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Review - The Artful Universe Expanded - John D. Barrow  

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Every now and then a scientist tries to pull the world of the arts into unity with the scientific universe. Occasionally it sort of works, even though the outcome may be mind-boggling (see, for instance, Gödel, Escher Bach). More often, though - and it's probably the case here - the result is confused and doesn't really benefit anyone.

In this revised version of his 1996 The Artful Universe, John D. Barrow meanders around different aspects of our environment, evolution and universe and how these might have impacted our tendencies to the creative arts. There's a lack of structure, and worse it often doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

Sometimes statements in the book are just odd. Barrow observes "To see something we need to expose it to a light of wavelength similar to its size." If this was actually true, to see something a few centimetres long we need to have eyes that were sensitive to microwaves. Bizarre.

Although much of the writing is approachable, unfortunately Barrow does tend to the pompous every now and then. He also has a tendency to make long statements without any real conclusions. He spends, for example, several pages telling us the universe might be a simulation a la Matrix. And? Well there is no and. It just might be a simulation. It also might have been sneezed into existence, as some race or other believes in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

There's also a tendency to the big is beautiful school of popular science writing. It's a chunky book, which to some extent it owes to sections like the one on the relative sizing of different objects from atoms to galaxies, which goes on for page after page, when all it really says is "everything material is made of atoms, so not surprisingly everything fits on a rough volume/density line".

The idea isn't a bad one, but this isn't the right implementation.

Only in hardback.

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007