Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe

Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe

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by James D. Stein

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In Cosmic Numbers, mathematics professor James Stein traces the discovery, evolution, and interrelationships of the great numbers that define our world. Some numbers, like the speed of light and absolute zero, are well known to the general public. Others, such as Boltzmann’s constant and the Chandrasekhar limit, are known only to those with a deep…  See more details below


In Cosmic Numbers, mathematics professor James Stein traces the discovery, evolution, and interrelationships of the great numbers that define our world. Some numbers, like the speed of light and absolute zero, are well known to the general public. Others, such as Boltzmann’s constant and the Chandrasekhar limit, are known only to those with a deep knowledge of science. But these numbers do far more than the average person might dare to imagine: they tell us how this world began, the way we were and the way we are, and what the future holds. Stein reveals the manner in which certain cosmic numbers came to light, the dramatis personae involved, and cutting-edge developments associated with these numbers. Many are the cornerstones of grand discoveries and theories. They represent landmarks in the history of intellectual achievement. And the stories of these numbers offer a novel understanding of physics, chemistry, and astronomy.

Much more than a gee-whiz collection, Cosmic Numbers illuminates why particular numbers are so important—both to scientists and to the rest of us.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Cheerful but not dumbed-down....  Every educated reader should know what these numbers mean. Stein casts his net widely, delivering an entertaining history of each, often wandering into areas of science only distantly related but no less worthwhile.”

“In the explanatory power of fundamental numbers, Stein discerns the fundamental harmonies that emerge in the most profound science. Stein teases these harmonies out of their formulas and then weaves them into a broader conceptual fabric…By turns amusing and poignant, Stein’s engaging style eases general readers past their fears of scientific math, while also guiding them into a deeper appreciation of the stubborn human complexities of the scientists behind that mat.... Numbers become portals to mind-expanding questions.”

The Boston Globe
“A brisk, fun ride…Stein is good at extracting drama from the brilliant minds and experiments that fill his book, and it’s impossible to read it without gaping in awe at just how much science got done in the days prior to statistical analysis software and multicore processors.”

New Scientist
“Amid seemingly endless strings of equations, a handful of numbers stand out.  These are the physical constants, numbers that hold their true value in any situation—the unbreakable scaffolding of reality. In Cosmic Numbers, mathematician James Stein offers a tour of some of these constants.... These are numbers we take for granted today, but Stein stresses the lengths people went to determine them.  There is plenty of interesting background too.”
Washington Independent Review of Books
“The author cajoles the reader to enjoy the spirit of discovery with him, keeping a light style of narrative. Nevertheless, Stein does not shy away from introducing mathematical formulae as well as precise descriptions of the science involved, sometimes in a rather condensed form. The nonscientific reader need not be intimidated by these.... This book will appeal to a wide audience of readers who are curious to know more about the discovery of the laws that govern our universe.... [A]n enjoyable and informative read.”
Ian Stewart, author of The Mathematics of Life
“A vivid exploration of today’s science, from the forces that keep our planet in orbit to the origin of the atoms that form our bodies. Clear and concise, easy to read, and enormously informative, Cosmic Numbers relates the stories behind some of the most important numbers in science—where they came from, what they tell us, and how they changed the way we view our world.”
John L. Casti, Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Vienna, and author of Mood Matters, Paradigms Lost, Five Golden Rules, and The Cambridge Quintet
“Most people use numbers like 1, 2, 3 ... to count. But the numbers that really count are the ones described in this book! They tell us why we see the universe we do and not see something else. After reading this very enlightening, informative and entertaining book, you’ll see why some numbers are just a bit more equal than others.”
Leonard Wapner, El Camino College
“We memorized them in our high school science classes. Now Jim Stein teaches us to appreciate nature’s constants by giving us the stories and the personalities behind their discovery. It’s an enjoyable and thought provoking read.”
Paul J. Nahin, author of Number-Crunching and An Imaginary Tale
“It would seem trivially obvious to say all numbers are not equal. Some numbers are especially important, however, not because of mathematics but because of physics. This book discusses the history and ‘use’ of thirteen such numbers, which if only slightly different would make the world we live in a vastly different place—or simply not even possible. After reading James Stein’s Cosmic Numbers you’ll understand why existence itself is ‘in the numbers.’”

The Guardian (UK)
“[Cosmic Numbers] is a story of man’s lust for measurement...and also a persuasive explanation of why it is worth measuring such apparently arcane phenomena very exactly.”

Wall Street Journal
“[O]ur understanding of the universe depends on assuming that constants stay constant. Which is why the slew of digits discussed in James D. Stein’s Cosmic Numbers are so important. These numerical values define reality.... [E]ach constant is more than a numerical value. It unpacks to provide a story, giving historical context to what might otherwise be a dry piece of physics.... In a book about numbers, of course, readers getting lost in thickets of math is always a danger—call it a constant. But Mr. Stein succeeds in guiding us quickly back to the matters of most interest in his rewarding essays on the foundations of the universe.”

San Francisco Book Review
“Great fun.... Stein is a lively teller of this exacting tale of scientific discovery.”

“Stein writes in a manner readily accessible to the uninitiated and liberally sprinkles the book with humor.... Rewards for [readers] lie in the fascinating details about the lives of some of the scientists discussed that are not generally known.”

Publishers Weekly
Cal State professor Stein's "history by the numbers" breathes warm, surprising life into the constants that define the shape, breadth, and scope of our lives and our universe. The stories behind the measurement of scientific values like the speed of light and absolute zero are the history of modern science itself. Each value is a stepping stone to the next: Henry Cavendish's ingenious experiment to reveal the universal gravitational constant led to chemist Robert Boyle's painstaking work, which defined the "Ideal Gas Constant." The speed of light wasn't nailed down until Albert Michelson improved an older, flawed experiment. Later numbers reach deeper into the atom and farther from Earth, like Planck's constant, part of the foundation of quantum theory, which paved the way for understanding nuclear fusion and stellar life cycles. Some numbers we still don't know for certain, like the number called Omega, whose value will determine the eventual fate of our universe. Stein (How Math Can Save Your Life) expertly weaves together math, history, and biography into a thoroughly entertaining story of hard work and discovery. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews

Cheerful but not dumbed-down discussions of 13 fundamental numbers.

Unlike many popular-science writers, Stein (Mathematics/California State Univ., Long Beach; How Math Can Save Your Life, 2010, etc.) does not boast that he avoids math, so readers should remember their high-school algebra. Almost everyone knows that light has a speed and that temperatures can drop to absolute zero. However, no one knew that 500 years ago, and Stein recounts how astronomers (in the case of light) and physicists (for absolute zero) teased out the details. Fundamentals discovered more recently bear the names of their founding geniuses: Planck's constant that began the quantum revolution, Hubble's constant that measures how fast the universe is expanding, the Schwarzschild radius (how to make a black hole; squeezing the Earth to the size of a pea would do it) and the Chandrasekhar limit, which determines if an aging star will go quietly or light up the galaxy in a supernova (our sun is too small to explode). Stein is not shy about explaining the mathematics behind these phenomena at length rarely seen in a popular-science book. Readers who keep a pencil and paper handy will benefit, but those who skim will not regret the experience. While not math-free, the book is illustration-free, so readers should make liberal use of that pencil and paper because many explanations become clearer with a simple diagram.

Every educated reader should know what these numbers mean. Stein casts his net widely, delivering an entertaining history of each, often wandering into areas of science only distantly related but no less worthwhile.

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Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Trade Paper Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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Cosmic Numbers 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Carl_in_Richland More than 1 year ago
I highly recommend this book it to scientists looking to learn more about the human side of the individuals who contributed to understanding and quantifying the 13 ‘Cosmic Numbers’ described in these 13 chapters. Prof. Stein is an excellent writer, combining historical and scientific fact with well argued opinions and a few tangents that make it a fun text. However, I do have two basic issues with ‘Cosmic Numbers’, and one question. My first issue is that there are no figures to illustrate any of the concepts or experiments described in the text. This in turn made it difficult to envision (for example) the torsion balance used by Henry Cavendish to measure the density of the Earth (page 10, and from this, the magnitude of the Gravitational Constant, G), how a beam of light moving on a wall can exceed the speed of light (page 25), or the geometry behind Prof. Stein’s explanation of time dilation (page 176). My second issue was the absence of units in the numerical expressions presented to quantify the magnitude of various phenomenon or values. Writing out these expressions as is done in standard undergraduate workbooks (that is, with units after each number and separating the formulas from the main text) would greatly enhance the ease of reading. Finally, my question is, who is the intended audience? The book jumps in depth from showing step by step algebraic manipulations (page 87) to assuming the reader is familiar with Euler’s number and the functional notation of calculus, e.g., f(r) = er (all within Chapter 8, The Planck Constant). I believe this book would best be appreciated by persons with a technical background, or (better yet) by budding scientists/engineers as a way to learn about the amazing people behind these cosmic numbers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago