Allen Lane, £25. Order at the discounted price of £20 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality by Max Tegmark, book review

Theories that aim to unlock the mysteries of maths, physics and perhaps the universe

There may or may not be a multiverse but there is certainly a multitude of books about the topic. In Our Mathematical Universe, Max Tegmark – a distinguished cosmologist – gives a lucid rundown of the current state of knowledge on the origin, present state, and fate of the universe(s).

But he also goes beyond this, outlining a Grand Theory of Everything, the seeding idea of which is a famous remark in 1960 by the physicist Eugene Wigner: "The enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious." His research has led him to a Douglas Adams moment (Adams is often cited). Tegmark puts it like this: "I know of no other compelling explanation for this trend [the ability of maths to explain the physical world] than that the world really is completely mathematical."

The instant reaction of most lay readers to this will be: "Then where does all the stuff come from: the heavy, dangerous explosive stuff?"? Tegmark's answer is Alan Guth's cosmological theory of Inflation, an extrapolation of Einsteinian ideas of space-time and gravity, coupled with our knowledge of the cosmic background radiation – on which Tegmark has done groundbreaking work. All this adds up to the apparent creation of something from nothing by borrowing energy from the quantum vacuum. This free-lunch theory of creation is, he admits, superficially like the kind of Ponzi-scheme financial trickery of Bernie Madoff – a pyramid-selling operation heading for one almighty collapse, which, of course, is what might well happen to the universe one day.

This is a book that provokes many different reactions as it proceeds. It is immensely illuminating on the reach of current cosmological theories but one persistent strand is bound to baffle many readers. Although Tegmark rejects many current speculations that bemuse lay people (eg quantum consciousness; humans as simulations in some alien's computer game), he constantly returns to a notion equally outlandish: a version of quantum mechanics that implies countless clones of ourselves inhabiting parallel universes.

And there is not even merely one kind of multiverse but four, described in detail! From time to time, Tegmark engagingly admits that such ideas sound like nonsense, but he makes the crucial point that if a theory makes good predictions you have to follow all of the consequences. You can't say, for instance: yes, the climate is warming (sparkling wine from the South Downs!) but I'll skip the extreme weather, thank you very much (my example, not Tegmark's).

Having stretched our minds to encompass forbidding concepts of mathematically plausible universes, in the last chapter he comes to the old-fashioned humanist conclusion that there is no point looking for uplift and moral guidance in all this: "our Universe does not give life meaning but life gives our Universe meaning". Or, as Philip Larkin wrote, "none of this cares for us". His concluding chapter on the risks humanity faces is wise and bracing: he believes we "are alone in our Universe" but are capable of tackling terrible threats from cosmic accidents, or self-induced nuclear or climatic catastrophes. He doesn't cite poets but his philosophy adds up to an updated 21st-century version of Thomas Hardy's "If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst".

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on