Saturday, 1 December 2001

John D. Barrow: The Universe That Discovered Itself (1987, 2000)

Edition: Oxford, 2000 (revision of The World Within the World, 1987)
Review number: 1001

Barrow's book, an updated version of The World Within the World, is a philosophical look at the history of science and contemporary scientific ideas with a rather unusual slant. It takes a list of nine statements about the laws of science and how they relate to the underlying reality of the universe, and then sees a general trend up to the work of Newton to establish these statements, followed in the twentieth century by the opposite trend with the development of new theoretical frameworks very different from the Newtonian one. These statements are things like "Space and time exist" or "The world can be described by mathematics", and are a set of basic philosophical assumptions about the universe, informing scientists' attitudes to physical theories.

The Universe That Discovered Itself is aimed at the experienced reader of popular science. Even though brief explanations are given, it would be difficult to follow without a previous acquaintance with relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, and the anthropic principle among other ideas. With a familiarity with these concepts and an interest in the philosophical, there is much pleasure to be obtained from the book. The title refers to the thought that we, as part of the universe, have discovered a great deal about it, and is particularly appropriate given the quite lengthy discussion of the role of the observer in quantum mechanics and particularly quantum cosmology.

The presentation is typical of Barrow, with each section enlivened by interesting and frequently amusing quotations, including the following anecdote. In an Oxford physics viva in the 1890s, a student was asked to define electricity. His response was that he did know but had forgotten, to which the examiner drily replied, "How very unfortunate. Only two persons have ever known what electricity is, the Author of Nature and yourself. Now one of them has forgotten".

I'm not sure how radical a revision was made to the earlier book, and there are some sections which seem to be less up to date than others, which is a pity. Still, I found The Universe That Discovered Itself a fascinating exploration of the philosophy behind modern physics.

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