Review: Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe


Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe
Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe by Ian Stewart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t recommend this book for everyone, but it was a perfect fit for me. The last time I read a physics/astronomy book that taught me profound new things was Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace. While I can definitely recommend Kaku’s work for anyone, this book was more technical. I would say it speaks to a graduate level audience in either math, physics, or astronomy. While these aren’t my areas professionally, I am passionately interested in them, so this book spoke my language. Every chapter took a subject with which I was familiar and laid out a laundry list of all the things I didn’t know about it, and all the underlying assumptions that aren’t set in concrete. I was floored to read about the subtleties and intricate structures within Saturn’s rings, for example, a treasure trove of lessons from Mother Earth about how gravity works, and far from settled science. I was equally exhilarated to hear doubts about what Stewart calls “bolt-ons” to the Big Bang theory: Inflation, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy. Not because I don’t want to “believe in them,” whatever that means in a scientific context, but because they are so counter intuitive they cry out for either a better explanation or some measured degree of doubt.

The greatest lesson of the book is that science is always provisional. Every theory we have (even the seemingly settled, orthodox ones) are only as good as the observations they match. And every theory we have really only matches 98% of observations. Science is a continual process of improvement and the occasional overhaul. It’s a great pleasure to read an author with both expertise and humility, who can illuminate while at the same time casting doubt.

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