Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am


Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe
by James D. Stein
Basic Books

The common impression of a scientist is that of a lab coat-wearing boffin in a laboratory. But much of the science that is done today is theoretical. Physicists generally work out their theories by using advanced mathematics. Theories then have to be tested by experimentation. But today, the maths tends to come first.

Cosmic Numbers is about the maths behind the science. Written by James Stein, a physicist, it's a history of important formulas, equations and mathematical proofs. The book aims to be 'an outline of the history of science as exemplified by the numbers'. Stein looks at important steps forward in physics and explains the mathematics behind them.

Most of the time, mathematical ideas can only be explained by using mathematics. Stein tries hard to use words. The reader does not have to be a maths expert to understand this book. Stein uses everyday analogies to explain the meaning of the numbers.

Some of the theories Stein explains really are cosmic, as they deal with the universe and everything in it. Others are more down to earth, like the principles behind plastic. Stein begins with Sir Isaac Newton - a good place to start, as Newton was a mathematician and a scientist. The work Newton did on calculus in his treatise Principia Mathematica enabled him to solve many scientific problems. His maths had far-reaching implications for the development of science.

Stein then tells the history of the maths behind important discoveries in physics. Few will know much about the maths that underpins the great scientific discoveries. The book shows science in a different light, focusing on the theory rather than the experiments. Topics covered range from John Dalton's discovery that the physical world is composed of atoms to various attempts to measure the speed of light.

There are a number of thought-provoking ideas in the book. A chapter entitled Absolute Zero details the search for the ultimate limit to cold. The final section, Omega, deals with the theory of the Big Bang, the mechanics of which are still hotly debated by scientists today.