Non-Fiction Reviews

Conjuring the Universe
The origins of the laws of nature

(2018) Peter Atkins, Oxford University Press, 9.99 / Can$21.00 / US$12.95, pbk, vi + 187pp, ISBN 978-0-198-81338-5


One of the commonalities between science and science fiction is that they both tackle big questions. One of the biggest is undoubtedly life, the Universe and everything to which SF has provided myriad answers, and not least of them is '42'.  Though you (if not the mice) might find that two-digit answer somewhat less than satisfactory.  However do not despair as Peter Atkins in Conjuring the Universe has provided a better but not he himself admits perfect answer.

Specifically in Conjuring the Universe (paperback just out in 2020) he asks what happened at the moment of the Big Bang, the moment of Creation?  His answer, he summarises in chapter one, is 'not much'.

Now, this might at first seem as unsatisfactory as Douglas Adams' '42' and, at this, his pan-dimensional mice might again seek to build another supercomputer to come up with something a tad more meaningful.  Yet actually Peter Atkins makes a fair fist of the rest of his book arguing his case that really at the moment of Creation not much happened.

In essence, his case is this.  A few basic axioms generate fundamental rules (of physics) and (in the final chapter) mathematics from which automatically everything in the Universe springs: it gives us chemistry, hence biology, hence sociology and civilisation.

To his immense credit, and many potential readers' relief, he keeps clear of equations other than the very simplest (such as '2 + 3') and delegates the heavier maths and algebra to the chapter notes in the book's appendices.  This helps makes the text understandable for those who consider mathematics an unscalable cliff.

Much of the actual benefit of Conjuring the Universe is the actual journey, not the destination, Atkins takes us on; which is basically a whistle-stop tour of science's fundamental founding stones, albeit a tour that continually refers back to what happened at the moment of creation.  And this most certainly a whistle-stop tour as the book novella-length at under 200 pages -- is not long.

The author's contention that not much happened at the moment of creation is difficult to convey in a short review but I will try with just two illustrative examples. The first is that the Universe has zero net electrostatic charge: it is neither net positive nor net negative; the charge of positive protons is perfectly cancelled by the number of negatively charged electrons.  Therefore the Universe at the moment of Creation similarly had zero net charge and so really not much has changed.

The second, that things might be simpler than they seem if we converted the fundamental constants of physics to equal 1.  For example, the speed of light might be simplified to equalling 1 if it is considered in terms of the speed of one light year per year: 1/1 = 1.  In these terms E = mc² becomes E = m1² or just E = m

This last betrays some of the logical contortions Peter Atkins occasionally employs.  Seasoned scientists may see the trick a dimensions hack but such notions are still intellectually fun and one finds it hard not to warm to the author's basic conjecture.

Along the way there is much for even a vaguely well read scientist to discover:  I never knew that originally the Celsius temperature scale was originally reversed.

All this is lubricated by Peter Atkins turn of phrase that betrays a certain wit and charm. This eases the digestion of some fairly erudite, if not (even without the maths in the main text) heady, discussion.  So that by the end of the book the reader is likely to be seduced into thinking that indeed not much did happen at the moment of Creation and that perhaps in the future, with further science knowledge under our belt, we might even come to realise that perhaps nothing at all happened!  It is an intriguing notion.

I should say that Peter Atkins a physical chemist unashamedly champions physics and molecular approaches.  I would not have a problem with that per se were it not that he on occasion is somewhat backhandedly dismissive of the biological sciences.  At one point he even comes somewhat Sheldon Cooper-ish stating that biology 'was largely nature walks until 1953' and the elucidation of the structure of DNA.  It is a somewhat patronising comment that puts the likes of Mendel, Pasteur and Snow (I could go on and on) firmly in their place, let alone achievements such as, say, agricultural biologists' Green Revolution (and much else).  Indeed, Atkins use of 'nature walks' here is itself dismissive: outdoors is biologists' living laboratory and, for instance, Darwin and Wallace got a fair bit out of theirs.  In this debate I am firmly with Amy Farrah Fowler: Atkins is a living creature best comprehended by biologists so, ipso facto prior in the ordo cognoscendi, I subsume his paradigm into mine.

Don't let the above put you off: it is a transient aberration.

At the end of the day, Peter Atkins makes an interesting case.  Perhaps the answer to life the Universe and everything is not 42 but closer to nothing?  Either way, Conjuring the Universe is fascinating book that, despite being short, warrants a slow careful read.  Further, for those with A-level (British pre-university qualification) science (or equivalents in other countries) the appendices of notes provide welcome detail to mine.

With Conjuring the Universe, Atkins has gone where Douglas Adams and Deep Thought could not in a magical, logical, mystery tour of science's mathematical, philosophical bedrock.

Peter Wyndham


PS. Having read Conjuring the Universe and enjoyed the ride, you might want to re-centre yourself.  If so head over to YouTube and check out PBS Space Time's 'Did Time Start at the Big Bang' and 'What Happened Before the Big Bang?' episodes.


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