The Artful Universe

THE ARTFUL UNIVERSE is a stimulating book for sophisticated readers interested in the interactions between physical phenomena and various facets of life. Barrow illuminates scores of fundamental concepts; many of these ideas will seem novel even to educated readers, but their logic is usually obvious once explained.

Like the book’s title, chapter headings and subheadings are more poetic than explanatory. The book might have been dubbed WHY WE ARE THE WAY WE ARE. Chapters focus on the process of evolution; the limitations of size and ecological environment; the molding of life by natural forces, solar system geometry, and terrestrial geography; and the interplay of the senses of sight and hearing with light and sound. The bearing astronomy has on religion and social conventions is discussed.

Barrow gives a long view of the development of human body structure, but deals less comprehensively with the impact of that structure on the nuances of behavior. He overgeneralizes about the aesthetics of art and music, and he deliberately minimizes the complexities of personal and social interactions. His final lesson, however, emphasizes the need for reconciliation between the patterns and universality recognized by the sciences and the attention to diversity and unpredictability by the humanities.

The book presents instructive overviews of such controversies as the Chomsky vs. Piaget debate about language. The author sometimes takes sides or states conclusions without citing specific data. Citations are given for the figures, tables, and color plates, but the text is backed up only by a bibliography at the end, organized by chapter subheadings.

This is not easy reading—occasionally the text is tortuous and the take-home message buried. The author takes some interesting, but only obliquely pertinent sidetracks. Some of the most engaging extrapolations deal with the possible characteristics of extraterrestrial life. Overall, THE ARTFUL UNIVERSE can be thought provoking for those whose appetites were whetted by more simplistic, but perhaps more palatable, popular science books and television programs.