Non-Fiction Reviews

New Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation

(2007) John Barrow, Oxford University Press, 16.99 / US$29.95, hrdbk, 260 pp, ISBN 978-0-192-8-0721-2


Every half decade or so hard SF readers, and indeed SF writers, require an update overview of the latest science. Of course which science depends on individuals' interests but among these physics including cosmology is surely one of the core areas with which one needs to keep abreast of current thinking. The good news for both those who enjoy hard SF (which is underpinned by science), as well as science itself, is that science is developing ever faster due to the compound effect of increased numbers of scientists and their access to improved diagnostics and analytical computation let alone the synergistic effect of the implications of new research with the growing accumulation of existing knowledge to date. With The New Theories of Everything John Barrow provides such an updating overview with regards to the disciplines of physics and cosmology writ big.

The New Theories of Everything covers topics such as time, quantum time, big bang, physics constants, symmetry (and of course broken symmetry), organization (including computation, and some maths. John Barrow (whose inside cover flap picture must surely be a little out of date?) is well known for coming up with ideas and presenting them in a way that science buffs can easily digest them. Arguably he is probably best known outside of his academic arena (Cambridge University (UK)) for his work with Frank Tipler on The Anthropic Cosmological Principle: the idea that biological intelligence came about because of the way the Universe is and which may actually go on to determine the nature of the Universe. The New Theories of Everything is all that you would expect from someone with such a pedigree.

However, this is a book for those with an existing interest in science and not for beginners who will find the contents too rich a diet. Please also note that I have reviewed this book very much as a science buff's update resource: a purpose for which it is most suited. What I have not done is concentrate on the book's self-proclaimed sub-title goal of charting our quest for the 'ultimate explanation'. True there are some interesting pages on creation myths, religion and ponderings on big questions as well as -- it has to be said -- silly big questions such as is the Universe a computer: 'silly' because we can't begin to meaningfully address such issues and so you would probably get more mileage here out of a good hard SF novel. This silly-big-question-thing is something Barrow has done in the past nd I am not really sure how useful it is other than it may help sell his books, but if so it is shame that the media and/or readers need such sugar-coating: empty calories aren't much good. So do not buy The New Theories of Everything as a guide to the ultimate explanation, but do get it as a useful physics and 'big cosmology' refresher. Along the way the SF and science buff will come across some interesting possibilities. One that sprung out to me (because I happened to be reading a related book at the time) was that we may possibly get human equivalent intelligence in a super computer shortly after 2010 and some form of AI on home PCs in the 2030s if current (past six decades) trends hold.

Fascinating stuff.

Jonathan Cowie

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