Just to give you an example, in the chapter on Boltzmann's Constant, he derives T = 1/3mv^2/k for the temperature corresponding to an average molecular velocity v. Then he says "Absolute zero is the special case when v=0, but setting v=c gives us something perhaps even more interesting--the highest temperature any particular substance can reach", and he goes on to calculate this for radon gas. Except this is nonsense. The formula is derived from KE = 1/2mv^2, which is completely invalid at relativistic speeds. In fact as an object approaches the speed of light, it takes more and more energy to accelerate it, and it can in principle have as large a kinetic energy as you like without violating the light speed limit. There are other reasons why a given substance has a maximum temperature, but they have nothing to do with a limit on kinetic energy due to relativity. This is absolutely basic physics-for-premeds stuff, and he gets it entirely wrong. Nor is this by any means the only example.

It's a good idea for a book, but it would need to be written and edited by people who know their stuff.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Donald E. Fulton on April 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I'm with reviewer R. Holmes ('Too much wrong') on this book. I'm a retired EE engineer, but I know enough physics to know that Stein often doesn't know what he is talking about. He tells us often in the book that he doesn't understand physics, and then goes on to demonstrate it. Why didn't he have some of his physics colleagues review the manuscript to comb out the obvious errors?

First, this a formula book. Stein has chosen a dozen or well known numbers in physics, then uses them a spring board to go in various directions mixing physics with a little biography. The book covers a lot of ground trying to explain difficult concepts in a few pages to the lay reader. This is a difficult thing to pull off, and Steiner is only partially successful here. As for clarity of the writing, consider this gem: "This explains why it took for long for life to evolve, because it takes a long time for hydrogen to fuse to helium in order to set the stage for the fusion of helium to the carbon that will enable the creation of life."(p159)

As almost every reviewer has noted, the text reads in places like there should be an accompanying sketch, for example when he is describing the triangular photon path in a light clock. You can't understand what he is saying unless you draw the sketch yourself in the margin. What happened here? Did Stein not submit pencil sketches to the publisher? Did the publisher refuse to draw them up while at the same time agreeing to typeset equations? Very strange.

The writing wonders all over the place and Stein's analogies are often strained, but I will follow if I can pick up some new physics understanding, and here is the real weakness of the book.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Marvin W. Luse on October 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a really marvelous book. It is informative yet possesses a comfortable, conversational tone. The topics are covered in sufficient technical depth, yet are presented in a manner making them quite accessible. Very highly recommended.

But I did mention one caveat: this is a book that cries out loudly and plaintively for a generous dose of illustration. Yet it is completely devoid of even a single figure. Still, don't let that stop you. It is a wonderful read.
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