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Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits [Paperback]

John D. Barrow
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

25 Mar 1999
What can we never do? Barrow looks at what limits there might be to human discovery, and what we might find, ultimately, to be unknowable, undoable, or unthinkable. Science is a big success story, but where will it end? And, indeed, will it end? Weaving together a tapestry of surprises, Barrow explores the frontiers of knowledge. We find that the notion of 'impossibility' has played a striking role in our thinking. Surrealism, impossible figures, time travel, paradoxes of logic and perspectives - all stimulate us to contemplate something more than what is. Using simple explanations, it shows the reader that impossibility is a deep and powerful notion; that any Universe complex enough to contain conscious beings will contain limits on what those beings can know about their Universe; that what we cannot know defines reality as surely as what we can know.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (25 Mar 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099772116
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099772118
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 436,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"Barrow conducts a tour of many of the most interesting topics in recent popular science, giving most of them a new twist in the telling... Trying to improve our understanding of just what is possible, and what is not, seems a vital part of the enterprise our kind of consciousness has called science" (Financial Times)

"[An] illuminating, well-written account... One can only wonder how Barrow can possibly make all these [concepts] fit together into a coherent story about the limits to science. Well, contrary to all expectations, he does make them fit, and in only 250 pages! So for about as good an account as youre going to get of where science stops, read this book" (Nature)

"Delightful and fascinating... Impossibility is a thoughtful, careful, and insightful book that is presented in a skillfully woven narrative, guiding the reader gently through the thicket of logic, physics, and mathematics... If you are fascinated by the limits of knowledge, you will be richly rewarded by this book" (New Scientist)

Book Description

'If you are fascinated by the limits of knowledge, you will be richly rewarded by this book' New Scientist

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Without limits there would be no science 25 May 2005
Who would have guessed that it could be so hard to work out what is and isn't possible? And how astonishing that some people imagine that nothing is impossible and will rail against the notion or sink into depression at the realisation that not everything is knowable. John Barrow prods at all sorts of limits in this book, in order to show us where they are and how to recognise them. He discusses the limits imposed by size (the itsy-bitsy to the astronomical), time and space (they might be two separate things after all, apparently), speed, complexity, our assumptions about the 'constants' of nature, linguistic and mathematical paradoxes, technological limits and the limits of the human mind. He considers what the universe might be like beyond what is visible to astronomers today: is it just more of the same or might it be an eternal, self-reproducing inflationary universe where the laws of nature differ from one area to another, for example? Is time travel possible? What other sorts of extraterrestrial intelligences could exist? There are limits in every direction and area of study. Without them, science would not be possible.
I'm pleased to be able to report that this book is not impossible to understand. It's well written, entertaining and enlightening. There are lots of pithy quotes including a few from some of my favourite authors (eg Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett). I thoroughly enjoyed it and feel a little less dim than I did before I started the book.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars At the edge of popular science 29 Jun 2002
If you like reading books about codes, navigation, E=mc2, black holes then you will find Impossibility is up your street. But unlike most popular science books that you will read, absorb and then file, you will find Impossibility a mental challenge. It's the sort of book that you will read, skim through a bit then decide that you will keep it handy so you can come back to it when you have had a chance to get your head round it a bit more.
It covers an area that is essential for any intellectual to know about, that is not just the edges of human knowledge, but those areas where we can prove that we will not know everything. When you get over the disappointment about this, you want to know what those areas are and the book is very good at summarising them. It is very well written and the fact that you have to concentrate on the ideas inside is what makes reading it ultimately a very worthwhile and mind-expanding experience.
In the best tradition of popular science the explanations are logical, understandable and flow from one to the other. If I was on a desert island I would take this book rather than any other popular science text, precisely because it would be a daily mental workout.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars What we can and cannot know 2 April 2013
In this book John Barrow explores what can and what (probably) cannot be achieved in Science, Technology, Mathematics and human thought in general. He discusses fundamental limits such as the speed of light, observational problems such as how far back we can look into the history of our universe, technological problems of achieving the high energies needed to probe fundamental particles and mathematical problems whose solutions cannot be calculated in less time than the age of the universe.

The book is aimed at the reader with at least enough mathematical knowledge to understand graphs and simple equations.

While I found this to be a very interesting and thought-provoking book, I have one or two reservations. One is that the science is already somewhat dated - not surprising for a book first published in 1999. On the other hand, it seems we are no nearer to finding a theory of Quantum Gravity. Secondly, Barrow covers so many topics that some of them are covered superficially and not very convincingly.

Thirdly, there are an annoying number of errors that should have been picked up by proof reading. (I have the original edition. Perhaps there were corrections to later printings?) Most of them are very minor but some are more serious. For example, the speed of light on p 25 is incorrect in the second digit which should be 9 not 2. In the diagram on p 100 (Fig 4.4) there are two impossible triangles: the sum of the length of two sides is smaller than the length of the third side. On p 126, Fig 5.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Defining the limits of science 2 May 2002
The first hurdle any reader has to overcome when reading this book is the half-title collophon. It reads thus: "John D. Barrow is Professor of Asronomy at hte university of Sussex. He is the authir of several bestselling books, including 'Theories of Everythind' and 'The Bookof Nothing'." Duhhh! - Someone didn't use a spell checker - four error in two sentences is an inauspicious start.
Fortunately for his readers, this seems to be the only editorial contribution made by Vintage Press - the rest of the book is error-free.
Barrow charts a careful course somewhere between the impenetrable, accesible only to those well-versed in science, and the vulgar, readily accessible to interested lay reader. I think he has hit a happy medium that is acceptable to both camps.
The idea of the "end of science" is a scary one and not readily accessible to anyone's intuition. Notions of unknowability and inaccessibility do not immediately appeal to scientists who consider that nature is their oyster - ripe to be prised open.
Barrow does an excellent job of laying out the theoretical limits of knowledge and understanding. His narrative is accessible to the interested lay reader but is not too condescending as to frighten away the professionals.
I found the book an engaging and stimulating read. The illustrations are well chosen to assist the lay reader. I was well entertained for the modest outlay of buying it.
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