Book review: The Constants of Nature

I picked up this book, which is authored by Cambridge’s John Barrow, from a second-hand bookshop in a wonderful little Vietnamese city called Hoi An. It was one of only two popular science books that I found and bought in Randy’s Book Xchange, but this bookshop-cum-house and its equally interesting American expatriate owner would have made the hazardous bike ride to get there worthwhile even without my two purchases.

As for the book, I suspect that its key points could be summarised in a terse two-page discussion article. The unnecessary repetitiveness of particular ideas and analogies made it more of a struggle to finish than it should have been. Also, the abundance of errors in this book, detailed in another review, were a further source of irritation.

The basic idea is interesting: what are the constants of nature and are they actually constant? However, for its lack of breadth, I think that there could have been more depth either in biographical or physical details. Alas, popular science books are designed for mass, spoon-fed consumption and perhaps therein lies the source of this criticism.

Near the end of the book Barrow spends some time discussing his research related to measuring variations in the fine structure constant through astrophysical observations. He claims to have measured, with Victor Flambaum and other collaborators, a statistically significant nonzero variation in the fine structure constant that is equal to, if I recall correctly, a few parts in a million over the lifetime of the universe. I’m not sure if these measurements have found an alternative explanation in the 11 years since the book was published–I spoke to Flambaum at the University of New South Wales last year and he seemed to still be very much interested in this line of research–but from an aesthetic point of view I find such tiny variations to be ugly and I predict (or possibly retrodict) them to be due to some form of bias. Such aesthetic considerations aren’t always the most important–the ‘unnatural’ smallness of the observed cosmological constant being an apt example–and so this research might be something to keep half-an-eye on.


One thought on “Book review: The Constants of Nature

  1. I just saw this 2011 paper,, by the UNSW group. They claim to have measured the fine structure constant to be higher in the past in a certain direction, which contrasts with their earlier measurements–obtained from quasar observations in a different part of the sky–of a fine structure constant that was smaller in the past. So now the claim is that there are, as per the paper’s title, “Indications of a Spatial Variation of the Fine Structure Constant”. The authors are very careful to be skeptical of their own results, noting clearly that: “the pattern could be due to as yet undetected systematic effects”. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

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