With unprecedented access to some of the world's greatest scientific minds, Farmelo offers a behind-the-scenes account of the blossoming relationship between mathematics and physics and the research that could revolutionize our understanding of the fundamental laws of nature.
Farmelo deftly retraces the growing realisation that maths can unlock understanding of real phenomena ... He is a bit of devotee – of the man and of his 'principle of mathematical beauty', that theorists should heed the most aesthetically pleasing maths they can find. That allegiance that serves him well in the second part of this book, built on insightful interviews with contemporary theorists ... For this science buff, trying to follow theoretical physics feels like a knowledgeable football fan trying to make sense of a chess tournament – a tournament, moreover, where the rules of the game have been encrypted in an unbreakable code ... Farmelo does proffer an occasional equation, always in the simplest form. He will then explain with some variation of: 'Symbol A is a mathematical object representing a crucial physical parameter.' We do not learn what kind of mathematical object it is, or what properties it may have. The author does not know how to convey that in words. Nor does anyone else, really. Real understanding depends unavoidably on doing the maths, not describing it. The universe does speak in numbers. Yet assurances that its utterances are incomparably poetic have to be taken on trust.
In the years after World War II, both physics and mathematics grew and flourished without paying much attention to each other, and it was not until the late 1960s that the fields began drawing closer once again, shaping each other’s agendas in surprising ways. Mr. Farmelo tells the story of their convergence with a keen eye for anecdotes, and the excitement of an eyewitness to an intellectual revolution ... Is the fulfillment of the Pythagorean dream of a mathematical universe finally at hand? Mr. Farmelo, deeply impressed with the accomplishments of Einstein, Dirac and string theorists, is optimistic. But only time will tell.
A book on the role of mathematics in scientific discovery that contains little math seems a stretch, but Farmelo...easily brings it off ... Farmelo remains a believer, delivering lively biographies of brilliant researchers and their work up to the present, although much will be difficult for readers with no memory of college physics. A thought-provoking look at a fierce, ongoing controversy over the future of theoretical physics.