The Constants Of Nature by John D. Barrrow (book review).

The problem with buying any science book is selecting by someone authoritative on the subject, easily checked on google, and whether the information is up-to-date. A bit more difficult if there are few books on the subject. Science isn’t static as we learn new things and come to light regularly but science constants are….well, constant. They don’t change.

Searching for a particular subject also means relying on its name being part of the title. Search engine AIs are still weak in that area. So here was I, last year, after a discussion with reviewer Rosie Oliver, looking for a book explaining more detail about scientific constants and to justify how many of them are fudges to make the calculation formulas work. The fact that they are constant is because it’s the same number used time and again and there are some 56 constants from my own research. This book, ‘The Constants Of Nature’ by theoretical physicist John D. Barrow and although this book is 20 years old, seems to fit the bill and I’ve only just found time to fit into my reading schedule.

It’s hard to believe that it was over 20 years ago that a mistake in measurements resulted in the Mars Orbiter crashing because each side of the team had assumed they had the right measurements. The differences illustrated the difficulty in measurements and what we assume is the norm for each country might not be true in other parts of the world. Things have improved a lot since then and at least to be checked in anything in international cooperation.

There’s also a reminder that this isn’t new. Irish physicist George Johnson Stoney (1826-1911) and later Max Planck (1858-1947) were clearly aware of this with their own equations. It brings things into scale and the problems of measurement. Even metric isn’t totally perfect unless we have the same standard measurements throughout the world. Think of this when we one day have to describe a size to an alien species that they can recognise and this is from Barrow himself. Although that is measurements, we has to consider this when it comes to number constants in formulas.

I should point out that much of the opening chapters is more like a history than looking at specific constants. The focus of the second chapter is on Einstein and the constant of the speed of light and then his seeking out a unified theory that all the forces could be connected to. I’m not sure how Moore’s Law, the number of transistors on a CPU doubling every two years, is applicable, after all it is more an observation than can happen forever. That is why it is the number of CPUs you can have in parallel on a motherboard these days.

I’ll make a confession that this is probably the first time I’ve heard of astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), yet he was a contemporary and friend of Albert Einstein and, more importantly, by recording information in eclipses proved the speed of light for him. Doing this, he established a lot of other constants. Oh, there is also a little matter of the importance of the Eddington number constant 1/137 that will no doubt leave some of you agape at the maths its applied in within quantum mechanics.

The Anthropic Principle, as pointed out in the later part of the eighth chapter, is less about mankind and more about allowing any sort of life in our universe and Brandon Carter, who came up with the name, regrets calling it that. This chapter is the most extensive in the book, pointing out a difference of a decimal point could mean none of us could be here.

I will draw attention to one thing that Barrow raises is why doesn’t the light from the stars we see overhead not spread out and their light fill the sky. That made me have a serious think. We know light travels in straight lines, subject to any deflection by anything getting in the way with a certain amount of gravity, like singularities/black holes. As we only see points of light than streaks across the sky, we’re essentially seeing the tips passing by. But what struck me was the assumption that all starlight goes in one direction.

If we were in a different part of cosmos, allowing for distance, we would still see this starlight passing by in the opposite direction. Therefore there has to be some sort of spread and we don’t see it. So apply a bit of logic and we were behind the stars, assuming they still existed, we would also see the light also going in the opposite direction. Therefore, if we were as far from the stars there as we are here, the constellations should have some similarity to what we see only the nebulas shapes being different and even further away as they aren’t, strictly speaking, not moving just deflecting sunlight. I was intending to contact Barrow to ask about this but a google search revealed he died 3 years ago.

A lot of this book is devoted to astronomical constants than the whole range of them, which means looking around again for another book at some point. Even so, this book showing that there are absolute constants and we need them in scientific formulas we’ve devised based on what we have seen. When we work with any formula, the more information we have, the easier it is to work out the variables we don’t know so they are vitally important. Barrow points out here with proof that even a small number change or decimal point in the wrong place would mean no life in the universe, so don’t under-estimate them.

One of the usual annoying factors of any books written of this nature is the massive number of notes at the back of the book over 45 pages! Some of it is just reference but too much is of importance. As such, I read the chapters and read each chapter notes where needed afterwards or risk getting giddy going backwards and forwards all the time.

I do think you should consider ‘The Constants Of Nature’ as a primer and a history on the subject. The number of them varies depending where you look. 26 or 56, but the latter number contains those on quantum level. They are important and they don’t change. We need them so we need to understand them.

GF Willmetts

February 2023

(pub: Vintage Books, 2003. 352 page illustrated indexed small enlarged paperback. Price:  ISBN: 978-0-099-58647-9)

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