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Conjuring the Universe: The Origins of the Laws of Nature

Peter Atkins
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Richard J. Wilders
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Conjuring the Universe was a joy to read! It is a funny, impassioned, erudite summing up of one person’s ruminations on reality over the course of a lifetime. Peter Atkins is a retired physical chemist who has written a short (168 pages) book about how the universe and its laws came to be. Atkins spins a fine tale starting with the big bang and proceeding at a necessarily rapid pace to our present mathematically based understanding of how the universe works. His argument is, at base, that the universe is supremely rational — obeying laws which spring naturally from its origin as, well, nothing. It is that rationality which allows us to use mathematics to understand what’s going on.

Atkins argues that both math and the universe arose from nothing. Contrary to the well-known claim that “God created the natural numbers and all the rest is the work of man” Atkins makes a solid argument that all of mathematics emerges naturally from counting things. Likewise, the laws of the universe (in particular the many conservation laws) follow naturally from its original state of nothingness. His discussion of the conservation laws is the best non-technical explanation I have read — a real tour de force.

All of the math is contained in the notes, making Conjuring accessible to readers with limited mathematical knowledge. For those who do understand the math, the notes fill in details and make his case more compelling. I found myself peeking at the notes on a regular basis — in every case I came away more convinced of the cogency of his argument.

This is the sort of book you should share with a bright middle or high school student. Or with your humanities colleague who thinks it’s not possible (or worthwhile) for non-math folk to keep up with current cosmology. This would be a wonderful book for a first-year college seminar (along with others) and would, I am certain, elicit lots of interest and discussion.

Richard Wilders is Marie and Bernice Gantzert Professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at North Central College in Naperville, IL. He has taught courses in the history of science and of mathematics for over 25 years.

1. Back to eternity
2. Much ado about nothing
3. Anarchy rules
4. The heat of the moment
5. Beyond anacrhy
6. The creative power of ignorance
7. The charge of the light brigade
8. Measure for measure
9. The cry from the depths