( 2018 ) Peter Atkins, Oxford University Press, £14.99 / US$19.95, pbk, vi+ 187pp, ISBN 978-0-198-81337-8
One fundamental question that has crossed many – possibly yours given you are reading this – in our more philosophical moments is what is it all about: life, the Universe and everything? Here, it has been suggested that the answer is '42', but perhaps a more meaningful response might be welcome. While chemist Peter Atkins might not be giving us the answer we seek, or even as full an answer as we might like, he does present a coherent case as to why the Universe (or is it universe if there is a Multiverse?) is the way it is. What is remarkable is that he does so in under 170 pages (there is an additional section of notes and an index).
What Peter has, for very much the most part, is to provide a series of statement that are stepping stones with explanations in between, that lead to an inexorable conclusion that our universe is the way it is because it sprang if not from nothing but a singular event of little note other than it almost inescapably and logically lead to where we find ourselves today. His contention (given early on in the book) is that not much happened with The Big Bang. Given this, and some basic, logical axioms, and practically unavoidably we get the universe in which we find ourselves.
Now, this thesis may seem to be somewhat astounding but – and if your flabber was not already gasted prepare now – he does this exploration of physics without the use of equations albeit that there are reference to these in the notes section at the book's back. For the very much the large part, each stepping stone follows its predecessor in a logical, not too difficult to understand way. Having said that there are a couple or so 'trust me on this' moments but fortunately these are only very occasionally used get-out-of-jail cards; for the most part there is a logical chain.
In essence, and indeed if this book had not been called Conjuring the Universe, this book is about the interconnectedness of science: how it is all inextricably interrelated to make up a whole that literally is the whole universe.
This is no mean feat. I wish I could say that it is an entirely easy read: readers after the introduction and first chapter cannot rush if they are to properly digest Atkins message. But a thoughtful reading will be rewarding. Technically, because of the absence of equations in the main text, this book should be accessible to everyone but I suspect that it is mainly the proverbial New Scientist magazine type readers who will get the most out of this work. Having said that, unarguably this book should be on the reading lists of philosophy degree courses, and anyone seriously wondering as to what it is all about will benefit.
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