Oxford University Press
April 4, 1991
In books such as The World within the World and The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, astronomer John Barrow has emerged as a leading writer on our efforts to understand the universe. Timothy Ferris, writing in The Times Literary Supplement of London, described him as “a temperate and accomplished humanist, scientist, and philosopher of science – a man out to make a contribution, not a show.” Now Barrow offers the general reader another fascinating look at modern physics, as he explores the quest for a single, unifying theory that will unlock nature’s secrets.
Theories of Everything is more than a history of science, more than a popular report on recent research and discoveries. Barrow provides a reflective, intelligent commentary on what a true Theory of Everything would be – its ingredients, its limitations, and what it could tell us about the universe. Never before, he writes, have physicists been so confident and so eager in the hunt for this “cosmic Rosetta Stone,” as he calls it: “a single all-embracing picture of all the laws of nature from which the inevitability of all things seen must follow with unimpeachable logic.” He lays out eight essential ingredients for a Theory of Everything and then explores each in turn, tracing how our knowledge has developed and how scientific discovery relates to our changing philosophy and religious thought in each area. Some of these ingredients are obvious – the laws of nature must be explained, for example, as well as its organizing principles – but others may be surprising, such as broken symmetries and selection biases. A Theory of Everything must account for the fact that the universe is “messy and complicated,” he tells us, and for the limitations imposed by the questions we ask and the information we can obtain. The key lies in the remarkable capacity of mathematics to express the fundamental workings of the physical world – a language that the human mind is uniquely equipped to understand and manipulate. Barrow examines what mathematics actually is and describes how it makes the universe intelligible and provides a path to the underlying coherence and nature – which has led, in fact, to arguments that the universe itself is a vast computer. It even the most complete theory, even the most comprehensive mathematical explanation, cannot account for the uncomputable varieties of human experience and thought. “No non-poetic account of reality,” he writes, “can be complete.”
In a field where the authorities converse in equations and mathematical notations, John Barrow speaks with the voice of a thoughtful and knowledgeable humanist. Written with eloquence and expertise, Theories of Everything establishes a new perspective on humanity’s efforts to explain the universe.
John D. Barrow is Professor of astronomy at the University of Sussex, England, and is the author of The World Within the World, and, with Frank Tipler, of The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.