Monday, 10 November 2008

New Theories of Everything – John D. Barrow ****

Could this be the only science book you will ever need to read? After all it is, in effect, trying to assemble an explanation for life, the universe and everything. Those who worry about unweaving the rainbow will perhaps gain some solace in Barrow’s penultimate sentence in the book. ‘No Theory of everything can ever provide total insight.’ I’ll leave you to read the book to discover the punchline.
This is a brave effort from Barrow to break of all of science down to universals, not in the sense of exploring current thinking in every branch of science, but rather pulling apart the tools that science uses – as he calls it, the eightfold way – and getting a better understanding of the insights that everything from an understanding of symmetry to the nature of universal constants brings us. Along the way, he merrily weaves in an impressive range of associations and concepts that will help in the big picture.
I confess I don’t agree entirely with one of the key axioms that leads to Barrow’s description. He says that … we recognize science to be the search for algorithmic compressions. We list sequences of observed data. We try to formulate algorithms that compactly repesent the information content of those sequences. Then we test the correctness of our hypothetical abbreviations by using them to predict the next terms in the string. These predictions can then be compared with the future direction of the data sequence. Without the development of algorithmic compressions of data, all science would be replaced by mindless stamp collecting – the indiscriminate accumulation of every available fact. While there is plenty of truth in this statement, it seems to miss the real big picture explanatory/sense of wonder aspects of science, limiting it to either stamp collecting (information gathering) or reducing numbers to rules that generate those numbers. It’s no surprise that Barrow is a proponent of the ‘it from bit’ concept that considers the whole universe as, in effect, a vast computer program.
The writing style is probably not for everyone. I was a little unnerved by Barrow’s use of the first person plural (‘it is our intention…’) and in general the feel is something between a university lecture and Radio Four’s ‘In our Time.’ Not a bad thing per se, but at the distancing end of popular science. Even so, this is a powerful book and one that repays the indubitable effort required to read it with some intriguing insights.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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