Customer Reviews: The Book of Nothing: Vacuums, Voids, and the Latest Ideas about the Origins of the Universe
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on January 1, 2002
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. He explains, for the first time that I actually could understand the why of it rather than the fact of it's existence, the "why" of the unification of the three forces (excluding gravity) at high energies/temperatures, the "why" of black holes radiating away all their mass, and much of the "what" of Einstein's cosmological constant, which he calls the lambda force (as Einstein used the symbol lambda to represent it). Many other things are discussed along the way, and extensive notes for other reading are provided - many of which reference his own works.
In sum, I feel this book could have been shorter OR have expanded upon the physics at the expense of the philosophy and religious discussion. Of the 300 pages of prose (the remainder being extensive footnotes and index), be aware that perhaps only 150 or 170 will be of interest to those who want a solid physics discussion. If you have wider interests, the remainder will also likely be of interest; some of it can also be found in the earlier chapters of Gullburg's "Mathematics: From the Birth of Numbers."
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"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. However, as Barrow shows, eventually zero triumphed over its adversaries because of its usefulness. In the next chapter, "Much Ado About Nothing," Barrow recalls the medieval debates about the vacuum, whether it exists, whether it existed before the creation of the world, and whether it was possible to create a vacuum. He recounts attempts to create a vacuum in Chapter Three, "Constructing Nothing," and then discusses the once and future ether that Einstein had so completely demolished. (It's back! But it's called the vacuum and it seems to have more properties than the old ether ever had.) In Chapter Five, "Whatever Happened to Zero?" Barrow explores some non-Euclidian geometries and shows how numbers are created out of the empty set in set theory, a neat ironic analogy to how universes are perhaps created out of the vacuum.

Beginning in Chapter Six, "Empty Universes," Barrow concentrates on cosmology. I have to warn you that, despite Professor Barrow's elegant and graceful style and an abundance of charts, sidebars, lively quotes, and illustrations, this is not an easy read. The subject at the level Barrow wants to discuss it, is quite frankly very difficult. I have followed cosmology as a hobby for many years, but I am not a physicist or a mathematician. Those who are will probably have an easier time of it. Nonetheless, I learned a lot from this book and if I had wanted to "study" the text, could have learned a lot more. One thing I did not learn, something I have yet to find in any book on cosmology, is an answer to the question, What is the source of the energy that drives the expansion of the universe? Or put another way, what caused the singularity to "explode"? (Any reader know the answer?)

Barrow shows that one of the things that recent cosmology has done to the Big Bang universe that was said to contain all of space and time (leaving no possibility for "nothing" or "anything" to exist "outside" of it since there was no outside) is to allow it to be part of a larger, possibly infinite universe. The idea that our universe may be but one of an infinite number of universes all popping probabilistically out of the vacuum is mind boggling beyond any ability to describe it. In reference to the possible eternal expansion of our particular universe, Barrow notes on page 300 that "When there is an infinite time to wait then anything that can happen, eventually will happen." Applying this deduction to that possible infinity of universes, one finds a companion to the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics in which a new universe is created with every quantum event, a companion that asserts that in an infinite universe every possible event will take place, and every thought unthought will eventually be thought, that indeed there are unicorns somewhere and politicians who don't lie, and a place where bread always lands butter side up.

Faced with this whimsy, I suspect that Barrow would quickly point out that that is why in physics when infinities come up in the equations, it is a sure sign that something is wrong. Nevertheless, the cosmos as revealed by modern astronomy, astrophysics, relativity, quantum mechanics, and the ideas from string theory, is a story of breathtaking and mind boggling sweep and grandeur, often totally unintuitive and beyond our wildest imaginings. As picturesque, inventive and psychologically satisfying as the tales of the ancients about the cosmos are (e.g., " It's turtles all the way down!") they pale beside the conception of the universe as seen by modern science. Professor Barrow is one of the very best at bringing this vision to lay readers, and The Book of Nothing is not to be missed.

-Dennis Littrell, author of "Hard Science and the Unknowable"
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on June 14, 2001
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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on January 16, 2002
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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VINE VOICEon March 24, 2003
I was excited to read this book. I find the concepts of zero and the vacuum very interesting and those are the very concepts that are the focus of this book. Unfortunately, it did not quite live up to my expectations.
The first chapters of the book are quite good. Barrow gives us a history lesson on the development of the mathematical concept of zero as well as the historical concept of "nothing" which science will turn into the concept of vacuum. We get to read about the use of zero as a place holder in more complex numbering systems as well as its coming into being as a number. We get to read about the some of the great scientists--Pascal, Newton, Michelson, Einstein--doing experiments and tossing around ideas like the aether. All of this is interesting and well told.
However, about half-way through the wheels start to fall off. Barrow is not nearly as good at explaining the modern concepts of the vacuum as he is about telling of its historical development. Modern physics is again grappling with the question of whether or not a true vacuum can exist. It may be that fluctuations in the vacuum caused the Big Bang and are constantly creating multiple universes, for example. But though Barrow discusses these things, he does not do so in a very coherent manner. Alan Guth, for instance, did a much better job of discussing these same subjects in his book on the inflationary universe theory.
Plus, Barrow is clearly out to toot his own horn a bit in the last couple chapters by mentioning his own contributions to the development of the subject. It just so happens that his contributions don't seem nearly as important as other authors who have written on similar subjects. For those readers interested in the history of zero and the vacuum, I would suggest reading this book through chapter five and then putting it aside.
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on September 3, 2001
John Barrow has, as usual, written a fabulous book on a difficult topic for the lay reader. The premise of the book is that nature really does abhor a vacuum in the most concrete physical sense-- the old notion of a complete void, of empty space, is not only illusory but colossally wrong. The book starts out with historical perceptions of nothing and zero, noting amusedly that the very concept was taboo in many places; the Greeks and the Romans, for example, did not even have a zero in their number systems, and hence Europe for many centuries could not represent it. The zero of the current Base Ten numeral system originated in India and was put into practice by the merchants and mathematicians of the flourishing medieval Arab civilization, whence it entered Europe via the Mediterranean in the late Middle Ages. The zero in this case was generally a placeholder, or a balancer between items on opposite sides of a baker's scale, for example. The notion of a physical zero, however, did not enter the mindset until the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli and the German physicist Otto von Guericke, in the 17th century, removed all the air out of chambers they were studying and created the first vacuums. For over three centuries the idea of "empty space" became a staple of human thought, until shattered with the arrival of quantum theory in the 20th century, with all its bizarre but entirely verifiable implications.
Most especially, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle expressly forbids a system from assuming any definite state, which a total vacuum (with zero matter and zero energy) would patently violate. As a consequence-- strange as it sounds-- energy and, yes, particles are literally popping up out of nowhere, all the time, the latter as matter/antimatter pairs that annihilate each other so quickly that they cannot be detected. One of the best parts of Barrow's book is that he actually explains, in easily comprehensible language, how that is not merely some useless metaphenomenon, but has genuine effects on the observable world and on the results of experiments. There is the Casimir effect, for example (in which an anisotropy in the energy squeezes plates together), as well as the mitigation of electrostatic repulsion between two electrons, and impacts on other particle interactions. Barrow is at his prime when he shows the many ways now recognized that something can indeed arise from nothing. The universe arising as one of many, each as a large-scale vacuum fluctuation on the background sea, has been treated in other books but overall is presented quite well here. The idea of the null set generating numbers is also worth the page-turning. Barrow gets into enough depth to make the presentation solid, but ensures that the material is easy to picture. He would be the ideal guest lecturer for any science class.
The problems come in when Barrow tries to ponder the implications of all this-- he frankly makes little sense. The cosmology chapter is downright abysmal; it's poorly written and not even remotely coherent. As noted above the discussion of the origins is fine overall, but when Barrow examines the universe's overall structure he's rather confusing in his delivery. In answer to a previous reviewer's question-- the so-called vacuum energy, or dark energy (as named by the astronomer Saul Perlmutter, who did many of the observations suggesting it), which seems to be opposing gravity and pushing the galactic superclusters apart, is of unknown nature and origin. It may or may not be related to the energy field of the vacuum, but Barrow mixes the terms up and seems to say ten different things about it. The biggest problems arise when he tries to figure out what the apparent repulsive force is doing to the universe's expansion, and what that suggests about its future tendencies. All of the scientific journals show that this is a hotly debated topic full of question marks about the factors we already know, let alone the myriad considerations that we are still unsure about (or haven't thought of yet). Barrow basically ignores these issues and provides a picture that is somehow both ridiculously oversimplified and self-contradictory at the same time. As in some of his previous writing, Barrow also likes to invoke the notion, supposedly derived from the quantum-mechanical concept of wavefunction collapse of alternate possibilities, that given sufficient time, every possibility will manifest itself-- and he goes way overboard in trying to read into what that would suggest. The idea has been mentioned before but it's basically a misinterpretation of the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics-- even though the set of possible occurrences that become actual does become larger and larger with time, the pool of possibilities increases even more rapidly. Moreover, the extrapolation patently breaks down when one considers different arrangements of the actualizations; it's basically a confusion about applying set theory to physics that should be more humbly utilized. Barrow is remarkable for his ability to combine thinking big with restraint at the proper times, and he manifestly fails in the latter here; if he'd simply been more careful to acknowledge the speculative nature of the later topics, and/or to just allow for a few more well-placed "we don't know the answers," the later sections of the book would have been of much higher quality. In general, though, the last few chapters are simply difficult to plow through, even with some technical background in the fields of interest. They are not drawn together well, and give the impression of either being rushed or just not thought through very thoroughly.
If the above assessment appears rather harsh, it's only because Barrow is simply one of the best science writers out there, and the later portion of the book is quite a let-down. Overall, this book is heartily recommended; just take the later chapters with a grain of salt, and don't maintain your expectations too high.
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on December 23, 2002
I really enjoyed the first part of this book. There I found the coverage of Nothing-related topics to be interesting, well-written, and enjoyable to read. While not always the case, as a rule new concepts and theories were introduced with adequate explanation as well. For example, the quick introduction to surreal numbers was informative and fascinating, though it left me feeling only teased and wanting more.
However, the last third or so of the book is another story. This part often comes across like the author was rushed or something, and on average the reading is simply more tedious and difficult than it needs to be. Rather than being fun and informative, the effort required to extract the few worthwhile morsels of information probably isn't worth it.
Even though I have mixed feelings about it, I would still consider recommending this book to anyone typically interested in mathematics and physics. But for something that covers much of the same basic subject matter in a more enjoyable way, I would probably instead recommend "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" by Charles Seife.
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on May 9, 2002
This book is a magnificent trip. Just in the way that it covers the information that it does alone, in relation to a great nothingness and all of its counterparts, makes it a stimulating cosmic voyage. But that voyage starts at home: planet Earth. It starts out pretty philosophical discussing the abstraction known as zero. It covers the cultural acceptance and interpretations throughout the scope of written history of zero, nothing, and void. The Babylonians and Mayans, and last but not least Indians ( in their dynamic mystical lexicon frequently concerned with being and nothingness) were the only cultures to really designate the concept with a zero-like symbol. The Greeks, commonly thought of as the masterminds at the source of modern logic and mathematical thinking, had no such symbol for a concept thought devoid of physical value. The time capsule then picks up to the last several centuries (the times of the Scientific Revolution), and physicists earlier attempts to construct a physical vacuum against the vicious abhorrence of nature to such a monstrosity. To call it a monstrosity is not much of an exaggeration but probably closer to a euphemism, for people like Augustine proclaimed the bizarre concept a satanic heresy. Many many other related concepts are discussed that I will not delve into detail pertaining to, such as the Cartesian theory of the vortices and the life of the outdated theory of an all pervading and fluid Ether. Then, slowly approaching the modern day it carries the reader into the domain of "empty universes", and Einsteins familiar notions of spacetime and curvature. Overall I found the Book of Nothing a pleasure of a read that intertwines science, philosophy, and math all into one great contemplation of nothing.
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on December 5, 2002
John Barrow's work is truly nifty and represents well-researched and designed material, that can stand on it's own.
If you have already read popular science cosmology books by Kip Thorne, Igor Novikov, Martin Rees or Alan Guth (just a few excellent examples - check my reviews), "The Book of Nothing" will still deliver new and fresh angle through which mysteries of quantum and Universe can be looked at. Therefore I recommend this book to all cosmology readers.
Book is unique as a blend of tasteful dissertations from the realms of theology, philosophy, mathematics and cosmo - science. We will discover Mayan culture, Islamic art and Babylonian concept of zero, meet and learn what they thought or discovered - Greek philosophers, Hindus, Leibniz, Galileo, Pascal, Descartes, Newton/Einstein, Godel, Lemaitre, Plank, Guth, Linde, and Penrose/Hawking.

The main theme (regardless if this was cosmology part of the book or not) is vacuum, and more exactly: it's energy.
Vacuum is not empty due to quantum phenomena and vacuum presents itself as a LAMBDA force, dominating, according to what we observe, the current behaviour of visible Universe.
Especially interesting are author's summaries about famous question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?", and about origin of the Universe and life.
Is it possible that Cosmos always existed and will exist, or has it been created out of NOTHING?
After all, one may construct, very easily, mathematical equation that proves "nothing" theory (find it inside the book).
Can cosmos be self-reproductive or cyclical? John Barrow and his colleague Mariusz Dabrowski discovered answer to the latter.
Few explanations:
Figure 8.2 (Mexican hat): horizontal axes (both) can be labeled as Higgs field values.
Figure 8.5: horizontal axis contains label for the scalar field as well.
Figure 7.11 contains symbol "phi" (zero with slash): it represents the golden ratio and equals (1 + square root of 5)/2 = 1.61803...
Sentence on page 248 (paperback edition) should read: " in combination they can pin down the Universe by their overlap with far greater certainty (not "uncertainty") than when taken singly." This sentence describes figure 8.10.
Finally I was overwhelmed and amused by many great citations, that shine along the text. Some of them are really funny; some are incredibly deep and surprising.
Here is a sample of the funny one:
"I must say that I find TV very educational. Whenever somebody turns it on, I go to the library and read a book".
For sure, go and read John Barrow's, you will not regret.
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on December 29, 2003
This book comes close to literary schizzophrenia if i ever encountered it in written form.
Keeping in mind that the author aspires to explain "complicated" issues like voids, vacuums and the general concept of nothingness, this book could indeed have been another horror to read through like many such books are for those of us who dont spend our lives in labs.
I was more than surprised then when i discovered that for 200 odd pages (2/3 of the effort) D.Barrow does an incredible job explaining his subject in brilliant manner.

Beginning by backtracking in history, to exhibit how the ancients dealt with the concept of nothing and therefore needing to introduce the conception and the introduction (or non-introduction) of the number zero Barrow kept me heavily intrigued and increasingly stimulated. I was in fact in pure awe for a while, especially as the book progressed to the origins of the universe, early experiments about the vacuum and the startling things we've discovered about it, and then on to the ever-fascinating subject of the expansion of the universe (or agin, the non-expansion thereof). That part of the book is very enriched with philosophy which makes it all the more captivating. Philosophy, it may be unknown to some, has played a pivotal part in the development of physics. Before you can ever begin experimenting with anything you first need to grasp it even as an abstract concept in your mind.
That far, this was easily the first book that could explain in a very comprehensive manner why the universe might be expanding and what the causes of such an effect might be, as well as, the effect of vacuums in this process. The joy didnt stop there, at least not for a while yet. Introducing theinevitable Einstein theorisations the author kept using down-to-earth language and very effective examples to build his case.
But then for reasons i believe to be obvious the whole things falls apart. As if another author takes over 2/3 of the way in, the "Book of nothing" becomes almost a list-down of mathematical types, and descriptions of ultra-complicated experiments and even more convoluted theories. Worse yet, the language becomes wooden and tiresome, the examples fade off to ambiguity and the reading becomes a very, very difficult task.
An incredible effect to watch unfolding before my very eyes. I couldn't believe how much i'd actually grasped through the early stages of this book and how "nothing" (there is my pun) i grasped later on. And saying i grasped nothing later on is meant literally. I found myself reading the last 150 pages of the "Book of Nothing" as if it were hieroglyphics and were it not for the brilliance of this book initially i would've given it up all together.
What happened then. Well, in my opinion, what happened was one of the following or some combination of them:
-Barrow might actually be a better philosopher than he's a physicist, hence he might be practicing the wrong profession.
-as is the case with other scientists who've written such ambitious books, the suspicion lingers threatfully on that they themselves might not understand what they're talking about. Indeed, a major principle of communication states that if your message is not understood then it is 100% your fault. But even more importantly, if your message isnt understood then your message might not be...right.
Whichever the case, this is not the important thing. What is important is how this book is divided in half. Half of it absolutely incredible, fun to read, ultra-stimulating and then the other half a pure torture of a read with no reward in sight.
For the part that does reward though i couldn't possibly over-reccommend this book. It's a must read especially if you feel there are concepts you dont seem to understand about the latest theories concerning the universe, its origins or its future, the vacuums and voids and other elements connected to this big (second pun, unintended this time) picture.
If you find yourself giving up on the "Book of nothing" as you approach its conclusion, dont worry. Your overall effort wont be in nought.
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