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4.1 out of 5 stars
10
New Theories of Everything
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on July 11, 2015
If I wasn't a John D Barrow fan, previously, I would be by now. He has an excellent way of presenting knowledge that fits right inside my learning styles. He leaves me understanding to the point of asking questions, not because I DON'T understand, but because I DO understand and now I have MORE questions.
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on January 15, 2008
I real lots of physics/cosmology books. This one organized and written for comprehension - and the first I've encountered to integrate chaos and complexity processes as well as Steve Wolfram's New Kind of Science with QM and Strings - not flashy but impressive.
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on November 22, 2008
Alas, no.
Over the years I have read several Barrow books: The Book of Nothing, Impossibility, Pi in the Sky, etc. Maybe even the first edition of this one (I don't have it, and seem to remember it but very hazily, but that might be a consequence of Barrow's writing essentialy one book under several titles, an impression of mine probably deriving from the fact that he tackles metaphisically entangled themes such as infinity, being, the nature of reality, TOEs, etc., which in my view are intimately related).

"New TOEs" is in my opinion a somewhat obscure and defective book, because (1) the first edition hasn't been rewritten but addded to; (2) it's an uneven mixture of dumbing down and illusory depth; and (3) Barrow has, not a golden, but a leaden (or iron, were we to follow Hesiod) pen.

(1) NOT REWRITTEN BUT ADDED TO: in page 3 he writes as if the 20th C had still to end; in his first summary of superstrings ("ss") (p. 24) he doesn't mention M theory, an omission which he makes good in page 32 ff., but without including the landscape problem: this is fleetingly alluded to only once in the whole book (p. 133), as contrasted to the constant references to eternal inflation and bubble Universes; there's constant emphasis on the heat death of the Universe whereas the acceleration of expansion (pp. 130/133, oddly introduced as a "rival Theory of (almost) Everything" to ss in p. 129) is treated only once; an unclear graph extends only to 1988 (p. 170); "if ss theory manages to produce some observable prediction in the not too distant future" (p. 224); etc. etc.

(2) UNEVEN MIXTURE OF DUMBING DOWN AND ILLUSORY DEPTH. I'll give just two examples (they take space), although there are many others: in pp. 46/50 Barrow discusses (unnecesarily in my view) the transfinite numbers -by the way there he states, mistakenly, that "the real numbers possess a higher cardinality than the natural numbers and it is denoted by ... (aleph-one)", when actually neither Cantor nor anybody else managed to prove that 'c', the power of the continuum, equals aleph-one, which is the cardinal of the first uncountable ordinal-. This is conceptually, for a layman, quite advanced stuff; yet elsewhere in the book he finds it necessary to define angular momentum as the total rotational energy of a body. Now, is it conceivable that a person who doesn't know what angular momentum is will be at ease and indeed understand four pages on denumerable and non-denumerable cardinals?
The other example is in page 228, where we are told that power series expansion and the "implicit function theorem ... define ... what local information about the world can be deduced from global ... information", and that "Stoke's famous integral theorem and the process of analytic continuation" are examples of the converse. Now, I know the meaning of these terms because I studied real and complex analysis in college. But a layman? For me, this information is unnecessary; for a layman (I suppose) unintelligible. So, whom is the book adressed to?

(3) BARROW HAS, NOT A GOLDEN, BUT A LEADEN (OR IRON, WERE WE TO FOLLOW HESIOD) PEN. Where to begin? At random: in p. 57, speaking of oscillating infinite series, we find the baffling statement "the limiting value of a sum must be specified together with the procedure used to calculate it".
In p. 70 the fall of a rock is described in such a confusing way that I had to spend some time figuring what he must have wanted to say so that the paragraph would not be incorrect.
In p. 79 he asserts that "the Newtonian Universe will not tolerate the consideration of an infinite space distributed with matter: this leads to an infinite aggregate of gravitational influences at any one point": what does he mean by that? does he refer to an isotropic Universe? is it a restatement of the reverse of Olber's paradox for gravity? Because Newton's answer was that, as the Universe was infinite and therefore symmetrical (around the Earth, for example) influences cancelled out. Does Barrow mean that in a Newtonian cosmology the Earth would be torn apart by infinite gravitational forces coming from everywhere, from the "space distributed by matter"? Would each one of us be sucked towards the outer limits of the Universe (but not torn apart, because the gradient wouldn't be as steep as near a black hole's central singularity?)?
In p. 226 what I assume to be Taylor's power series expansion is described with such an unusual terminology (I mean, "mathematical operation upon an input x" is perfectly acceptable, but why not say "function" when in pp.220/222 he mentions "Riemmanian geometry and tensors"; "Groups", "Hilbert spaces" and "Complex manifolds"?) and notation that I'm left in doubt as to what he wanted to convey.
In p. 227 we learn that "the world is non-local. This is the import of Bell's famous theorem". I don't doubt that Barrow knows what he's talking about, but that's not Bell's theorem. Eddington, he of verily the golden pen, would have put it differently.
Well, enough for me. Am I nitpicking? But all this from a tense-challenged (p. 98) mathematician!

There's a fourth point, but that depends on personal tastes: dwelling so extensively on time and its arrow, entropy, thermodynamics and the heat death, etc., I would have liked Barrow to have said something about the problems of recurrence, Bolzano's worries, Poincaré's theorem, etc. In the case of Wheeler-DeWitt's equation and Hartle-Hawking state, I would also have liked something said about loop quantum gravity. Idem about background independence (there's only one line about it).

The book's strong points are its emphasis on philosophy of math and phy; the clear if brief treatment of Einstein's cosmological constant; the mention of Xia's result about Newtonian mechanics (pp. 30/31, interesting because its resulting invalidation parallels GR's by the prediction of black hole singularities); the apt titles of some section headings: "The eternal golden braid", "The importance of being constant", "Goodbye to all that", etc., which, if really Barrow's, show culture and a wry sense of humour; the inclusion of all the "sexy" problems in cosmology, with the fourth point caveat and excepting the COBE and WMAP probes (but they really have little to do with the book's main thrust); and the very moderate space given to M "theory".

For me the book rates three stars, but I learned nothing new, and it wasn't particularly enjoyable, so one star less for the loss of time.
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on November 12, 2014
I'm not sure I understand why this book seems to have limited appeal for some reviewers. I've been reading a lot of popular physics books lately, working my way backwards from some of the more recent. Barrow's book is valuably different than most. It seems to belong to an expository tradition rarely seen these days. He creates a large, lucid, and eloquent context of different perspectives on related fundamental issues. He characterizes very well how the convergence of such perspectives can offer insights and intuitions, even while those different ways of looking at things get in each others way or leave crucial questions open.

Part of Barrow's practice in his writing is to respect the reader's own way of assembling ideas, and my response to his approach seems to result in adopting a kind of ventilation system among my own different kinds of thoughts. This I find an intriguing effect, which I believe at least partially qualifies Barrow's writing as philosophical in the modern sense.

I would be remiss if I did not note here that there are also many levels of humor in Barrow's writing, and very entertaining use of quotations at chapter and section headings.
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on October 7, 2009
Barrow's book is densely packed with information and novel insights, but it's a slog to get through. The author is repetitive and not always clear, because he relies a lot on the assumption you've read his earlier works and are quite literate and up-to-speed on philosphical arcania.
Nevertheless, I think you will be rewarded by a careful reading and rereading of this volume. Here Barrow attempts to parse the largest questions about reality and the universe into crisp catagories. In itself this is quite a task and he accomplishes it, though a bit too tersely.
Like Penrose's "The Road to Reality," Barrow's "New Theories of Everything" is, in a way, exhaustive and exhausting.
But not reading it leaves a wide and unnecessary hole in one's understanding about modern physics and its implications for the largest questions about our material existence.
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on March 19, 2009
I'm a big fan of Oxford's John Barrow.

As a scientist he's distinguished himself among weighty competition like Frank Tipler in formulating the cosmic anthropologic hypothesis (which deals with the question of why we find ourselves in a universe so conducive to our own existence).

As a science writer, he's also distinguished himself by taking weighty concepts like how the universe came to be and how far our science may ever be able to get in helping us understand where it and where it's going. His books Impossibility on the Science of Limits and the Limits of Science and the Constants of Nature occupy two of the most treasured spots on my bookshelf.

And in my opinion Barrow doesn't disappoint in either this book or its 1991 original version.

As observed by other reviewers Barrow endeavors to tell what is the continuing story of science's continuing quest to develop a theory of everything: a theory that explains the basic physical laws of the universe.

A fully formed theory of everything would take us back to the very moment of creation and explain the process by which the universe came to be the way that it is.

Along the way, understanding the way that the universe is has turned out to be a major challenge. That's because by dint of our occupancy on a rather mundane planet in a non significant solar system in what is an average galaxy doesn't exactly give us the best vantage point to view things they way they ultimately are.

For one thing, the very matter of which we are composed according to modern physics is but four percent of the existing mass of the universe. For another thing, even the advanced physics of Albert Einstein is failing to answer some basic questions like why outlying solar systems ours move so orbit the galaxy so quickly.

In other words, our efforts to give discription to the forces that govern our physical world at present seem to suffer from the major defect of not sufficiently understanding the phenomenon we are trying to describe.

As always, Barrow is thorough in his treatment. Yet, and I think fairly, his book reflects the pessimism with which he views the possibility that we will soon come up with a reasonable theory of everything...including even the much bally hooed discussion about string theory.

String theory is a mathematical model of the universe which says that there are eleven dimensions of physical reality (as opposed to the four we easily perceive). It's a mathematical bohemeth and for reasons alluded to by Peter Woit in The Problem with Physics among other recent volumes I think the theory suffers from some insurmountable problems.

Fortunately this Barrow volume gives a fair sense of the pros and cons and as always gives the reader an excellent ring side view of the academic dispute.

So for these reasons and more I highly recommend this book or for that matter pretty much any book by Barrow. He's a great scientist and a great writer.
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on June 12, 2012
Cosmologists take the widest possible perspective and this book presents an overview of that perspective in an accessible and lucid way. It's like having a personal mentor explain everything to you on opposite ends of a small log, or while having coffee over several sessions at the local cafe. His explanation of compression and the relationship between the universe and the laws of the universe shouldn't be missed. Highly recommended... - lc
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on December 7, 2014
Barrow is the bomb!
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on November 20, 2009
There are many better books on the subject - don't waste your time and money on this one.
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on January 21, 2008
Vitalism is a profoundly science-ejected concept, though many CAM or 'natural health' cabals falsely claim that vitalism survives scientific scrutiny.

One of my favorite passages from this book:

"there is no reason to believe that the stuff of biology is made of anything but the atoms and molecules that the chemist studies; nor any reason to think that those atoms and molecules are composed of anything but the elementary particles of the physicist, any more than we would doubt that Michelangelo's Pieta is composed of raw material other than marble and stone. But such reductionism is trivial. It was worth stating only when there were baseless speculations that some mysterious substance ('phlogiston') was present in fire or some elan vital in 'living' things. As we bring simple things together, they produce aggregates that exhibit a wider diversity of behavior than the sum of their parts. Thus qualitatively new phenomena appear as the level of complexity rises or the number of ingredients increases. Such a situation was not foreseen by early vitalists [p.164]."

Meanwhile, naturopathy claims...

-r.c.
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