John D. Barrow,
The Infinite Book:
A Short Guide to the Boundless,
Timeless & Endless

(Jonathan Cape, 2005)

John D. Barrow, the author of The Book of Nothing, has chosen to write about something considerably bigger in his most recent tome: infinity. Infinity is about as big as it gets. After all, it just goes on, and on, and on ... ad infinitum. And although Barrow's book clocks in at just 275 pages (plus 40 pages of notes and an index) it felt as though it went on, and on, and on.

In one piece of press for The Infinite Book, a review of an earlier Barrow book is quoted: "He has written an eligible bachelor of a book -- witty, suave, rich and immensely learned." This time around, however, it seems we're being introduced to the bachelor's much less interesting, but equally unmarried brother. The pages of The Infinite Book are peppered with quotes about infinity drawn from such wide-ranging sources as Alan Ginsberg, Irving Berlin, C.S. Lewis, Douglas Adams, Frederik Nietzsche, Badly Drawn Boy and the Bible. But what insight into the infinite does the reader really gain from the inclusion of Alan Lerner's lyric, "On a clear day you can see forever," beyond a sense that the author is striving to appear cool. Similarly, the inclusion of a half-dozen photographs from the Milan production of the play Infinities does little more than take up space.

Much of my difficulty with The Infinite Book lies in the fact that Barrow can't seem to decide whether he's writing a history of the scientists and mathematicians whose contemplations on infinity have shaped current science, or if this book should be a history of the concept of infinity and its impact on religious thought, culture and philosophy. Either one might have made a compelling book. In attempting to consolidate both of these approaches Barrow manages to do neither of them justice. Some concepts are belabored as he discusses them from numerous perspectives while other ideas never come fully into focus as they skim by.

The relatively straightforward notion that a journey can never be completed -- since one must always cover half the distance, then half the remaining distance (1/4 of the original journey), then half of what is left (1/8 of the original journey) and so on, always leaving some increment left to travel -- is trotted out repeatedly in The Infinite Book. But far more complex ideas about the curvature of space and superstring theory are dropped into the text as though readers ought to be familiar with these concepts. I felt as though Barrow couldn't decide whether to treat the reader as a child or a graduate student.

And while most any reader will be familiar with the old cliche that an infinite number of monkeys, typing on an infinite number of typewriters -- or computers -- will eventually produce all of Shakespeare's plays, the intriguing "fact" that the current record for a monkey is a mere 21 characters of Shakespeare from Love's Labour's Lost is relegated to the Notes section. I, for one, would have liked to know more about who's actually conducting this grand, but exceedingly silly, experiment.

With The Infinite Book, John D. Barrow has produced an exceptionally uneven book. He's definitely not the science-for-the-layman writer that Bill Bryson proved to be with A Short History of Nearly Everything. Nor has he produced the sort of ground-breaking but difficult work that Stephen Hawking gave us in A Brief History of Time. The Infinite Book takes a valiant run at an idea that has confounded philosophers throughout human history. Infinity is bigger than we can conceive. Yet it seems equally difficult for us to contemplate an ultimate end to space or time. What lies just beyond, what happens next, what if we add one more ... infinity plus one?

Unfortunately, though perhaps understandably, the answers to these questions aren't found in The Infinite Book.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
28 January 2006

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