Cosmic Numbers

For my generation, the gold standard of popular science writing was always Isaac Asimov. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, erudite but layman-friendly books on scientific topics were much scarcer than in this current Golden Age, populated by such giants as Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, Richard Dawkins, and Roger Penrose. So when Asimov began his column of scientific journalism in 1958 in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — a feature that was to last for almost thirty-five years, until his death in 1992 — and thereafter commenced to issue a steady stream of books on a near-infinity of topics, he found an eager audience that adopted him as their helmsman. Jovial, witty, down-to-earth, omniscient, wide-ranging, skeptical, scrupulous, meticulous, and speculative, Asimov always delivered essays that did not so much hold the reader’s hand as shine a light ahead while he encouraged you to follow in his bold and brave footsteps. Consequently, for me to assert that a living writer possesses Asimov’s virtues is to offer high praise indeed.

And that’s just the compliment I intend to confer on James D. Stein and his book Cosmic Numbers. Stein exhibits the same avuncular hospitality as Asimov, the same tight focus and clarity; the same ability to render the most abstruse theories and data comprehensible (often with sharp metaphors); and the same dedication to illuminating science’s rational, step-by-step progress through the hierarchy of knowledge.

Stein’s latest volume is devoted to thirteen key constants or foundational parameters of the universe, the cosmic numbers of his title and the theories that support them. His intent is to explain how science derived them, and the role they play in current research. (“From a practical standpoint, more complete scientific theories are advantageous for a number of reasons, not the least being that they suggest new technology.”) Along the way we’ll be treated to anecdotes from the lives of scientists, Stein’s personal sentiments about his subjects, and some perceptive societal aperçus.

Certainly the most familiar of these mathematical entities is the speed of light, the theme of Stein’s second chapter. (He presents these constants more or less in the order of their discovery.) After using musicians Jim Morrison and Bob Seger as conversational openers, Stein digs down into the nitty-gritty of what Galileo first deduced, follows it up with mid-nineteenth-century experiments of Fizeau and Foucault, then culminates with a lively account of the definitive “discoverer,” Albert Michelson, concluding with some insightful observations about Michelson’s character and an equation-packed thought experiment for the reader.

This template is maintained, mutatis mutandis, through discussions of absolute zero, the Planck Constant, the Schwarzschild Radius, the Hubble Constant and the other hidden foundation garments that contour an attractive universe. (One metaphysical controversy that Stein perhaps wisely avoids is the “anthropic principle,” which tries to find in these numbers, so curiously suitable for human life, a guide to the possible nature of a multiverse.)

Stein is careful not to make his history read like a flawless march of insight by superhuman geniuses. He shows us the false starts and dead ends, misunderstandings and failed conceptions that litter the path of discovery, all enacted by striving, fallible human beings. And his chapters are not isolated units, but interlocked bricks in a seamless structure. Learning about the birth of the periodic table of elements in the chapter about Avogadro’s Number helps the reader to understand the importance of technetium in the chapter on Schwarzschild’s Radius.

Stein’s final section — on Omega, the number that determines whether we lived in a closed or open-ended universe — concludes wistfully with some musings on mortality. “Some things simply have to come to an end…. This book. Its author. Life. I can accept all those — but not the end of the universe.” This continuous questing for knowledge was another of Asimov’s motifs, and Stein does his predecessor and himself much honor by carrying the tradition forward.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.