"The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World" (Viking), by David Deutsch: "The Beginning of Infinity" is a difficult book, appealing to scholars with two linked themes.
One is so simple it's almost self-evident: We increase our knowledge of everything in the world by improving our explanations.
The immense range of the subtitle, "Explanations That Transform the World," becomes clearer if you remember that while most people think of the world as the planet Earth, author David Deutsch uses "world" to include the possibility of innumerable universes that some scientists now accept.
Greeks explained the difference between winter and summer 2,500 years ago with a story that the goddess Demeter had to give up her daughter Persephone for a fixed period every year. That made Demeter sad, which produced winter. When Persephone returned, that produced spring. It was a picturesque myth, but not much use as an explanation for the changing of the seasons.
It took 2,000 years before astronomers began to understand and find acceptance, amid strong opposition, for today's explanation: Summer and winter in Greece are due to the shifting tilt of the Earth as it circles the sun. The northern hemisphere tilts toward the sun in summer and away from it in winter. That also explains a hot January and a cold July in southern Africa and Argentina.
The other theme — the beginning of infinity — will appeal to readers with a level of scientific learning that this reviewer can only dream of approaching someday. They should know a lot of math, physics, plenty of astronomy, more than a bit of philosophy and ontology, the branch of metaphysics that deals with nature, reality or ultimate substance. Such readers may snap up this book — or even swallow it whole.
Deutsch is an Israeli-British graduate in math and physics from Oxford and Cambridge and a member of Britain's Royal Society — its oldest scientific group, once headed by Isaac Newton. Though Deutsch has an easy style, it's not a fun book to read. Understanding "The Beginning of Infinity" requires a strong effort to stick with it, whether you like to be there or not.
"The 'beginning of infinity'— the possibility of the unlimited growth of knowledge in the future," Deutsch writes, "depends on a variety of other infinities."
Nearly all 18 chapters end with a section called "Meanings of 'The Beginning of Infinity' Encountered in This Chapter."
The chapter "A Window on Infinity" lists eight such meanings, including "the universality of reason" and "the infinite range of some ideas."
"There is only one way of thinking that is capable of making progress," the book concludes, "or of surviving in the long run, and that is the way of seeking good explanations through creativity and criticism. What lies ahead of us in any case: infinity. All we can choose is whether it is an infinity of ignorance or of knowledge, wrong or right, death or life."