Energy is mass times a constant squared. Patient mathematical explainer Barrow (The Book of Nothing, 2001, etc.) delivers a scholarly though always accessible account of the search for that constant—and for great big numbers generally.
The nature of the universe is change, he writes, but underlying that change is a substratum that, comfortingly, remains as solid as bedrock: “a golden thread that weaves a continuity through Nature.” Puzzling out the constants of that continuity has been a generations-long quest for scientists in many disciplines, including quantum mechanics and the physicists now at work on developing a Grand Theory of Everything. Fundamental to this search, explains Barrow (Mathematical Sciences/Cambridge), has been an agreed-upon set of measurements to take the place of the chaotic standards of old. An entertaining aside deals with the ingenious King David I of Scotland, who decreed that the inch “was to be the average drawn from the measurements of the width of the base of the thumbnail of three men: a ‘mekill’ [big] man, a man of ‘messurabel’ [moderate] stature, and a ‘lytell’ [little] man.” That’s quite a mouthful, but not the most difficult of Barrow’s sentences; mercifully, for even the most complex of ideas, the author takes a breath to explain such matters as the Planck barrier and the laws of thermodynamics while tackling such weighty issues as the mechanics of coincidence (using a fine bit of trivia from the life and work of Shakespeare) and the end of life as we know it. All good stuff, as is Barrow’s observation that the number of possible thoughts crammed into the human brain vastly dwarfs the number of atoms in the known universe. That should make us all feel just a little bit smarter.
The innumerate will flee in terror, but those with an interest in mathematical history and the strange magic of numbers should find this a satisfying excursion.