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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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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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If you want to learn about fundamental constants read "The Natural Laws of the Universe- Understanding Fundamental Constants (Original French edition 2005; English, 2008), by Jean-Philippe Uzan and Benedicte Leclercq.
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. However, from there he makes the logical leap that the Planck distance, for instance, is the "natural" measure of length in the universe. This is certainly a fair statement, but it's hardly justifiable to make that statement based simply on the fact that it can be derived from a number of other constants--one could have selected another collection of fundamental constants and come up with a completely different "natural" unit of length. In short, the line of reasoning does not justify the conclusion.
In all, this is a thought-provoking work, but it's often short on detail and had a tendency to leave me with more questions than answers. The more technical reader will probably wish for more thorough arguments throughout; however, it's still an enjoyable read and a fine attempt at popularizing a difficult area of physics.
Extra flavor is added in chapter 9 (about "virtual history"). It brings some humor and relaxes in the middle of not so easy subjects. Especially chapter 11 requires extra effort and figure 11.6 is missing from the hardcover edition. Generally: book represents another great effort in popularizing sophisticated top end of a science. Hopefully I will remember formula: 2(pi)e^2/hc for a long time to come.
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