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Cosmic Numbers – James D. Stein ***

Basing a popular science book on some of the key constants of the universe is not original, but it’s a powerful approach because were it not for having some fixed values science would be practically impossible. What’s more a fair number of the constants here haven’t featured so strongly elsewhere, which is a good point for James Stein. Everything from the speed of light to the universal gravitational constant, with some more obscure figures too, features here.
We get a fair amount of historical context, some of it highly entertaining. But this isn’t a science book and there is a bit of a problem with the scientific content. I don’t know if it’s because Stein is a mathematician, but there is more use of equations than I would expect in a popular science book, and the approach taken seems so strongly oriented to a mathematical mindset that it’s quite easy for the reader to get lost what is supposed to be an explanation, but actually makes a physical concept more complicated than it need be.
Like many academics, there’s a suspicion that Dr. Stein has forgotten what it’s like to look at the world as a normal person. There’s quite a lot to glean from these pieces – in effect each chapter is a separate article – but it could have been significantly more approachable for the general reader.

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Review by Peter Spitz

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