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The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas About the Origins of the Universe 1st Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0375420993
ISBN-10: 0375420991
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

From our modern perspective, it is easy to deride the wranglings of medieval scholars over the number of angels that could dance of the head of a pin and whether Nature abhors a vacuum. But as John Barrow reveals in this timely and important book, new discoveries in science have shown that these scholars were right to suspect that Nothing has hidden depths.

It is a concept shot through with paradoxes: even innocent-looking phrases like "Nothing is real" flip their meanings as we ponder them, like those illusions that look like a vase one moment, and opposing faces the next. Nothing is fertile, too, as Barrow shows via a stunning trick that allows every number one can think of to be built out of nothing at all.

But his book is about far more than mind games. Arguably, the most important discovery of 20th-century physics is that there is no such thing as nothing: even the tightest vacuum is teeming with subatomic particles popping in and out of existence, according to the dictates of quantum theory. Now, many astronomers suspect that such "vacuum effects" may have triggered the Big Bang itself, filling our universe with matter. Indeed, the very latest observations suggest that vacuum effects will dictate the ultimate fate of the universe.

As an internationally respected cosmologist, Barrow does a fine job of explaining these new discoveries. The result is a book that is required reading for anyone who wants to understand why there will be much ado about Nothing among scientists in the years ahead. --Robert Matthews, Amazon.co.uk

From Publishers Weekly

Nothing's conceptual origins were fraught with fear and disbelief, and only three civilizations independently discovered it. How Nothing went from a Babylonian place holder, a Mayan decoration in the empty space where no number fell and an Indian dot signifying all the current aspects of zero, to one of the most essential elements in mathematics, physics and cosmology, is the subject of this enlightening history. Barrow, a Cambridge professor of mathematical sciences and author of Theories of Everything and other books, follows Nothing's evolution in a clear, well-organized narrative. It is specific but neither confusing nor at any point slow, and while its more difficult scientific content will cause it to appeal less to general readers than K.C. Cole's The Hole in the Universe (Forecasts, Jan. 22), there are still plenty of tidbits and trivia that readers will want to share. For, as Barrow demonstrates, pondering the zero can lead to strange discoveries. Two adjacent ships on a calm sea with a brewing swell can be pulled together by a mysterious force similar to that pulling two plates together in a vacuum. Also, we keep time in units of 60 because it was the second base (along with 10) that the Sumerians used in counting. Nothing informs infinite aspects of life and the world at large, and Barrows does an excellent job of bringing its effects to light; plentiful illustrations clarify concepts and bring them into focus. (Apr.)Forecast: While this may appeal less to general readers than Cole's book, science aficionados will greatly enjoy the insights, the detail and the calculations.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (April 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375420991
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375420993
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,258,298 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
About half of this book discusses the cutting edge of physics (with the necessary history) regarding the fate of the universe, and in particular, how vacuum (nothingness) in its modern quantum understanding plays a central role in the universe's evolution and ultimate future.
The other half of this book is about philosophical issues such as the history of the concept of nothing and the number zero, the religious concepts of the history and future of the universe, and the mathematical history of zero and infinity.
As the previous reviews of this book, and indeed, its subtitle "Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe" imply, this should have been a book about Physics and in particular, the physics of vacuums (quantum zero-point energy). One would expect a detailed treatment of this, without the extensive digressions from the primary topic. If that is what you are expecting, you will be disappointed; it is why I rate this book three stars. I was bored by the parts of the book which digressed from the layman's physics discussion.
On the other hand, the half or perhaps 60% of the book Barrow devotes to discussion of physics was very well written. If you have read extensively other layman's books on physics (such as Greene's Elegant Universe, Treiman's Odd Quantum, Lederman's God Particle, and the like) then about a third or a half of this may seem familar, but restated in Barrow's clear descriptive prose. As for the rest, in about a decade of reading layman's physics books, I had not encountered - or had forgotten or previously misunderstood - the remainder. In this sense, the book is definitely worthy of five stars, and was very interesting.
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Format: Hardcover
"Nothing is Real." --The Beatles, "Strawberry Fields Forever"

As quoted by Professor Barrow on page 8, this is a pun on what the Beatles had in mind, and is in essence what this book is all about. Nothing is real in the sense that it is no longer the nothing that it once was. It is actually "something." On the next page, to further illustrate the point, Barrow quotes the lyric from Freddie Mercury (of Queen), "Nothing really matters." It does indeed!

The impetus for this, Barrow's latest book on cosmology, seems to be the growing realization that the vacuum of space ("nothing") is not entirely empty, and in fact cannot in principle ever be empty. As Barrow explains in Chapter 7, "The Box that Can Never Be Empty," it would be a violation of the Uncertainty Principle because, "If we could say that there were no particles in a box, that it was completely empty of all mass and energy," we would have "perfect information about motion at every point and about the energy of the system at a given instant of time" (p. 204). This rather simple, but shocking revelation, has consequences that are shaking the very foundation of our understanding of the cosmos. Quite simply it appears that there is no such thing as nothing.

Barrow lays the ground work for this revelation by first exploring the nature of nothing as seen by the ancients, noting in particular the Greek abhorrence of the very idea that the vacuum could exist ("horror vacui"). In Chapter One, "Zero - The Whole Story," (which follows Chapter Nought) he recalls the history of zero and how it finally found acceptance. So great was the Greek horror of nothing that they did not have a zero in their number system. Many people found the idea of nothing and of zero frightening and impious.
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Format: Hardcover
An English don has written a tome about Nothing. It consists of 280 pages of text, 20 pages of quotes, 100 or so diagrams, followed by 50 pages of notes. Sounds like a cure for insomnia? You'll be mistaken, for Barrow takes us on a delightful journey through the history and science of Nothing. He traces the development of the mathematical zero in from ancient Babylonia and India to today's null graphs- a "pointless concept". The author also explains the old and modern theories and creation of physical void (e.g. Ether, vacuums, zero-point energy) , in the layman's language. Of course, as an erudite tour guide he has to discuss the philosophy behind it all while quoting from just about any source-newspaper advertisements to obscure thinkers.
I do have a couple of quibbles about the book. One chapter less on vacuum would have better served the flow of ideas. The philosophical development of zero/shunya didn't stop in Asia as soon as they exported it to Europe. Buddhists took the idea up (Nagarjuna especially) and today shunyata forms an integral part of Mahayana Buddhism. Barrow doesn't discuss this(for reasons of space?). On the whole, its almost as much fun as Seinfeld.
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Format: Hardcover
This is my first Barrow book and I totally enjoyed it. I am saying this after coming to the conclusion that the minor errors, inconsistancies and British spellings in the American edition are due entirely to the lack of science expertise of the Random House editors who translated the book from UK english to American english.
Physics is a big subject but the author found a narrow and well defined thread to follow that starts with the need for a zero placeholder in number systems and ends with the recently discovered expansion of the universe and zero point energy. He uses history, philosophy, mathematics and physics to move the reader along this thread. The delving into real physics concepts is so fearlessly done that it may turn off the Walter Mitty types who dream of Nobel Prizes. The math used is oriented toward logic rather than calculation.
I can see where some new readers in physics might get lost in a very few places because names of theories are bandied about with no attached explanation of what or how. But this may be due to editor mishap rather then author intention. Stuff like this can be yet another reason to read another physics book. Like Roger Penrose's books, John Barrow's reflect an active researcher's ideas as well as accepted theory so don't be suprised that you may be reading about some things that no one else in the field supports. I think this is the reason why I like this book so much anyway.
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