12 October 2007

the book of nothing

ADDENDUM: Amazon link. This was supposed to be in the title link, but didn't show up for some reason. Sorry!
I picked up this book a few years back, and it sat gathering dust on my shelf for a while, which is a pity. It's a very good read. It's about the idea of zero, and correspondingly the idea of "nothing" and the vacuum. Roughly the first five chapters are historical examinations of zero, the ether and the vacuum, especially philosophical arguments against the existence of nothing. The last four chapters move us into the twentieth century, and become gradually more technical. A big theme is Einstein's "cosmological constant," which I don't remember hearing described as "vacuum pressure" before. There's also a lot of discussion about the "Big Bang" and how the properties of the vacuum itself determine the properties of the observable universe. Barrow doesn't go into a lot of...calculational detail here, but the ideas themselves are fairly technical, and not necessarily easy to follow.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that this is primarily a book about ideas. It's not a text book. Barrow engages in some speculation, but clearly labels it as such. The history of zero itself is fascinating in its own right. Also, I think this is the very first time I've seen a book discuss what the cosmological constant actually means. I'd recommend the first half of the book to just about anyone with an interest. For the second half, if you don't already have some familiarity with quantum physics and big bang cosmology, you're likely to feel a bit lost.

PS: You can't escape from an old earth by trying to mess with c and rates of radioactive decay. Anyone wishing to argue about the age of the universe, go to talkorigins and make sure your argument hasn't already been refuted ad infinitum.

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