book review

The Comprehensible Cosmos
Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From?
Victor J. Stenger, Prometheus Books, 2006, 340 pages
Reviewed By

S omehow I had gotten the idea that this book included some novel explanation of why the physical constants have the values that they do. That's not the case. This book is nothing more than a very basic introduction to cosmology and quantum electrodynamics for nonscientists.

Stenger's main point is that the laws of physics, although perhaps related in some way to things that are objectively real, are dependent on the instrumentation used to measure them. However, this is only true in the most trivial sense. There have been many cases where two physicists, starting from quite different sets of observations, derived what appeared to be contradictory theories that were later shown to be mathematically equivalent. While no one can say that all theories accurately represent an underlying reality, there can be little doubt that, when the theory is correct, objects in nature do follow the laws that describe them. An example of this is the so-called wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics. It is certainly true that we humans have great difficulty grasping how something can be both a particle and a wave. It is also true that we can measure wavelike behavior or particle-like behavior depending on our experimental setup. That does not, however, mean that our the laws of physics are in any way dependent on how subatomic particles are measured. Quite the contrary. It is only the limited ability of our minds to grasp the true nature of subatomic particles.

When you actually read what Stenger writes, it's clear he's well aware of this. In fact, the entire thesis in this book is not a new view of physics, but only clever philosophical wordplay. Take electromagnetic radiation, for example. We may not understand it completely, but no one doubts that it follows the laws that describe its behavior. How could it do otherwise? The instrumentalist viewpoint put forth in this book is not new, but Stenger's way of expressing it invites misinterpretation by nonscientists, and in particular, postmodernists and creationists, who will grasp at any perceived weakness to attack science.

The book jacket also says that Stenger gives an explanation of "why there is something instead of nothing." If this were true, Stenger would get the fastest Nobel Prize in history. Needless to say, there is no such explanation in this book. Yes, there are speculative theories out there about matter having an unstable symmetrical phase in which there is no net mass. But even if that theory turns out to be correct, that state is not 'nothingness'.

The latter 131 pages consist of appendices that explain some of the mathematics used in physics. This book would be interesting, and maybe even exciting, for someone with a general background who wants to learn about physics. But books like this drive scientists up a wall.