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The Constants of Nature: From Alpha to Omega--the Numbers That Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe

3.69 of 5 stars 3.69  ·  rating details  ·  268 ratings  ·  25 reviews
A major contribution to our understanding of the basic laws of the universe -- from the author of The Book of Nothing.

The constants of nature are the fundamental laws of physics that apply throughout the universe: gravity, velocity of light, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics. They encode the deepest secrets of the universe, and express at once our greatest knowledge a
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published January 14th 2003 by Pantheon (first published November 26th 2002)
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Don't be misled by title - this is a book about cosmology, the structure of the universe, and how life, of the sort we know, fits in. I struggled with the first few chapters because I didn't feel that the author really explained why so few fundamental physical constants (primarily, the speed of light, the gravitational constant and Planck's constant) are needed to describe the universe. I was expecting there to be a lot more, such as the masses of the particles comprising the standard model, the ...more
Constants are a topic that interests me greatly, since I've written about them in my own philosophical work. Barrow is the first-hand authority on the topic, given his involvement in the team that found possible variation of the fine-structure constant via observation of quasars. So I was excited to finally read this book, even though it's over a decade old now. And it is a good book: very catchy writing and nice anecdotes. However, for someone who already knew much of the relevant data, this wa ...more
Let's start with what this book is not about. It's not about mathematical constants such as pi and little e, the natural logarithm. It is about constants of physics such as Planck's constant, the speed of light and the gravitational constant. The book is primarily about cosmology focused around the question, is the universe expanding or contracting? What happens to these physical constants in these cases; are they the same everywhere in the universe at all times and in all places, or can they va ...more
This review will be in draft mode for a while.
I actually got this book way back in 2002 when it was first pub'd.
What a confusing mess!

I haven't read any of Barrows' other books, so I can't say whether he can't (IMO) write clear books in general or whether the lack of clarity is an issue with Constants...
In the first chapter -- heck, even in the Preface -- the author should LIST off (bullet, number, letter, etc.) the Constants (symbol and all) followed by a one- or two-sentence description.
Changing Constants

n order to explain physical reality, physicists measure and determine physical quantities/parameters/information related to the object/subject in question using well defined laws such as; the laws of classical physics (theory relativity), quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. Physicists do not know the details of all the laws, and their interpretations/explanations often vary, but the physical laws themselves are the same across the universe. Einstein's principle of covariance
Michael Sherbon
Breezy read, with some humorous quotes. Good overall review and a little heavy on the possibility of changing constants.
For an update read "Mathematical Constants of Natural Philosophy"
Despite the title, the book is mostly about just one constant. Take two electrons very far apart; bringing them to distance d of each other takes work that is proportional to 1/d. Now take a photon with frequency 1/d; its energy is also proportional to 1/d. Dividing the two coefficients of proportionality produces the fine structure constant, 1/137.035999074(44). This is the strength of the electromagnetic interaction, a fundamental force of nature. There is a caveat: quantum field theory says t ...more
Thomas Paul
There is a good book in this book somewhere, but it is trapped inside of a fair book that promises a lot more than it actually delivers. There is an initial problem that the book fails to make the case as to why particular constants are important. When discussing the fine structure constant (which is really the only constant that is given any significant coverage), the author tells us that it is made up of a combination of the electron charge, the speed of light, and Plank's constant. One might ...more
Andrea Aprile
L'epicità fatta a libro. Semplicissimo, scorrevolissimo, FIGHISSIMO e a tratti molto emozionante. Uno dei libri che mi hanno cambiato la vita.
I quite liked this book although I felt it drifted off in places to irrelevant or fluffy things. That said, it did cover a range of interesting topics in Physics and was broken up with some funny and quirky quotes by famous authors, scientists, etc. which was a nice touch. The book probably could have been condensed to half the size, but I can understand why it wasn't - you'd probably lose the friendly tone and extra snippets of insight and humour that the author put in, which although didn't ad ...more
It was a fascinating read for a non-scientist. I found the knowledge and explanations to be conveyed as easily as they can be (some of the formulas and constants' math required re-reading at times).

I found most of the last third or quarter to be preachy and superfluous. It did not add much.
For a lay person, this book about the mathematical formulas that undergird our world is strangely accessible. I was constantly fascinated by what physicists already know... the formulas for gravity, speed of light, etc. are both eminently simple and strikingly complex. Their interplay shows how narrow of a window the universe allows for life as we know it to exist.

For anyone who loves physics, but isn’t a physicist, this book will provide a gripping read.
Robert Hernandez
The title and initial pre-reading of the book promised a lot, but failed to meet my expectations. Mr. Barrow might be a good scientist, but he is not as good a philosopher and touches on subjects of religion and belief in a mocking tone that made evident a lack of knowledge on the subject.

Fairly good exposition on the current state of physics, but disappointing in philosophical matters.
David Stag
Not what I expected. More a philosophy treatise than an exploration of the physical meaning of constants. A lot of wild speculation. I can see why some may like it, but the title could be more accurate in describing what the book is about.
Finally finished this book. The concepts are way beyond my brain power, but it is wonderfully written and organized. I wish I actually grasped the information better, but that is my problem, not the writer's.
Nice and easy overview of some of the most underlying concepts of physical science. A bit slow in the beginning, but really picks up in the later chapters.
Interesting angle on the anthropic universe and understanding what possible multiverses might look like in the Darwinian universe theory.
If there weren't so many books I want to read, i would start over and see if I would understand more.
Very informative, but, slightly unsure of itself in terms of who its geared towards
Austin Calico
Much is good, but the last few chapters are overly wordy and not written as clearly.
Johann Fourie
Give a overview of how we see nature and the cosmos.
Velmi rozvláčné, spousta odboček k příbuzným tématům..
What happens first is not necessarily the beginning.
Brian King
Even the scientists don't know!
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John D. Barrow is a professor of mathematical sciences and director of the Millennium Mathematics Project at Cambridge University and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He lives in Cambridge, UK.
More about John D. Barrow...
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“Prior to then it was believed that black holes were just cosmic cookie monsters, swallowing everything that came within their gravitational clutches.” 3 likes
“Since only a narrow range of the allowed values for, say, the fine structure constant will permit observers to exist in the Universe, we must find ourselves in the narrow range of possibilities which permit them, no matter how improbable they are. We must ask for the conditional probability of observing constants to take particular ranges, given that other features of the Universe, like its age, satisfy necessary conditions for life.” 0 likes
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