I have read several of John Barrow’s other works, including “Pi In The Sky.” He is a very fine writer, and he has a knack for explaining complex mathematical and scientific concepts in terms that a lay reader can absorb. Prof. Barrow is Professor of Mathematical Sciences and Director of the Millennium Mathematics Project at Cambridge. His specialty is cosmology, and he is one of the foremost researchers in the field. In short he is amply qualified to speak intelligently about the subject of the mathematics and the philosophy of theories of everything.
But be forewarned – this is not a book for the unprepared. It is written for the lay reader, by which I mean that there is a general absence of mathematics. But he does make some assumptions about the reader’s background knowledge. His subject is the forefront of modern physics. A “theory of everything” in the context of this book is a theory of modern physics which attempts to explain every known physical phenomenon. As Prof. Barrow explains with clarity and insight, there are many physicists who believe that it will one day be possible to explain every observable physical phenomenon on the basis of just a few very basic principles. The purpose of the book is to define what any such proposed theory of everything would look like, and how it would be used. While it doesn’t overwhelm the reader with mathematics it does delve rather deeply into the fundamental principles of mathematics and philosophy as they pertain to the future of physics.
For those who are not prepared to plunge into the mathematical seas that form the basis of modern physical theories, this book is a welcome reprieve. It does a masterful job of explaining why so many in the world of physics think that we are on the verge of reaching a new and profound understanding of the physical world. And it does equally well at explaining the complications that any theory of everything must resolve if it is ever to deserve the name. Physics is clearly going through a major transition. The two great theories that were developed in the twentieth century – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – are fundamentally at odds with each other. This conflict was recognized not long after their formalization, and it has yet to be resolved. Prof. Barrow makes it clear that much of the turmoil in contemporary physics is due to this conflict.
I heartily recommend this book for readers who have a general acquaintance with physical theories and who are interested in knowing where physics is going. He won’t tell you what the final theory of everything will be like, as no one presently knows. But he will help you to understand the problems that physics is trying to address, and some of the approaches that have been taken in attempting to solve them. Prof. Barrow does a marvelous job of showing what the limitations of our knowledge are likely to be. I think this book is a good counterbalance to Lee Smolin’s book “The Trouble With Physics.” Smolin’s point is that string theory has yet to produce anything testable. Barrow’s book talks about string theory as one type of theory of everything and provides some background that you won’t find in Smolin’s book as to the motivation for string theory. A key point that Barrow makes concerns the process known as renormalization in quantum mechanics. In certain problems involving the interactions of particles the summations of energies exchanged result in a great many infinite values. Renormalization assumes that these infinities cancel each other out. This process “works,” and it has been able to produce results that have been tested in experiment to a very high degree of accuracy. But no one feels good about a process that just ignores infinities as if they weren’t important. Prof. Barrow mentions that two string theory researchers – Brian Greene and Ed Witten – showed that string theory eliminates these infinities altogether. Although no experiment that could confirm superstring theory has yet been conducted – or devised – this seems like a very significant result.
Physics does seem to be poised to arrive at some dazzling revelations in the near future. This book will prepare the reader for the onslaught of ideas to come.
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