Fortean Times, October 2007

New Theories of Everything
John D Barrow
Oxford University Press, 2007
Hb, xii+260, illos, bibl, index, ISBN 978-0-19-280721-2

Barrow, the Cambridge cosmologist and prolific author of highbrow pop-science, here revises his 1990 tome 'Theories of Everything'. Disappointingly, it's not a very thorough revision - while the references include some recent publications, there's only a handful of direct references in the main text to work completed in the past two decades. Unforgiveably, considering the rapid pace of discovery and theoretical development in its subject areas, large parts of the book appear not to have been updated at all - in the first few pages, there's references to the 1800s as 'the last century' and an 'impending golden age of discovery [...] during the early years of the next century'. A graph of evolving computer power culminates in the abortive Cray-3 of the late 1980s, and a theory that Lee Smolin 'provided a few years ago' actually dates from 1984.

Such slips destroy any confidence in the book's promise to describe 'the newest developments' in physics. That's a real shame, as the original book deserves a thorough updating. Barrow gives a decent and wide-ranging introduction to some of the biggest questions in science, without shying from the philosophical questions that inevitably arise as physics shades into metaphysics.

Although a 'Theory of Everything' is often painted as the Holy Grail of modern physics, Barrow argues that a single equation or theory unifying all the known forces and completely specifying the defining qualities of the universe, even if it could be formulated or understood by man, really wouldn't be all that important. Such a reductionist approach is only of interest at the extremes of scale - at the sub-atomic and super-galactic levels - rather than the 'squalid-state' physics of the human scale.

But while there's plenty of food for thought here, it's a barely reheated meal of rather old meat. I would urge the book's publishers to put a little more effort into the paperback edition.