The Constants of Nature

Inherent to the equations that describe the basic laws of nature are a few fundamental constants, including the speed of light, Planck’s constant, and the mass of a proton. John D. Barrow addresses the question of whether or not these fundamental constants remain constant, or vary over time. The consequences could be quite drastic. For example, if the fine structure constant, a measure of the strength of the electromagnetic interaction, were to vary by only one part in a thousand billion, atoms would not form. The fundamental constants of nature seem to be just the right values to support human life in our world.

Based upon the research of Barrow and others in astronomy, the fine structure constant may not be a constant after all, but has increased since the formation of the universe. Some cosmologists also claim that the speed of light has slowed down since the beginning of the universe. Barrow explores what these results might mean for the eventual fate of our universe. It is an intriguing read for anyone interested in the history and future of our universe and our place in it.

As far as shortcomings, lay readers may struggle with some of the equations, as well as descriptions of theoretical physics. Barrow’s prose also tends to be cumbersome and rather difficult to follow in places. To offset the negatives, Barrow includes numerous analogies and examples to aid understanding, as well as many interesting biographical sketches, charts, and graphs. Some of the most exciting aspects of science and their relevance to humankind are addressed and made accessible to a general audience.