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The Constants of Nature: The Numbers That Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe Paperback – March 9, 2004

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (March 9, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400032253
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400032259
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #639,720 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this lively volume, Cambridge physicist Barrow (The Book of Nothing) considers the natural constants-the handful of seemingly eternal numerical values, such as the speed of light, the weight of the proton, Planck's constant or the four dimensions of space and time-that constitute the "bedrock" of physical reality. These constants quantify some of the simplest statements that science makes about the world, but as this fascinating work of popular science demonstrates, they have profound implications for the fate of the universe and our place within it. And, Barrow hints, they might not be truly constant. He traces scientists' evolving understanding of the natural constants as they grew to assume a central role in modern relativity theory and quantum mechanics, and outlines ongoing attempts to determine whether they are just inexplicable facts of nature or the logical consequence of some fundamental Theory of Everything. He also raises important philosophical and even religious questions. The natural constants are delicately balanced to make the universe safe for living organisms: altering them more than a hair would make stars burn out, atoms fly apart, and the world as we know it impossible. Is this a happy accident? Proof of Intelligent Design? Or is it a coincidence of our inhabiting one of an infinity of universes that just happens to have living observers? Barrow explores these issues in erudite but lucid prose that draws on an array of thinkers from Einstein to Freud, and, because he withholds his answer to the changing constants question until the end, his book has surprising narrative pull. His account makes some of the most challenging frontiers of science accessible, even enthralling, to laypeople. B&w photos and illustrations.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

A writer in cosmology with roughly a dozen books for lay readers to his credit (e.g., The Book of Nothing), Barrow here discusses the efforts of various scientists, including himself, to discern some deeper meaning in the various fundamental constants of physics-for example, the so-called fine-structure constant, the gravitational constant, and the speed of light in a vacuum. Why do these constants have the values that they do? What might be their interrelationships? And might these constants turn out to be subtly variable instead of truly "constant"? Barrow gives us the history of early attempts to answer such questions and then describes the current state of thinking. Along the way, he shows how these considerations relate to the structure and ultimate fate of the universe. Barrow acknowledges that this field is very much in a state of flux, explaining what is known in a readable fashion for nonspecialists-though he does assume a moderate degree of scientific literacy on the part of his readers. Strongly recommended for college and larger public libraries.
Jack W. Weigel, Ann Arbor, MI
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

There are some good parts to the book that I should mention.
Thomas Paul
They got rather annoying though, and left me with a sneaking suspicion about other things he's written that I *can't* immediately "correct" mentally.
David M. Jensen
I have read and re-read this book at least 5 times since I bought my first copy in 2003.
Daniel M. Young

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

78 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Steve on July 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Constants of Nature" is an excellent overview of a fascinating topic--the origins and significance of the constants of the universe. It prompted me to spend a great deal of my free time digging around for more information on many of the topics it addresses, which is always a ringing endorsement for a work of non-fiction.
However, it's not perfect. The book's subtitle ("From Alpha to Omega") is somewhat deceptive--the "meat" of the book (after the first few chapters) deals almost entirely with the fine structure constant (alpha). Barrow talks a great deal about constants in general, but never devotes much time to any of the others specifically. Furthermore, at times, Barrow seems to become sidetracked--an inexplicable discussion of the value of contemplating "alternative histories" (i.e., speculating what would have happened if Germany had won World War II, and similar endeavors) awkwardly interrupts the flow of one chapter, for instance. Also, the book has several errors that were immediately obvious to me (for instance, it says light from the Sun takes 3 seconds to reach the Earth; the correct value is more than 8 minutes), which makes me suspect that there are probably many more errors that I missed, but which would be obvious to someone with a marginally greater degree of physics sophistication.
However, perhaps the biggest disappointment was in the introduction of the values of the Planck length, Planck time, etc., all of which are central to the book. Barrow justifies the signifiance of these values simply by stating that they are the only values of the appropriate dimensions that can be derived by combining certain other physical constants in straightforward ways.
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63 of 71 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on January 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover
We couldn't expect, inhabitants of any other world to know what a meter is. But we could expect them to know pi, or the ratio of the weight of a proton compared to an electron; that's a number, about 1836, without any meters or grams behind it, and it is considered one of the "constants of nature." There are other such constants, and they form the subject of _The Constants of Nature: From Alpha to Omega - The Numbers That Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe_ (Pantheon Books) by John D. Barrow. The book, which is the sort to be enjoyed by anyone who liked puzzling through such works as _A Brief History of Time_, paradoxically has a main topic about the constants: What if they are not constant?
If, for instance, the proton / electron ratio were all of a sudden a little different, atoms might fly apart instead of maintaining their tiny orbital systems on which matter as we know it depends. There are other important numbers that we think are constant, like Planck's constant, the charge on the electron, and the speed of light. These three are linked within another constant, the fine structure constant. All these constants seem to have turned out just right for humans to have evolved to be investigating their physics. They all seem to be surprisingly bio-friendly. As surely as some insist that a conscious designer made the wonderfully baroque varieties of living things on our planet, others (who may admit that evolution rather than a conscious designer was at work) will say some godly entity picked the constants. But Barrow explains many alternatives, universes with the constants possibly turning out in some other way, and also explains ways that these universes might have come into being.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Paul VINE VOICE on March 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
There is a good book in this book somewhere, but it is trapped inside of a fair book that promises a lot more than it actually delivers. There is an initial problem that the book fails to make the case as to why particular constants are important. When discussing the fine structure constant (which is really the only constant that is given any significant coverage), the author tells us that it is made up of a combination of the electron charge, the speed of light, and Plank's constant. One might ask why these three particular values and that would be a fair question. The author tells us that if these three values changed but the fine structure constant remained the same, the resulting universe would be indistinguishable from our own. And then he leaves it there. What does that mean? Why is this the case? The author skips over this and moves on to other topics. He also makes a claim for "natural units" without being clear about what he means and why they are particularly natural.
In chapter six the author discusses some curious coincidences surrounding Eddington's number. But after having debunked some other coincidental numbers he seems to leave himself open to claims that he is simply invoking meaningless coincidences. For example, he lays claim to an odd coincidence between the number of protons in the Universe and the ratio of the strengths of the electromagnetic and gravitational forces between two protons. Why these particular numbers? There are some interesting twists and turns in the book but there are also enough things that seem rather shaky that I began to doubt how much of the book was truly reliable.
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