The Constants of Nature
Oct 25 2002 @ 01:45 by Tormod Guldvog
After years of recycling old ideas and essays, one of the finest British cosmologists have finally come up with a refreshingly good book which questions the constancy of the underlying forces of our Universe.
How can the constants of nature be changing? Is not a constant something that doesn?t change? It may come down to a semantic question, after all. In this book, Barrow shows that there is a difference between what we perceive as the ?laws of nature?, as compared to the values that dictate those laws, the ?constants of nature?.
Nothing stays the same
The laws of nature are deductions made by humans as we discover more and more fundamental truths about our Universe. Take Newton?s second law of motion, F=ma, and it will hold true in just about any situation, anywhere in the Universe. But what about the speed of light? Recently, some cosmologists have argued that the speed of light has been slowing down since the early days of the Universe. Observations like this can wreak havoc on modern physics and make the ivory towers tumble.
The alpha constant, which is a measure of the electromagnetic forces which binds together the smallest constituents of matter, has an observed value of (approximately) 1/137. If this value was smaller or larger by only one part in a thousand billon, atoms would never form, and the Universe as we know it would not have developed to what it is today.
Why is this constant so extremely fine-tuned? That is one of the fundamental questions in this book. But that this constant may not be so constant after all is perhaps the largest surprise. And Barrow backs up his claim with research done by himself and a group of cosmologists in the past years.
A visit to the Anthropic Principle
As with all his books, Barrow shows a genuine talent for writing in a prose-like style, which should appeal to both laymen and scientists. He has this uncanny knack for presenting difficult topics in a very understandable way, and although there are some formulas and terms that may be hard to grasp, this does not weaken this book in any way. It is also refreshing to see a down-to-earth explanation of the various "anthropic principles", something that helps understand the background Barrow has when he makes his observations (?The anthropic principle?, co-written with Frank J. Tipler, was Barrow?s first book).
That the constants of nature may be varying is indeed an intriguing prospect. Barrow is neither the first nor the most revolutionising researcher in this field, but I dare say he is the best writer and communicator. With ?The Constants of Nature?, John D. Barrow goes a step further from his usual philosopher's view and takes on the guise of the scientist, which indeed he has every reason to (considering he is one of Britains most famous astrophysicists).
From Numerology to Cosmology
One of the best things about reading Barrow is his excellent use of examples from every aspect of science. Here are numerology excercises to show how a constant can appear in almost any form and shape. Mathematical wizardry which reveals ways to create false constants. Charts and graphs which show how incredibly lucky we are to live in this Universe, in this place and time, and how unlike it would be that we should find ourselves to be anywhere else at any other time.
The cosmology community needs more than Hawkings and Sagans to bring their research out into the open - they also need writers like John D. Barrow, who takes on the more difficult aspects of our Universe and turn them into readable material.
This book may not be for everyone, but if you have the slightest interest in our Universe, its history and future, and not least our place in it, this book is a must-have.