Elegant, learned, and far more accessible than much scientific discourse.

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THE BOOK OF NOTHING

VACUUMS, VOIDS, AND THE LATEST IDEAS ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF THE UNIVERSE

Much ado about, well, nothing.

Cambridge mathematician Barrow (Pi in the Sky, 1992, etc.) has established a reputation as a lucid explicator of difficult numerical and cosmological problems. Here he turns to some of the most difficult of all, at least insofar as lesser minds can grasp: nothingness. His narrative begins, simply enough, with the development of the idea of zero in several mathematical traditions, including the Mayan, Babylonian, and Indian. These independent inventions, which early generations of scholars took to be proof of cultural contacts in antiquity, developed naturally, Barrow maintains, out of positional or place-value numbering systems. “Once a positional system is introduced,” he writes, “it is only a matter of time before a zero symbol follows.” Zero is altogether too simple for the world because, as the author points out, it cannot encompass the relative degrees of nothingness that more recent physics have postulated; for that, we need “other null mathematical entities” that embrace the concept of a set that has no numbers within it, and here and hereafter Barrow’s lightly borne argument takes a somewhat more technical turn, leading into still more difficult concepts of quantum physics, many having to do with the origin and ultimate end of the universe. His depiction of that inevitable end, when everything slides gently into the vacuum that nature supposedly abhors and when new laws of physics override the ones we know, is intriguing—and quite beautiful. Still, readers with little background in mathematics will have their work cut out for them in following the author’s analysis—an effort that the author amply repays.

Elegant, learned, and far more accessible than much scientific discourse.

Pub Date: April 12, 2001

ISBN: 0-375-42099-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2001

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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