Fortean Times, November 2000

The universe that discovered itself
John D Barrow
Oxford: Oxford University Press
pb, 8.99, index, illus, bib. ISDN 0-19-286200-6

Are laws of nature something we discover or something we invent? It's a question that Cambridge cosmologist John Barrow explored in his 1988 book The World Within the World, now revised and updated as The Universe that Discovered Itself.

After a potted history of the development of the scientific way of thinking and an comprehensive account of modern physics, Barrow asks the obvious yet too often unasked question - why does science (specifically physics) work so well? To put it another way, why does the universe appear to be mathematical?

One possibility is that it's part of the human tendancy to see patterns where there aren't any, as with the infamous Martian canals. This is a difficult position to maintain, however, as at deeper levels the mathematics are anything but intuitive. The appearance of order is only apparent at the extremes of scale - interactions between two objects can be modelled, but three-body systems, let alone anything more, are almost proverbially difficult to model.

At the other extreme, chaotic systems containing many millions or billions of objects can be modelled with almost alarming precision through statistics. It's the in-between world of partial disorder that is so difficult to describe - the world, I can't help thinking, where fortean phenomena dwell.

Barrow has produced a dense but highly readable introduction to the perhaps unanswerable questions at the boundaries of science, and a book that can equally serves to stretch your own mental horizons or to deflate the certitude of the scientific triumphalist.