Quaker Universalist Voice

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Our Story

A review of Peter Atkins, Conjuring the Universe: the origins of the laws of nature (2018)

It is a universal human need and challenge to hold a story of the workings of the universe, seeking a simple, clear narrative from experienced complexity in order to understand reality as a whole.   That held story receives some modification, small or large, as humans mature through life. Some adopt the story of whatever tradition into which they are born. All humans engage experience and reason to augment the story of their cultural tradition.  Some parents present a story to their children that the parents do not believe reflects reality.  We humans need to work on our story.

In his new book, Conjuring the Universe: the origins of the laws of nature (2018), Peter Atkins presents a story of the laws of nature as descriptions of the working of reality.  He reviews the facts, as they are currently known, about classical and quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism, followed by a description of what humans know of the origin of the fundamental mathematical constants.  He finishes by explaining the usefulness of mathematics in formulating some natural laws, while admitting that some full understanding is beyond current human grasp, despite 300 years of serious human work in progress.

Atkins addresses the reality of mathematical constants (the speed of light (c), Planck’s constant (h), Boltzmann’s constant (k), and the fundamental charge (e)) and addresses their origins and functions in making our universe what it is.  These fundamental mathematical constants seem currently to be universal, not just for earth, but for the whole of the cosmos as we currently know it and steward it.  He separates the constants into the categories of those that are described by mathematics and those not yet described by mathematics.  He does not address astronomy, sociology, psychology, arts, literature, or theology, but he indicates some increasing overlapping with the mathematically dense areas of physics and chemistry.

According to Atkins, human mathematics is language for describing reality.  Mathematics is a reflection of, and is related to, reality, but it is not the same as reality, which includes such nonmathematical things as human consciousness and matter. Mathematics works to explain reality partially, but not completely, in different human categories of experience. Human mathematical descriptions of human laws of reality point to the appearance of the structure of reality.  The remarkable reality is that the mathematical laws are consistent in the universe and that they are knowable and testable.  The cosmos is an ordered, consistent, and rational place for current humans.  The origins of these laws are currently unclear, but they are within the scope of human comprehension so far.

The advertisements for books at the back of this book show a diverse group of similar books on scientific topics, indicating that Oxford University Press is undertaking a systematic series of science books for popular readers authored by important scientists.

This is one of those books.  The book includes a useful index and the text is protected against numbers and formulas, which are treated separately, clearly, and helpfully in the endnotes for those who can read the mathematical language. 

Quakers: This book is a resource for reflection on our pathway to identifying our story of reality.  This is one approach.  You may have suggestions for modification of this author’s story.  Another approach to a true story of reality is provided from the Quaker Universalist Fellowship resources.  It provides a significant spectrum of story options for your choice, or as building blocks for your creation of your own story, a universal story that you can communicate to Quaker children with integrity.  Never teach children the story of reality that they will learn later is false and that you knew the story to be false when you taught it.


P. Atkins, Conjuring the Universe: the origins of the laws of nature (2018)

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