Updating Myself on Physics/Cosmology, the Nature of Existence, Etc.
IF YOU WANT TO READ JUST ONE RECENT BOOK ON SCIENCE, COSMOLOGY, AND THE NATURE AND MEANING OF BEING, I STRONGLY RECOMMEND # 3 BELOW!!
0. Motive and Introduction
In 2006, having been challenged on several of my pronouncement in a rather mean and critical “physics” review from several years ago, I bought and borrowed several of the newer books that have sought to convey to a non-specialist audience, which includes me, what the latest is from physics and cosmology in terms of explaining the cosmos and our place in it.
I was challenged, turns out rightly so, by a few who saw my review of one book in particular as a very harsh review, as partaking of the same shortcoming as that book did. I must admit that some of my specific criticisms were in fact shown to be wrong, sort-of (hence the book I panned was sort-of right after all??). What showed me this? Reading about more recent developments in physics and cosmology. My shortcoming was being dependent on ‘facts’ that had been overtaken by events and were no longer as true as they once seemed to be.
So I will address some of those challenges. But first I want to make some general observations about the books I read.
First is the observation that in this rapidly expanding field of physics/cosmology, strongly stated fact is likely to be overturned over time because insights are ever expanding. Multiple layers of interpretation are being shown to be not only possible, but even required, as we move from one scale to another. This flies in the face of the oft-stated dream that if we only knew all the physics of the micro scale, we could predict every nuance of behavior on the macro scale. That is now seen to simply not be so, a very different physics may apply to one scale that simply has little meaning on a much larger, or much smaller, scale.
This insight is enormously important and even liberating! It means that the study of chemistry is likely not a waste of time, the behavior on molecules and subatomic particles are not predictable from each other! More surprisingly, the behavior of nano-particles of the same substance as compared with large structures of that same material is very different, and bridges chemistry and physics in making sense of two scales that need to be conceptualized differently even though atomically and chemically their constitutive substances are the same!
OK, so was physics fickle? Try this on for size: a few years ago the universe was going to eventually stop expanding and implode (my favorite, since it matches the ancient Indian/Hindu insight that the cosmos is the result of the breathing in and out of the gods) and now it is going to expand forever and die a cold death!
1. Book One
One of the books I read got slapped by this fickleness, it is Paul Davies’ “God & the New Physics” (Simon & Schuster 1983), which describes the “big crunch” as the reversal of the “big bang” on page 205, describes the idea of an oscillating universe on page 172, and then caveats the big crunch idea nicely with “(if it occurs)” on his next to last page, 228.
If you want a nice set of quotes on the breathing in and out idea, here is a good website by two persons called Keith and Marnie, who feel they are providing what they call a “Remedy” that gives insight into reality in their website where they provide many interesting quotes on this topic, among many other topics, and one of them is this one:
The ancient Indian Rishis described their concept of cyclical time epochs in their scriptural Vedas. “The life span of Brahmam, the Creator, is identical with the duration of this universe. This time span, called a maha-kalpa, is also the duration of one breathing in and out of Maha-Vishnu, the Personality of Godhead. Maha-Vishnu lies down within the ocean of causality and sleeps. He is eternal, and He dreams the material world in His cosmic slumber. When He exhales, all the universes emanate from the pores of His skin, and a Brahma is born within each universe. When He inhales, Brahma dies, and He sucks the universes into His mouth and destroys them. With each exhalation, the entire process starts anew. This cycle repeats eternally and is called eternal time.”
So is the Paul Davies book not worth reading since he is leaning toward, but not totally committed to, and old interpretation of the origin and destiny of the cosmos? No, his main thrust in the book is to make the connection between the cosmos’ existence and intelligence. This is an idea I got really hot under the collar about several years ago: some who suggest that human intelligence creates reality as we know it really irritate me, it is way too anthropocentric to think this way in my opinion, so imagine my surprise when Davies supports this idea, in a qualified way of course!
Davies does a very good job explaining the Bohr-Einstein quantum physics debate and the Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment, by the way, in his Chapter 8 where he lays on thick the idea that an observer is required to produce reality:
According to Bohr, the fuzzy and nebulous world of the atom only sharpens into concrete reality when an observation is made. In the absence of an observation, the atom is a ghost. It only materializes when you look for it. And you can decide what to look for. Look for its location and you get an atom at a place. Look for its motion and you get an atom with a speed. But you can’t have both. The reality that the observation sharpens into focus cannot be separated from the observer and his choice of measurement strategy.
Davies, prior to this chapter, has done nice work going through many religious-philosophical-historical arguments about the origin of the cosmos, mixed with a bit of insight from physics, and discusses some notions I was not even aware of, such as “vitalism” for example. It is a good overview of a difficult topic.
But from Chapter 8 onward we are into physics and its implications, mixed with a bit of philosophy and religion. In Chapter 8 the idea of multiple universes splitting off whenever there is a decision that could have been made in various ways (whether by nature or by nature’s creatures) was introduced. By now the number of such universes is infinite, of course. In Chapter 10 the difficulty of reconciling such a multi-verse with ideas about free will and determinism are discussed. In Chapter 9 the relative nature of time is discussed, along with its very difficult implications for some accepted attributes of God such as omniscience and timelessness. Where I next got very interested is in Davies’ Chapter 12 which discusses various schemes for interpreting the cosmos and its design, one of the schemes (a continually reshuffling and re-creating universe by Boltzmann, described on page 167) leads to these statements:
Boltzmann’s argument does, however, bring out one vital feature of enduring value. The universe we perceive is, necessarily, selected by us, from the elementary requirement that life, and hence consciousness, can only develop under the appropriate physical conditions. By definition, we cannot observe an uninhabitable cosmos. This simple fact has, as we shall shortly see, been used to argue by some that the extraordinarily improbable, low-entropy universe that we observe has indeed been selected from a vast array of possible universes (nearly all of which are disordered); but the selection has been made by us, not by God.
Davies discusses this in terms of various current responses, including the weak and strong anthropic principles, which are interesting in and of themselves but nothing really new to me.
At this point in my reading I was not too enthused about where Davies was seemingly headed with all this, but then he again catches my undivided attention with a new twist: on his page 208 where he recalls the previously discussed relationship between software and computer, between mind and brain and now launches into the relationship between the physical cosmos and its operation:
There is no conflict, then, in a universe that evolves according to well-defined laws og physics but is nevertheless subject to intelligent control.
This is a thought-provoking conclusion. Those who invoke God as an explanation of cosmic organization usually have in mind a super-natural agency, acting on the world in defiance of natural laws. But it is perfectly possible for much, if not all, of what we encounter in the universe to be the product of intelligent manipulation of a purely natural kind: within the laws of physics.
Davies spends some time on the implications of this idea, a natural God or Deity, and admits on page 209 that both the natural and supernatural God views have their difficulties. Where he goes next on pages 210 and 211 is in discussing that the forward view of expanding intelligence bringing more and more of the universe’s chaos under control isn’t necessarily the only way to conceptualize this relationship between intelligence and creation, it is possible that “mind” [by which I presume he means intelligence] is a “more primitive entity” basically inhabiting all matter.
Davies likes this, and so do I:
Taken to its logical conclusion, it is possible to imagine a supermind existing since the creation, encompassing all the fundamental fields of nature, and taking upon itself the task of converting an incoherent big bang into the complex and orderly cosmos we now observe; all accomplished entirely within the framework of the laws of physics. This would not be a God who created everything by super-natural means, but a directing, controlling universal mind pervading the cosmos and operating the laws of nature to achieve some specific purpose. We could describe this state of affairs by saying that nature is a product of its own technology, and that the universe is a mind: a self-observing as well as a self-organizing, system. Our own minds could then be viewed as localized ‘islands’ of consciousness in a sea of mind, an idea that is reminiscent of the Oriental conception of a mysticism, where God is then regarded as the unifying consciousness of all things into which the human mind will be absorbed, losing its individual identity, when it achieves an appropriate level of spiritual advancement.
Davies continues with this topic, which is not physics, but is interesting nonetheless and, most importantly it lowered my anxiety over the previous references to us having created our cosmos.
And it shows I was “sort-of” wrong when I claimed in my previous book review that this notion that we are the Creator of all that is totally off the mark. It is only a off the mark if we do not buy into this thesis by Davies. And yes, I do like it as a working concept about Deity and us, and it works very well with my favorite ecstatic poem by Rumi, which is important to me for sone reason. [See the last Rumi poem on the page at this link, it will blow your metaphorical socks off.]
2. Book 2
My next foray into the margins of cosmology and physics and the nature of intelligence is the book “Equations of Eternity, Speculations on Consciousness, Meaning, and the Mathematical Rules that Orchestrate the Cosmos,” by David Darling (MJF Books, 1993).
Darling writes about a decade after Davies and covers much the same material, but comes to a very different conclusion, one I do not like, personally. Let me walk through several things I liked in the book:
Page xv, after an interesting discussion, asks a rhetorical question that reminded me of the conclusion of Davies’ book which I had just finished reading:
How can the universe simultaneously exist and in some corner of itself (our heads) form a self-reflexive, self-aware model of itself?
We are all involved in an unfolding of mind. . . .
So I was quite happy at this point, thinking this was headed to the same conclusion that Davies had happily brought me to. Then he goes on (pp. xv-xvi):
Every instant, with every conscious act, it seems we may participate in structuring and materializing the physical world. . . . We are here by nature’s special courtesy, while, at the same time, nature seems to be surprisingly dependent on us.
I was happy until I read that last sentence. I was beginning to small a rat.
But by page 16 I was happy again to see that Darling saw the disconnect between the substance and function (hardware and software) as Davies had seen it:
To begin to understand consciousness, we have to treat it, not as an object, but as an emergent, high-level process with its own set of rules and properties. That makes it impossible to explain solely in terms of the brain’s physiology.
By page 51 I was impressed with the ability of some lowly animals to recognize patterns in nature, assuring us that evolution took place in an orderly world where such patterns existed and persisted, and I was not particularly alarmed by the statement that followed as a conclusion:
Do we always see objects and relationships that are really there, independent of our mental selves? How can some thing, or some class of things, be said to exist without a sentient observer to perceive them? Are we not, in fact, as much inventors of the order we see as discoverers? In sone curious way, the two seem to go hand in hand.
Since this is a discussion of seeing patterns for our own purposes, the question is not off the mark, and neither is the ending question for this discussion on page 52:
And what, in any case, do we mean by “real”?
On page 53 Darling observes:
All of perceived reality is a fiction. And yet, reassuringly, you and I and the one hundred billion other humans who have ever lived seem to perceive a similar external world.
Darling continues to discuss the functioning of the brain in two modes, one that sees holistically, in relationship, and the other that takes apart and compartmentalizes. Darling set my teeth on edge by concluding this topic on page 54 by saying that:
. . . the perception of both the whole and of its components is essential to survival, yet cannot be achieved simultaneously. You may be a mystic or a scientist, but you cannot be both at the same instant of time.
I initially protested this statement to myself, but then I looked closer at the words and agree: at the very same instant of time you cannot be engaged in both scientific inquiry through experiment, and mystical gazing through intuitive faculties, they have to take their turns although either can produce insights related to the other. Darling says as much as he wraps this topic up around page 63, and when he gets to the final wrap on this topic after relating our mental and intuitive observational powers to the cosmos, on his page 65 he has me worried once more by these words leading into his chapters on quantum physics:
Until the first quarter of this [20th] century, this type of human-centered, “participatory” cosmology would have been the antithesis to Western scientific belief. Previously, the conscious mind was regarded by physical science with disdain. Conscience was an irrelevance; the observer a mere diarist in a universe supremely impartial to human presence. But now we have been compelled by modern physics to regard things in a very different light. As we shall see, we have been forced to concede that not only may consciousness have a purpose, but that it may actually be indispensable to the universe in which we live.
OK, that last phrase is similar to Davies’ conclusions about “consciousness” as the “observer” so now I happily walked into Darling’s relatively similar discussions of Bohr-Einstein, Schrodinger, and other quantum oddities. So on page 82 I was not put out at all by this:
It is, in fact, an interpretation of mathematics that casts man–or intelligence–in a profoundly creative role. At the very least, it implies that unless the world is governed by a specific system of logic then conscious beings cannot evolve. And it may go well beyond that. It may mean, if we choose to pursue the anthropocentric line to its extreme, that the logic of the world cannot exist without the intermediation of our minds.
I took great comfort in the “if” statement. Yes, if that is the line of thought you follow, it gets you there. But surely, Mr. Darling, you are not going there, are you?
I agreed with his criticisms of Aristotle, his deficiency as a scientist, on page 86. Good example of what happens when you think out how things should be and then go after the evidence that proves you were right in your presumptions. He also spends time showing that what is observed at one scale may not explain what functions on a different scale which is very good. But on page 92 Darling seems to be taking us along the anthropocentric line at high speed:
Man, it turned out, was not a mere spectator to some vast cosmic clockwork, nor a trivial cog in a machine whose every action was preordained. Incredibly, it transpired that man might be an active and vital player in determining what was real.
I put too much stock in the words “might be” in that sentence.
From here to page 101 the discussion of physics was OK, until we got to page 101 and the discussion of Bohr and his claims that reality requires an observer, which Darling, as did another author before him that I also did not agree with, called the “Copenhagen interpretation.” Page 102 summarizes with italics:
The point is–and, again, this is implicit in the mathematics of quantum mechanics–not only does the observation process collapse the wave function, but it does so in ways that cause a fundamental, unknowable disturbance in the system. That disturbance, when something new and unforeseeable is made to happen at the ground level of reality, can be regarded as a fundamentally creative process. It is the very essence of what true creativity must be: not building upon anything that is already there, but spontaneously bringing into being what did not exist, in any meaningful form, before. In a sense, this is genesis at work, here and now: the making of the real from the unreal, the breathing of fire into the equations that underpin the world.
At this point I knew I was not going to like the rest of this book. I am sorry, but I do have my prejudices, and to conclude this on the basis of someone observing that in an experiment the wave function of something that is both particle and wave is collapsed to show the thin is not creation. It is like saying that the rabbit you tagged in the wild and tracked remotely did not exist until you tagged it. It is not even hogwash, since that serves a “real” purpose. After some more physics discussions which are not at all uninformed or uninformative, Darling does it to me again with this statement on page 116:
. . . without conscious participation there is no reality in the quantum world. . . . And without the intervention of mind to observe nature meaningfully at its finsest scale, there could have been no matter.
Darling rightly observes that pragmatists will have lost patience by now. I did.
He next launches into a good discussion of the cosmic coincidences that made our lives possible and launches into the weak and strong anthropic principles as potential explanations. He also goes into Wheelers multiple realizations [I called it multi-verse in my Davies book discussion above] theory, as well as several others, just like Davies did. On page 134 he acknowledges that we have only been around for a very small portion of the time that the universe has been evolving, just as Davies did. But Davies came up with one explanation, we will see that Darling is a proponent of a very different explanation.
I very much enjoyed, actually, Darling’s Chapters 10 and 11 speculating on the future of humanity in this universe. And I liked the start of Chapter 12 which talks, almost Davies–like, in terms of the collective mind of which each of our minds is a part. I liked his further speculations on the future of human collective intelligence, and the spread of our intelligence into the universe. I liked it very much. Until . . .
Until we reach the end of the book, Chapter 13, essentially, where I am again shaken at my pragmatist core. Darling acknowledges there are “less anthropogenic viewpoints” on page 179 but then asks his readers to follow him on his anthropogenic thought–path.
He walks into this anthropogenic path slowly, pleasing me with these observations on page 181 which would be very compatible with the Davies view (above), all except for its very last sentence which portends a more anthropocentric view:
When you think, the cosmos thinks–not in some nebulous, poetical sense, but literally. Your brain is a product and a process of the cosmos. When you look out and form pictures in your mind and try to make sense of those pictures, you are the universe trying to make sense of itself. . . . The incredible and undeniable fact is that we are the thinking, reasoning components of the universe–a realization that makes it slightly less astonishing that our brains might have some role to play at the cosmic level.
Page 185 is where it is all pulled together:
. . . it is hardly surprising that the cosmos appears uncannily well suited to the evolution of intelligent life. We had to be able to evolve in order that the universe could exist.
Yet there seems to be an obvious flaw in this argument. The problem centers on those times when there were no “reality making” human beings, when there was no mind, or even life, of any kind.
Recall how Davies solved this enigma? This is how Darling solves it, and it is a very different solution:
To understand the way around this difficulty, we have to adopt a radically new picture of nature. We have to see that the universe may exist as a block, throughout the whole of time–and that it has always done so. It never actually did begin. In other words, there was never a Big Bang in the conventional sense, cut off from everything that would follow. All the universe, past, present, and future, exists at once, as a closed. Self-sustaining, self-creating cycle. It never started, and it will never end. It simply is.
This is of course a religious statement, in fact one of the Christian religions I am familiar with has this as an explanation of why there is no sense worrying over ultimate beginnings: there never was a beginning, neither will there ever be an end. The religious flavor continues at the very end of Darling’s book on pages 189-190:
And man? It seems that we may be the very reason and the purpose that there is a universe–we, our progeny, and any fellow intelligent races that have sprung up elsewhere in space. If so, then we can look into the future with confidence and optimism. Even though our personal consciousness may dissolve at the point when our brains die, we shall inevitable be involved in the cosmic consciousness that is to come.
At this point I am impressed, this is what Davies said, and what Rumi said in his poem that I consider my favorite (liked to above). But Darling continues with more words, and these somehow do nothing for my pragmatic soul except to want to shout a qualified “amen” [wish that it were so, but. . .]:
Everything that we ever were, throughout our human lives, will gradually be reincorporated into the spreading awareness of the universe. Every particle that is part of you now, or was ever part of you, will eventually be reconstituted within this extraordinary, growing cosmic mind. We shall all live again, and be very much more alive and conscious than we are today. Nor will that greater consciousness ever end; on the contrary, it will change and evolve and expand throughout all space and time.
What will it be like to be that future cosmic mind–to be God by any other name? We shall simply have to wait and see. But it will mean the final unification and reconciliation of our two ways of seeing the world: the scientific and the mystical.
Darling goes on to close the book with a poetic statement that reflects its title quite nicely. It is really a well written and well argued book with many good insights. But it struck my pragmatic side as being way too anthropocentric in its view of the universe.
So my next book is of the same genre, but with a delightful twist. Read on.
3. Book Three
This next book was published over a decade after Darling’s book, and thus over two decades since the Davies book. It is called “The View from the Center of the Universe, Discovering our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos,” by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams (Riverhead Books, 2006).
This is a wonderful read, I recommend it highly. If you are interested in what is new in physics (Primack is a physicist) and how the results of work in physics add to our understanding of who and what we are (the contribution of Abrams, who is Primack’s wife and, among other things, a writer, a philosopher, and a science historian). Primack and Abrams teach a course together at the University of California at Santa Cruz called “Cosmology and Culture.” The book was based on that course.
The finest thing about this book is that it explains what is new in physics, what is factual, essentially proven, and what is still speculative. And there is a lot that is still speculative as one of my other books delves into at some great length, but we will do that book last.
So, where does one start when every page in the book is dog-eared to call my attention back to something interesting? Well, obviously we have to be selective. So let’s start at the very end to illustrate what I liked about this book so much, let’s go first to pages 295-296 where the authors summarize the key scientific advances explained and discussed at some length in the book and classify them in descending order of certainty. The one thing I really liked about this book is its honesty about what is known and what is not known in science. It was really helpful to me in the detailed discussion on each of the issues listed to find this judgment at the end of each one, a judgment on the part of the author(s), yes, but one based on clearly explained bases:
Very Well Verified Scientific Theories
Physics: Thermodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity
Geology: Plate Tectonics
Strong Consistent Evidence / Multiple Independent Tests
Standard Model of Particle Physics
Standard Model of Cosmology (Double Dark Theory)
Fractal Theory of Biological Scaling
Very Modest Evidence For / No Evidence Against
No Tests, but Many Experts Find Them Attractive
That was the science side of the house(hold), and now here are the conclusions/recommendations from the intuitive side of the house (page 298):
1. Accept the new universe.
2. Commit to a meaningful, not an existential, view of the universe.
3. Open your mind and heart to a long time-horizon both behind us and before us.
4. Make choices that support the long-term future now.
The idea is to assure people that if they band together, they can bring about a world with a long-term future for humanity in it. I much appreciated the author’s judgment on page 299 that those looking forward with fond anticipation to the end of the world by cataclysms of various kinds resulting in the demise of humankind (except for a few who grabbed the right clue from the basket of competing clues offered by the various world religions) are believers in “dangerously twisted ideologies.” Amen.
But look at the book’s title, it places us, humankind, at the center of the universe! Isn’t that something that gets me all excited and tied up in knots? Not the way Davies managed to say it, and not the way that Primack and Abrams managed to say it either. But before we get back to the topic of the central place of humanity in the universe, it is time to pick at just a few other delightsa in this book that help set the stage for the central/human arguments later.
What is his malarkey in the authors’ conclusion/recommendation # 1 above about accepting the new universe? Is it not an ever-changing concept? This is asked and answered very well on pages 27 and 28. Well, at least I like the pragmatic ‘final answer’ on page 28:
The interplay between cosmology and culture goes on all the time, and wisdom is possible without omniscience. How much of the nature of reality science has figured out is astonishing, but most of it is working knowledge, not Ultimate Truth. Working knowledge has turned out to be a far more fruitful goal for beings like us humans who keep evolving and learning. Science tells us to let go and flow with the data. As long as humans are creative, there can’t be a final truth. To insist on Ultimate Truth is to live in an all-too-human fantasy and miss those wondrous aspects of the universe we can actually verify. “Ultimate” doesn’t mean highest; it just means last.
Did I not have my usual sensitive toes stepped on in this book, as I do in every other book I ever read? Sure, on page 30 (and beyond) the point is made that intuition is Earthbound and therefore not to be trusted when we step off the Earth and into the cosmos. That rankled me until I saw where this argument was actually going (page 31), and it was going well beyond the Darling (# 2 above) idea that you can’t be a scientist and an intuitive at the exact same moment, where it was going is the observation that since our intuitions are Earth-grown, they do not prepare us for dealing with the very different laws of nature that appear to be operating in the cosmos and away from our life-experience: “beyond Earth, we need scientific guidance.”
The authors walk the reader through a history of human concepts about the Earth for several tens of pages, fascinating material, and show that change can take place in our “common sense” ideas as well as our intuitions. They also warn from history about the dangers of having a cosmology stamped as truth by a religion and/or a state, and give examples of abuses stemming from those who hold power over others through claiming to understanding what these others do not and can not understand. Good lessons in keeping science and government and religion separated if one is designing a society.
Next, the authors show how in history we have moved from a central position for humanity to “No Place Special,” (page 67) and this is the existential point of view the authors warn about in their recommendation # 2. I could now say that you need to read the book to see what a meaningful, versus an existential, view on life/humanity is, but that would not be nice, so I’ll give just a few strong hints (but I still want you to read the book, OK?):
The Chapter (4) on the structure of the universe, and the one on the nature of space and time (5) are the best and most readable descriptions I have read thus far (there is no ultimate in the old way of thinking, remember?). And where it addresses one of the scientific topics of interest is on page 141 where the “‘Double Dark History of the Universe’” is explained as being our modern creation-story. I like the opening sentences:
At last we have arrived at the beginning. This creation story is not only the truest story of our time, but the only one we know with any chance of being true. The opening characters are not Nun and Atum, or Adam and Eve, but neutrino and quark.
So what is this “double-dark” wording attempting to describe? The sequence of events in the life of our universe from a tiny fraction of a second to many billions of years is described by the authors with an important role being assigned to dark matter, and to dark energy, which is quite fascinating in and of itself and may sound like two giant fudge factors but according to the authors there is strong evidence for the existence of both dark aspects of the universe. But this little discussion totally fails to capture the majesty of the creation-story being told here. And there is no way I can condense that story, but I can give away some of the poetic language at the end (which is not unlike the language of Darling, in fact):
The history of the universe is in every one of us. Every particle in our bodies has a multibillion-year past, and many of our ways of thinking have multi-thousand year pasts. Each of us is a kind of nerve center where these various cosmic histories intersect. Time is one key to appreciating what we are.
In their discussions on the size of the universe the authors bring out the changes in laws that apply over different spatial scales (page 163 is just one example that brings up superstring theory as a way to understand the bridging of forces over spatial scales). Where this gets really interesting is in their discussion on “emergent phenomena” (pages 168-171). On page 170 the authors have the audacity, for example, of suggesting that the concept of God’s existence is limited to the middle size scale where the word existence has meaning. Just like electrons exist, with their properties, at this scale, can they really be said to exist at the subatomic size scale where they manifest only as clouds of probability (unless we stop one in its tracks artificially of course). Anyway, their discussion is very thought-provoking and I recommend it to you.
So are the authors atheists? Not according to their confession of their belief on page 277 (a statement of belief that seems a bit farfetched on first reading, but begins to make good sense to me on about the third reading, and it may make more sense to you if you get the book and see what I left out at the ellipses):
God represents a maximum that is ever expanding, and we are on the inside. God represents the direction of our wonder–not the destination. The more that people discover about the universe, the faster God keeps expanding, always ahead, pulling yet teasing scientists. As God expands, God also deepens at all levels . . . . In this way, scientific discoveries endlessly enrich the possibilities of God.
This is the universe to which we want to feel connected . . . . We two believe in God as nothing less than the process of opening our personal lines of contact with the unknown potential of the universe. This process is an experience, and finding the words to describe it is part of what we’ve been doing all through this book. We have a deep faith that if humans could come into harmony with the real universe, our troubled species would have its best chance to enjoy this jewel of a planet, unique in all the cosmos.
I feel a need to give you these relatively deep tastes of the flavor of the book, even though I do not want to steal any thunder from this marvelous work. You need to read it for yourself.
Books 1 and 2 reviewed above spoke of the intelligent observer needed to guide the development of the cosmos. Book 1 had a more palatable version, for me, than book 2 did. What about this book? It does not really “go there.” It gets close to, but not quite the same as, book 1's notion of intelligence being a diffuse property of the universe which culminates in self aware beings such as ourselves in the observation on pages 113-114 (using imagery that age 111 warns is figurative, not literal, of a pyramid with a massive base and tiny capstone top):
Within the capstone the fraction of stardust that is associated just with living things or the remains of living things is tiny. Within that very tiny fraction, the matter associated specifically with intelligent life is vanishingly small–yet it is only that which looks at and grasps this pyramid. It is only our eyes.
On page 205 there is a tiny caveat to this statement of it being only our eyes. On that page is the admission that if other intelligent life exists in the universe, of course it is their eyes too that are beholding and grasping the pyramid that represents the universe.
So, have we already moved from faith back to science? As we just learned, the two are intimately related if you consider science as one of the bases for faith as these authors have done. But I jest, these authors are very good about labeling their speculations and their discussion of science so as to allow no confusion of the two.
I have to say that after reading about the ever-expanding universe, and the evidence for it, even though I still personally like the cyclically contracting universe better, I quite liked their explanation of why it matters as a working hypothesis (one that is not yet proven, and may never be proven) (page 205):
Now we have theories like eternal inflation–intriguing, provocative, but untested. Eternal inflation has opened up a new perspective on reality whether or not it turns out to be true, because if it eventually turns out to be wrong, whatever theory replaces it cannot explain less and will have to do better. In either case, a new standard has been set fro creation stories. Yet science can only make this kind of progress step by step. For those who demand Ultimate Truth, there is no way to take even a single step beyond what other people have already thought. No cosmology, ancient, scientific, or otherwise, is the Ultimate Truth. What is required for a satisfying, cantering cosmology is that it be big enough and uplifting enough to awaken a new level of insight, hope, and creativity.
Evolution and its implications for future Earth life and potential extraterrestrial life are discussed in Chapter 8 and I have many pages dog-eared where I found something of note, but you will have to read about it for yourself. We are now at the part of the book that answers the “so what” question and suggests that life can be and ought to be meaningful, and we can make it so for ourselves and others, not in spite of the new creation story but because of it. It takes the authors many pages to make this plain to the reader, and they attempt to empower the reader by suggesting they are part of the world at a key turning point in its evolution, and we are the key to whether or not we create a sustainable, long-term habitat for humanity (to borrow a phrase from a worthy cause) or if we act without foresight and care for others we could create a world wherein our progeny will curse us for not taking the proper turn at this critical juncture. On page 262 they even mention my livelihood, the disposal of radioactive waste that needs to look at potential consequences hundreds of thousands of years into the future. I liked their call for our society (and us individually) to seize the opportunity (page 263):
. . . not only to survive the next few decades or so but, with faith in the future, to minimize our negative impacts and maximize the positive as far into the future as we can.
Chapter 10 is where the authors “bring it home” and explain our centrality in both the domains of time and space, and attempt (successfully) to enthuse us about our prospects. I like its opening sentences, on which they deliver amazingly well in the remainder of the chapter/book (page 269):
Cosmic perspective is the greatest gift that modern cosmology gives us. It reveals that the Big bang powers us all, galaxies and humans alike, in different ways on our respective size-scales. Every one of us is entitled to say, “I am what the expanding universe is doing here and now.”
The authors acknowledge that this is difficult to make meaningful in our daily lives, and discuss how one can integrate this perspective into ones very being by knowing and understanding and contemplating a list of ‘facts’ about our existence that have some basis in what is being learned in astronomy and physics (pages 270-272).
I will end this review with two of my favorite quotes from the last few pages of the book (shamelessly taken out of their contexts to increase their enigmatic value to hopefully cause thought, or getting the book):
Until we find our symbolic place in the universe, we will always misinterpret ourselves, feeling as though we are outside, sensing the familiar existentialist isolation, and looking at a universe in which we play no part.
There is no independent spiritual realm. The universe is One.
What a great place to just leave you hanging! On to the next book.
4. Book Four
My next to the last book in my reading quest for 2006 is this one: “Parallel Worlds, A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos,” by Michio Kaku (Anchor Books, 2005).
With this book I was attempting to move somewhat away from the delights of speculative cosmology and more into the science behind it, although book three, above, did that nicely too.
I was not disappointed, Kaku tells the science story admirably well, and throws in some cosmic implications and their meaning to us in a very nice way.
Books number one, two and three (Davies, Darling, and Primack & Abrams) said we were made of stardust billions of years old. So does Kaku, but he goes a step further and I liked his explanatory statement on page 67:
. . . our Sun is not the Earth’s true “mother.” Although many peoples of Earth have worshiped the Sun as a god that gave birth to Earth, this is only partly correct. Although Earth was originally created from the Sun (as part of the ecliptic plane of debris and dust that circulated around the Sun 4.5 billion years ago), our Sun is barely hot enough to fuse hydrogen to helium. This means our true “mother” sun was actually an unnamed star or collection of stars that died billions of years ago in a supernova, which then seeded nearby nebulae with the higher elements beyond iron that make up our body. Literally, our bodies are made of stardust, from stars that died billions of years ago.
Kaku goes on a journey through science and its speculative, but not impossible, implications that is quite fascinating. At the start of Chapter 5 he likens general relativity to a Trojan horse (page 111-112):
But lurking inside the horse, we find all sorts of demons and goblins, including black holes, white holes, wormholes, and even time machines, which defy common sense. These anomalies were considered so bizarre that even Einstein himself thought that they would never be found in nature. For years, he fought strenuously against these strange solutions. Today. We know that these anomalies cannot be easily dismissed. They are an integral part of general relativity. And in fact, they may even provide a salvation to any intelligent being confronting the big freeze.
So there you have the book in a nutshell. Kaku steps through each of these anomalies (from our Earth-bound common-sense perspective, and in some instances suggests there may be a way to move along these anomalies that connect different points of space and time and even parallel universes, thus allowing our very distant progeny to leave this universe we currently inhabit before it loses all its energy and can no longer sustain life.
But there is much more to the book, of course, and it teases and boggles the mind when it considers the parallel universes idea, the “many worlds theory” in some detail. I liked his teaser on page 145 which follows a discussion of the paradoxes involved with the time paradoxes solved by the many worlds theory:
. . . physicists have been forced to entertain two outrageous solutions: either there is a cosmic consciousness that watches over us all, or else there are an infinite number of quantum universes.
Neither Kaku nor I countenance either solution, of course, but getting to his preferred solutions (which are not mine) is what made the book actually fun to read.
On page 152, Kaku steps into territory that sounds very much like statements in a book I debunked (on this website) from the 1970s, which suggested that everything seen in these experiments was the product of the observer causing the expected particle to materialize out of probability space, which I considered utter nonsense and a false interpretation of the uncertainty principle. So imagine my surprise and chagrin to read this in Kaku’s book (his italics):
To resolve the discrepancy between waves of probability and our commonsense notion of existence, Bohr and Heisenberg assumed that after a measurement is made by an outside observer, the wave function magically “collapses,” and the electron falls into a definite state– . . . . In other words, the process of observation determines the final state of the electron. Observation is vital to existence. After we look at the electron, its wave function collapses, so the electron is now in a definite state and there is no more need of wave functions.
Kaku characterizes the “Copenhagen school” as having three working postulates as the basis for its quantum theory (p. 153): (1) “all energy occurs in discrete packets, called quanta.” (2) “Matter is represented by point particles, but the probability of finding the particle is given by a wave.” (3) “Before an observation is made, an object exists in all possible states simultaneously.”
Postulate 3 goes on to suggest that the object observed becomes “real” at the point of observation. This has given rise to the notion expanded on greatly by some (like the author of the book I panned over this very issue on this web site) that the fact of existence requires an observer (whether us or someone/something else) to have collapsed all those wave functions and give us a real universe to live in. That is where I have little problem given the view on how this may work in the first (Davies) book I reviewed in this series. But by the way, some then say, all experiments to determine the nature of subatomic particles are self-fulfilling: the ‘observer’s’ expectations are materializing from the collapse of all the possible states that could be collapsed. So the Satandard Model with its neat pigeonholing of particles is all bunk.
I was very happy to see that Kaku followed this discussion of the “Copenhagen school” with a very strong statement about this very subject (page 153):
The quantum theory is the most successful physical theory of all time. The highest formulation of the quantum theory is the Standard Model, which represents the fruit of decades of experience with particle accelerators. Parts of this theory have been tested to 1 part in 10 billion. If one includes the mass of the neutrino, then the Standard Model is consistent with all the experiments on subatomic particles, without exception.
However, Kaku goes on to suggest that in spite of its success, its very basic postulates are not universally accepted, particularly where the second postulate, which has probabilistic/deterministic implications, is concerned (153-154):
But no matter how successful the quantum theory is, experimentally it is based on postulates that have unleashed storms of philosophical and theological controversy for the past eighty years. The second postulate, in particular, has raised the ire of religions because it asks who decides our fate. Throughout the ages, philosophers, theologians, and scientists have been fascinated by the future and whether somehow our destinies are knowable.
Kaku walks a very well written path through the forest of the arguments that have followed the postulates of quantum theory, and I was intrigued with his observation (which reflects my prejudices) that (page 168) there may be a way to completely drop the third postulate: perhaps the wave function never collapses but just evolves. Surely this is so!
But Kaku links this sensible statement to the multiple worlds theory expressly formulated to deal with this paradox (page 168):
. . . at each quantum juncture, the universe splits in half, in a never-ending sequence of splitting universes. All universes are possible in this scenario, each as real as the other. . . . These parallel universes are not ghost worlds with an ephemeral existence; within each universe, we have the appearance of solid objects and concrete events as real and as objective as any.
The advantage of this interpretation is that we can drop condition number three, the collapse of the wave function. Wave functions never collapse, they just continue to evolve, forever splitting into other wave functions, in a never-ending tree, with each branch representing an entire universe. The great advantage of the many worlds theory is that it is simpler than the Copenhagen interpretation: it requires no collapse of the wave function.
This is great fun. You alcoholics, don’t worry, there is another universe where you succeeded in refusing your first drink. You now single adulterers, don’t worry, there is another universe in which you did not get caught. Etc.
Personally, I have a simpler way to avoid the “Copenhagen interpretation” fetish with the collapsing wave function: when observed, wave functions collapse temporarily to allow the observation and then the particle resumes its natural state of being both wave and particle. There, all of the electrons now busy in your body keeping things connected and attracted and repulsed, etc., are in their natural state doing what they do as both wave and particle. It is our conception of reality as a linking of Bohr atoms that is wrong, the wave functions at work inside you have an overwhelming probability of keeping on providing the exact forces needed to have your physical system behave as expected. Don’t worry. And if an electron goes amiss and in a very tiny fraction of a second magically appears somewhere on the moon, as allowed by quantum theory (p. 152 suggests even you could find yourself there!)? There are plenty more to go around in this world. And most will behave as expected, that is what the wave function is all about.
Can you tell I am not a fan of the main thrust (the title suggests it is all about parallel worlds, after all) of the Kaku book? To be fair, Kaku develops this rather bizarre theory quite nicely, with illustrations that challenge assumptions, cause thought, and entertain all at the same time.
Where Kaku gets just a little dry is in his explanations of the very difficult topics of M-theory, string theory, supersymmetry, multiple dimensions, supergravity, brane worlds, etc. But even here he throws in personalities and historical tidbits that keep ones interest. For example, I never appreciated the decision made by Bohr to keep his work from the occupying Nazis before reading pages 161-163.
It was rather puzzling to me that Kaku had subject headings in his seventh chapter, all related tp theories or aspects of theories except one: “Lisa Randall.” When I came across this part, I was wondering why the switch to a personal heading, remembered having seen (a rather expensive) book by her, and went out and bought it. It became my fifth and last book to ‘review’ (give my impressions of) in this series. So thanks for the hint, Dr. Kaku!
OK, back to all these theories, the bottom line for Kakau and many other physicists is that the very non-unique nature of the predictions that come from string theory and its add-ons and modifications and competitors is that there may not be a unique answer, and many of the answers may describe other universes. Back to the “parallel worlds” idea again. This leads Kaku to discuss, as did the other three books that came before in this series, the uniqueness of this universe and this world we inhabit, and ask questions, as did the other books, about there being a design and hence a designer. This begins in Chapter 8 on page 241.
Kaku discusses the placement of the Sun and the Earth in terms of “Goldilocks” zones, not too hot, not too cold, just right. He also discusses the varieties of anthropic principles proposed to explain the miracle of the Earth’s placement so as to support life as we know it, and cites some who are proponents and some who are hostile to any anthropic principle at all. Then returns to a different variation on the multiverse theme. This culminates at the end of the chapter (page 255) with an expression of hope that future explorations and experiments can shed additional light on the competing theories for explaining our existence, a hope which no one could possibly object to.
The chapter that follows (Chapter 9) discusses the types of experiments being contemplated and even planned and their potential insights.
Then the book goes where I do not particularly want to go, which is suggesting (as foreshadowed on pages 111-112 already) ways that the development from current understanding may allow intelligent life to spread out from here into the cosmos, into parallel universes, and thus survive the expected big freeze when the entropy of the universe becomes too low to be able to generate energy to feed life. In his Chapter 11, Kaku actually offers a stepwise program for assuring that in the extremely distant future intelligent life will survive in the universe.
Sorry, my time horizon is about a million years, I don’t to well with billions, and am completely un-enthused by a suggestion for a stepwise program to reach a goal in that timeframe. Focusing on human survival in a humane way over the next million years is more my speed. However, that said, I would still vote for some of the experiments suggested by Kaku because they are fascinating in their own right, without regard to his ultimate purpose.
Where I again became completely engaged in the book was Chapter 12, where Kaku reviews some of the (sometimes violent) relationship between religion and science, and philosophy. The argument, of course, as discussed in the first three books in this series as well, is the meaning of the universe, which religions believes to be its domain, philosophy believes to be its domain, and science has blundered into again and again sometimes with dire consequences for the blunderers. Where I really began to appreciate where Kaku was going with this was on page 358 where he makes his own confession of (non)faith:
Ultimately, I believe the very existence of a single equation that can describe the entire universe in an orderly, harmonious fashion implies a design of some sort. However, I do not believe that this design gives personal meaning to humanity. No matter how dazzling or elegant the final formulation of physics may be, it will not uplift the spirits of billions and give them emotional fulfillment. No magical formula coming from cosmology and physics will enthrall the masses and enrich their spiritual lives.
For me, the real meaning in life is that we create our own meaning. It is our destiny to carve out our own future, rather than have it handed down from some higher authority.
On page 359 he states his own view of purpose, work, love, developing your talents, and using all of the above to assure having left the world a better place then when entering it. I could not agree more with all of these personal statements of belief and purpose. This is actually in a nutshell where book 3 by Primack and Abrams were taking their readers too, I believe.
Kaku goes through a very interesting discussion of four progressive types of civilizations as part of his discussion of the extremely far future, and suggests, essentially, that the scientific advances he outlines can help transition through these civilization types. This is a very interesting discussion on pages 311 through 317, and in his final words of this book he returns to the idea, and on page 359-361 expresses his fond hope that we will actually make the transition into a Type I civilization, which means solving the world problems of hunger, war, disease and even catastrophic accidents. The way Kakau pins this generation (meaning the multiple generations that are here now) as the key to reaching toward improving world civilization to make it a Type I is very similar, using different words, to the hopes expressed in the other books reviewed thus far, especially Primack and Abrams’s book (#3).
But is everything in Kaku’s concluding statements to my liking? Well, when he says he is a bit depressed by the enormity of the universe he is suggesting to me that he needs to fix his perspective by reading Primack and Abrams. When he says he is “thrilled by the idea of entirely new worlds that exist next to ours” he is suggesting to me that he takes his own book too seriously. But this simply means the man is very honest with us about what depresses and enthuses him, and that honesty in and of itself is praiseworthy and not something to be criticized.
5. Book Five
The fifth and last book for this series of ‘reviews’ is “Warped Passages, Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions,” by Lisa Randall (HarperCollins, 2005). It is no doubt the best attempt that I have ever read, or perhaps that can be made, to explain some of the esoteric notions of modern physics in lay language and symbols. But I still didn’t “grok” it in some key places until I read it several times. [For those of you who have never read Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” the work “grok” will be a mystery, but its meaning is probably already clear here: I didn’t “get” it on the first or the second reading, or more, in some key places.]
This book is the reason it took me 6 months to review 5 books. The first 4 were done in a month. This 5th book took reading the same parts over and over in order to understand parts of the book. Do I understand it all now? No. But here are a few brief discussions of what I did like and understand even (‘grok’).
Randall is, according to her bio sketch on the back cover, one of the most cited theoretical physicists in all of science. Her theories have gained respect and are being used and expanded on by many others, now, but it was not always so as Randall explains on pages 434-437. It took time to gain a listening ear among fellow theoretical physicists, it took more time to be taken seriously by any of them, with a very few but very important exceptions, and then still more time until a critical mass of physicists not only accepted but started to work on the implications of her theory of “branes,” a word taken from but also changed from ‘membranes,’ structures in the universe that define the local laws and observed dimensions of physics but at the same time allow other laws and dimensions to prevail on other branes or away from branes.
Randall says this about branes early in her book (page 7):
The newly-studied membrane-like objects called branes are important components of the rich higher-dimensional landscapes. If extra dimensions are a physicist’s playground, then braneworlds–hypothesized universes in which we live on a brane–are the tantalizing, multi-layered, multifaceted jungle gyms. This book will take you to braneworlds and universes with curled-up, warped, large, and infinite dimensions, some of which have multiple branes housing unseen worlds. All of these are within the realm of possibility.
The next paragraph is also important:
The postulated braneworlds are a theoretical leap of faith, and the ideas they contain are speculative. However, as with the stock market, riskier ventures might fail, but they could also reward you with greater returns.
So after a book of more than 400 pages, has Randall browbeat the reader into accepting the existence of branes and braneworlds? No. On page 444 Randall asks: . . .“if we live on a brane, who knows what lies beyond?” Note the “if” word. The point is that brane theory has power to explain enigmas that can in some cases be tested, and Randall outlines some of those possible tests, and at the very end of the book confesses that, like Kaku, she has high hopes about the promise of new experiments leading to new discoveries: “Secrets of the cosmos will begin to unravel. I, for one, can’t wait.” (Page 444)
No wonder Kaku obviously liked her and gave her theory special treatment in his book (#4), their physics (and personal, it seems) points of view have a lot in common..
It is important for me to say here that Randall in no way claims to have developed her theory of braneworlds by herself, throughout the book she acknowledges co-workers with whom she collaborated on developing this theory. This is not a book written by her to make her look better than her colleagues, although she does poke some good natured fun at some of her colleagues along the way, and their tendency to have rather closed minds where new ideas are concerned. Gee, is Randall implying that physicists are also humans? Radical thought.
One place I did ‘grok’ immediately was on page 138 where Randall explains the Bohr-Heisenberg uncertainty principle in a very no-nonsense and pragmatic way:
The uncertainty principle says that certain pairs of quantities can never be measured accurately at the same time. This was a major departure from classical physics, . . . The particular pairs are those for which it matters which one you measure first.
Randall explains that Planck’s constant has to be invoked in the uncertainty principle because
. . . in quantum mechanics, the quanta of energy of a particle with a particular frequency is Planck’s constant times that frequency. If classical physics ruled the world, Planck’s constant would be zero and there would be no fundamental quantum.
But in the true quantum mechanical description of the world, Planck’s constant is a fixed, nonzero quantity. And that number tells us about uncertainty. In principle, any individual quantity can be accurately known. Sometimes physicists refer to the collapse of the wavefunction to specify that something has been accurately measured and therefore takes a precise value. The word “collapse” refers to the shape of the wavefunction, which is no longer spread out but takes a nonzero value at one particular place, since the probability of measuring any other value afterwards is zero. In this case–when one quantity is measured precisely–the uncertainty principle would tell you that after the measurement, you can know nothing at all about the other quantity that is paired with the measured quantity in the uncertainty principle.
Randall goes on to give even plainer language explanations of this principle in the pages that follow. And the summary of what the reader should remember from this uncertainty discussion is illuminating (page 149):
• The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, coupled with the relations of special relativity, tell us that, using physical constants, we can relate a particle’s mass, energy, and momentum to the minimum size of the region in which a particle of that energy can experience forces of interaction.
I love this matter of fact language, no spooky stuff about this measurement-taking being an act of “creation,” or similar nonsense, as in other books.
Randall on her page 60 explains multiverses in what to me is a very different approach than suggested in the books previously reviewed, and I like it much better than the idea of quantum level decisions splitting off new universes continually, for example. Randall’s idea is that there is one universe, but it may have different branes that do not interact at all except perhaps through gravity. These would never “see” or even detect each other, hence can be considered separate universes, making a multiverse. On page 62 Randall suggests that within a decade, we may have experimental evidence of whether we are living on a brane or not.
Randall’s explanation of general and special relativity, in Chapter 5, and the evidences for them both, are without a doubt the best descriptions I have ever read. I may now actually understand the basics.
Page 82 caught my attention because Randall here suggests that the Standard Model (for all its success) “leaves some fundamental questions unanswered” such as “the origin of the elementary particle’s masses” and “the weakness of gravity.” It is the part of the book that discusses the role of brane theory in unraveling these two mysteries, the very heart of this book, that I had to read over and over to ‘grok,’ even though her chapter devoted to the Standard Model (pages 150-178) was quite interesting and understandable (but it ends with the observation that she has spent years trying to understand the reason for there being three ‘generations’ of particles and why particles have the particular masses that they do, hinting that these issues are yet to be addressed).
On page 190 Randall says “The Standard Model works spectacularly well, but” . . . and then the topic becomes the masses of particles in a discussion of principles of symmetry, and of symmetry breaking, and it is in this chapter that I just never quite saw the necessity of symmetry breaking, although I understood all the examples showing that in nature, symmetry was broken to result in the world we know. I should have listened to Randall’s advice on page 196 and skipped ahead:
The connection between forces and symmetry is subtle, so you won’t usually read about it in outside textbooks. Because you really don’t need to understand this connection to follow the discussion of the issues about masses–including the Higgs mechanism and the hierarchy problem of the next few chapters–you can skip ahead to the next chapter at this point if you want. But if you’re interested in the role of internal symmetry in the theory of forces and the Higgs mechanism, read on.
But one of the reasons I wanted to read this book, once I looked over its content, is exactly this Higgs mechanism, I was always amazed at the strangeness of the masses of the elementary particles and it is here I thought I would gain some new insight. It was, but it was also here that I first got stuck and re-read several sections to see if perhaps it was just a key word that I missed that was making me miss some key point.
Part of the problem, I realize, is that the three difficult things for me to understand, symmetry breaking (why?), the Higgs mechanism (how?), and the hierarchy problem (why it doesn’t work quite as expected, related to the weakness of gravity) cannot be understood in isolation and are interdependent. In addition, supersymmetry, another speculative theory with some scientific basis, may also play a role in defining the Higgs particle mass, and that is yet another chapter. All of that is where I got stuck, hence Chapters 9 through 13 were re-read several times.
I looked for something in Randall’s book that Kaku caused me to anticipate. On his page 221 Kaku says, in his section on he work of Lisa Randall, that her idea of branes separated by hidden dimensions to be invisible could explain dark matter: a parallel universe would have mass and be invisible in this scheme.
Randall mentions supersymmetry explanations for dark matter on her pages 270-271. The key statement is this:
Another nice feature of supersymmetric theories is that they contain a natural candidate for dark matter. Dark matter is the nonluminous matter that pervades the universe and has been discovered through its gravitational influence. Even though about one-quarter of the energy in the universe is stored in dark matter, we still don’t know what it is. A supersymmetric particle that does not decay and has the right mass and the right interaction strength would be a suitable dark matter candidate. And indeed, the lightest supersymmetric particle doesn’t decay, and could have the right mass and the right interactions to be the particle of which dark matter is composed. . . . However, the case for supersymmetry is not airtight.
The discussion of the remaining questions that call supersymmetry into question follows on page 271, and some explanatory material that is supportive is discussed on the next few pages, but for me the important story is that whatever may have caused Kaku to write what he did, it was not reflected in Randall’s book. I get the distinct impression Randall is not into popularizing her work in the way some others may be. On his page 279 Kaku says the reason for the “loss” of the super-conducting super-collider was the failure of the physics community to “speak to the public in language they can understand.” If so, Kaku is in part writing to make sure there is public support for physics projects to be funded by the U.S. Congress. Randall may have some degree of that same motivation, but it doesn’t show. She is explaining things very well, to a point anyway, but is not making any promises that may or may not ever be realized. I like her style in that respect: she let’s it all hang out where uncertainties and their likely fixes are concerned.
One thing in Randall’s book that gave me some satisfaction is something I balked at in my review of that 1970s book, which was the assertion that particles were continually and spontaneously popping in and out of the vacuum, the vacuum was a cauldron of particle soup. I suggested, based on my readings at that time, that this was only true at the event horizon of a black hole where there was sufficient energy for particles to be brought into existence (E=mc2 remember?).
Randall shocks me on page 225 when she uses similar language about particles that “pop in and out of existence” but clarifies that they are “virtual” particles, “strange, ghostly twins of actual particles.” Apparently, it is interaction with virtual particles that typically reduces (or in some cases perhaps enhances) interaction strength with distance. So was I wrong in debunking the idea that the vacuum is a cauldron cooking up particles continually and reabsorbing them. Yes, if virtual particles were meant. No, if ‘real’ particles were meant, and the context led me to suspect the latter.
Randall’s chapter 14 on string and superstring theories were good discussions of the advances allowed by these theories as well as their shortcomings for explaining our universe, our existence and the particles of the Standard Model, there are substantial disconnects. I liked Randall’s observation on page 300 that “A world in which the anthropic principle is the answer [to explaining our low energy universe in which life can exist] would certainly be a disappointing and not very satisfying scenario.”
It is, finally, at Chapter 15 that branes are introduced in some detail, and Chapter 16 that discusses potential braneworlds. The enhanced explanatory power of brane theory on top of the insights already gained from string theory is elucidated.
Later chapters next address other convolutions on top of the theoretical framework provided by branes such as connections or passages between branes and the sequestering of particles or energy in other branes, warped branes, or in warped dimensions. The possibility of explaining gravity enigmas through assuming other dimensions is explored, and I understood part of the message in each of these chapters but not all of them.
I was really happy when Randall reviewed the book, essentially, in her Chapter 24. There she recapitulates physics’ remaining mysteries and shows they are substantial. Randall also recapitulates the problem of scales over which different laws of physics operate, and how this gives us a “cosmic horizon” beyond which we can know nothing. The extra-dimensional theories of which Randall is an advocate have the “intriguing” aspect of having “different consequences at different scales” (page 447).
Perhaps the more important discussion in this warp-up, for me anyway, was the one on page 448, which, after over 400 pages on the subject asked “What Are Dimensions, Anyway?” This was important for me because in this discussion Randall once again makes clear that the words we use and the mental images we attach to those words ought not to be confused with reality. Randall says at one point: . . . “our notions of dimension isn’t quite as firm as it looks–there’s a plasticity in the definition that eludes the conventional terminology.” Randall next says this insight is very important and relatively recent, then goes on to illustrate the point by following the meaning of dimensions in several theories showing they have different meanings and implications. On page 454 Randall suggests that one outcome of the very real progress in physics recently is the awareness “that space and time have more fundamental descriptions” than are currently in vogue. But she is optimistic about the future of physics, as already alluded to at the beginning of this ‘review’(p. 454):
. . . Nathan Seinberg asserted, “I am almost certain that space and time are illusions”; whereas David Gross imagines that, “Very likely, space and perhaps even time have constituents; space and time could turn out to be emergent properties of a very different looking theory.” Unfortunately, no one yet has any idea what the nature of this more fundamental description of spacetime will turn out to be. But a deeper understanding of the fundamental nature of space and time clearly remains one of the biggest and most intriguing challenges for physicists in the coming years.
This is a very welcome, open and refreshing statement, to me.
Thus ends my 2006 quest for enlightenment from what is new in physics. What have I learned? A lot. Nothing is quite the way I had mentally pictured it before, but I still have faith in the future of intelligent life in the universe. In fact it has been enhanced. That is important. It helpd get throug apparently dark days in the lives of individuals and nations, and even the world as a whole which seems embarked on some strange journeys that promise much agony and pain. But as a species we will get through this, and will survive to live a better collective life another day.