16 November 2008

John D. Barrow—New Theories of Everything

Back in early June, I had made note of some thoughts I had (yeah, it happens) about the search for a "Theory of Everything". I try to keep abreast of current work in cosmology and high-energy physics, particularly if new work appears that's crafted for the education of the layman, "because that's who I am, and that's who I care about." Anyhow, I made the notes regarding the nature of what a theory of everything actually is. Fundamentally, it's a religious pursuit undertaken by ostensibly secular physicists and mathematicians. Why do I call it a religious pursuit? Mainly because in order to reduce the workings of the universe to a comprehensible, elegant mathematical function one must know far more than I think we're capable of understanding (i.e.; initial conditions for the grand event that birthed our universe).

Now there are reasons why I don't think we can know these, and that's where Cambridge mathematician/cosmologist John D. Barrow comes in. New Theories of Everything is an update of a book he wrote in 1991 and provides incredibly clear explanations for a vast array of mathematical and cosmological concepts. (As in frightening, geniusesque clarity.) It's exactly the high-end pop-science book I've needed to read for a while, because while Barrow's grasp of physical phenomena is tight, his deep knowledge allows him to be critical of certain directions many of his peers are taking.

The main premise of the book revolves around the idea that there is no reason to think that the physical properties of our universe can be distilled into one mathematical function. While our universe may have a mathematical skeleton, there are many aspects of its existence that are chaotic and non-linear and other aspects (think closer to home à la the arts) that don't seem to have mathematical explanations at all. Without knowledge of the exact states of initial conditions of these chaotic phenomena we have no way of predicting how future states will turn out (thus negating the ability to confirm the accuracy of an equation or experiment). Symmetry breaking also gives theorists headaches for similar reasons, but I just mangled that last explanation so I'll leave this one for the expert (read the book) to flesh out.

Lastly, I must mention—and I'm cutting this review off because I'm obviously not a physicist and I've also been enjoying some scotch—this book left me a bit baffled. Not by the content per se, as it was expertly explained and I highly recommend reading it, but by the author himself. You see John D. Barrow is a religious man, of a specific christian denomination. Now it may be obnoxious of me to go down this path, but after reading such an obviously brilliant explanation of some of the most conceptually difficult material for humans to comprehend, I cannot help but wonder how its author holds such traditional christian beliefs (i.e.; that jesus our savior, the viability of the trinity, etc.) and is able to reconcile them with all he knows of our universe—not to mention the possibility of an infinite multiverse of which our universe is only one small bubble. I find this realization more troubling and difficult to comprehend than the ideas of infinity or nothingness. But maybe I'm the weird guy.

Anyway, regardless of my ever-dyspeptic responses to the continuing presence of nonsensical religious beliefs in today's world, read this book if you have any interest whatsoever in quantum phenomena, chaotic systems, universal origins, multiverse theory, string theory and any aspects of mathematics. The latter almost always forms a stumbling block for laypersons and Barrow's ability to explain various mathematical concepts made me want to strangle all the terrible math teachers I had growing up who never explained a single fucking thing.


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