Cosmic Numbers

The Numbers That Define Our Universe


By James D. Stein

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 28, 2013. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Our fascination with numbers begins when we are children and continues throughout our lives. We start counting our fingers and toes and end up balancing checkbooks and calculating risk. So powerful is the appeal of numbers that many people ascribe to them a mystical significance. Other numbers go beyond the supernatural, working to explain our universe and how it behaves.
<br In Cosmic Numbers, mathematics professor James D. Stein traces the discovery, evolution, and interrelationships of the numbers that define our world. Everyone knows about the speed of light and absolute zero, but numbers like Boltzmann’s constant and the Chandrasekhar limit are not as well known, and they do far more than one might imagine: They tell us how this world began and what the future holds. Much more than a gee-whiz collection of facts and figures, Cosmic Numbers illuminates why particular numbers are so important — both to the scientist and to the rest of us.

  • New Scientist
    “Amid seemingly endless strings of equations, a handful of numbers stand out.  These are the physical constants, numbers that hold their true value in any situation—the unbreakable scaffolding of reality. In Cosmic Numbers, mathematician James Stein offers a tour of some of these constants.... These are numbers we take for granted today, but Stein stresses the lengths people went to determine them.  There is plenty of interesting background too.”
    Washington Independent Review of Books
    “The author cajoles the reader to enjoy the spirit of discovery with him, keeping a light style of narrative. Nevertheless, Stein does not shy away from introducing mathematical formulae as well as precise descriptions of the science involved, sometimes in a rather condensed form. The nonscientific reader need not be intimidated by these.... This book will appeal to a wide audience of readers who are curious to know more about the discovery of the laws that govern our universe.... [A]n enjoyable and informative read.”
  • Ian Stewart, author of The Mathematics of Life
    “A vivid exploration of today's science, from the forces that keep our planet in orbit to the origin of the atoms that form our bodies. Clear and concise, easy to read, and enormously informative, Cosmic Numbers relates the stories behind some of the most important numbers in science—where they came from, what they tell us, and how they changed the way we view our world.”
    John L. Casti, Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Vienna, and author of Mood Matters, Paradigms Lost, Five Golden Rules, and The Cambridge Quintet
    “Most people use numbers like 1, 2, 3 ... to count. But the numbers that really count are the ones described in this book! They tell us why we see the universe we do and not see something else. After reading this very enlightening, informative and entertaining book, you'll see why some numbers are just a bit more equal than others.”
    Leonard Wapner, El Camino College
    “We memorized them in our high school science classes. Now Jim Stein teaches us to appreciate nature's constants by giving us the stories and the personalities behind their discovery. It's an enjoyable and thought provoking read.”
  • Paul J. Nahin, author of Number-Crunching and An Imaginary Tale
    “It would seem trivially obvious to say all numbers are not equal. Some numbers are especially important, however, not because of mathematics but because of physics. This book discusses the history and ‘use' of thirteen such numbers, which if only slightly different would make the world we live in a vastly different place—or simply not even possible. After reading James Stein's Cosmic Numbers you'll understand why existence itself is ‘in the numbers.'”

    The Guardian (UK)
    “[Cosmic Numbers] is a story of man's lust for measurement...and also a persuasive explanation of why it is worth measuring such apparently arcane phenomena very exactly.”
  • Kirkus
    “Cheerful but not dumbed-down....  Every educated reader should know what these numbers mean. Stein casts his net widely, delivering an entertaining history of each, often wandering into areas of science only distantly related but no less worthwhile.”

    “In the explanatory power of fundamental numbers, Stein discerns the fundamental harmonies that emerge in the most profound science. Stein teases these harmonies out of their formulas and then weaves them into a broader conceptual fabric…By turns amusing and poignant, Stein's engaging style eases general readers past their fears of scientific math, while also guiding them into a deeper appreciation of the stubborn human complexities of the scientists behind that mat.... Numbers become portals to mind-expanding questions.”

    The Boston Globe
    “A brisk, fun ride…Stein is good at extracting drama from the brilliant minds and experiments that fill his book, and it's impossible to read it without gaping in awe at just how much science got done in the days prior to statistical analysis software and multicore processors.”

On Sale
May 28, 2013
Page Count
240 pages
Basic Books

James D. Stein

About the Author

James D. Stein is a past member of the Institute of Advanced Studies and is currently a Professor of Mathematics at California State University (Long Beach). His list of publications is extensive and includes: How to Shoot from the Hip Without Getting Shot in the Foot (with Herbert L. Stone and Charles V. Harlow); How Math Explains the World (a Scientific American Book Club selection); The Right Decision (also a Scientific American Book Club selection); and How Math Can Save Your Life. He has been a guest blogger for Psychology Today and his work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times.

Learn more about this author