cover image The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science

The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science

Marcus du Sautoy. Viking, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2180-2

With uncommon grace, this work illuminates the strides and limitations of humans’ quest to understand nature via math and science. Du Sautoy (The Music of the Primes), Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, takes readers to seven different “edges” of knowledge and shows why “Newton, Leibniz, and Galileo were perhaps the last scientists to know all that was known.” From chaos, which “placed huge limits on what we humans could ever hope to know,” to consciousness, to infinity itself, each edge “represents a horizon beyond which we cannot see.” Patiently and cleverly explaining basic principles, du Sautoy begins most sections with a simple touchstone and builds from there, deftly rendering otherwise recondite theories: a pair of dice leads to probability, a cello to the nature of matter, a pot of uranium to quantum physics. One-on-one interviews with scientists and du Sautoy’s descriptions of his participation in various experiments breathe life into cold data, as when the author perceives his consciousness in another person or observes the illusion of his free will in an fMRI. This brilliant, well-written exploration of our universe’s biggest mysteries will captivate the curious and leave them pondering “natural phenomena that will never be tamed and known.” Agent: Zoë Pagnamenta, Zoë Pagnamenta Agency. (Apr.)