Jan 30: A Fortunate Universe
Science can sometimes be quite heavy stuff and I'm a slow learner, so when I go to a lecture or read an article, I'm really happy if I learn just one new "take home" fact about astronomy that I didn't know previously.
So I'm pleased to have picked up several things from reading A Fortunate Universe by Prof. Geraint Lewis and Dr. Luke Barnes, two Cosmologists from the University of Sydney.
The physics explanations throughout the first six chapters were informative, challenging and inspiring - and sometimes speculative. They were exactly what I would expect from Geraint and Luke but I was sceptical of claims that our Universe might belong to a multitude of other Universes, known as a multiverse.
Geraint Lewis addressing Macarthur Astronomy Forum (image r.powell)
After all, Carl Sagan told us that:
"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be".
That seemed to link our Universe and the Cosmos as being one and the same - but something clicked about multiverse theory when I read this sentence in the book:
"Different parts of the Universe end their inflating phase at different times, creating the patchwork of domains......"
<light bulb "on" moment>
So these other universes (if they exist) might be other vast domains inside our own even vaster Universe but well beyond our observable universe - and potentially with different laws and constants of physics, caused by the early period of inflation timing out differently in remote regions of the early Universe.
Such speculation is hard to contemplate but is not as boggling as trying to comprehend a multiverse of individual universes outside our own Universe. Yet a "law differential" between different regions of space sounds strange and counter-intuitive! If the basic laws of the Universe over there are different from the laws over here, then at what stage of a thought experiment carrying the first space-craft on a journey between the two will one law transition into another? and will it be a rocky ride for the occupants during that transition?
Much of A Fortunate Universe is spent discussing particle physics and I learned something simple that I didn't know before - that electron orbits are wave-like and require exact phase synchronisation with the electron wave. If the wavelength of the vibrating electron is not an exact fit to the orbital path, then the orbital transition does not occur. That sounds so simple - but it took A Fortunate Universe for me to discover that - and the mystifying quantum world just became (ever so slightly) more understandable!
Yet the overriding theme of the book - that the Universe is fine-tuned for life - is still something which I remain sceptical about.
After the Big Bang and the proposed inflationary period (which may or may not have set the laws of our Universe) there must have been an almost infinite number of accidents which led to life on Earth. The chaotic motion of primordial gas clouds that formed generations of stars which forged and spewed the carbon and other elements which formed the Solar System. The random orbits and gravitational disturbances of debris which came together to form the Earth. The eons of change on Earth which finally brought about primitive life. The vast number of natural events of evolution which formed animal - and human - life.
The number of chance meetings of a multitude of ancestral generations which then conspired to produce the current generation of homo sapiens is also huge.
Do all these accidental events mean that planet Earth fine-tuned to produce............me?
Fine tuning of the Universe is a new concept to me; and my natural perception is that "observers must inhabit an observer-permitting universe".
Regardless, it is encouraging to see two innovative cosmologists embracing the challenge of exploring the concept - and who knows where it will lead?
Luke Barnes addressing Macarthur Astronomy Forum - (image r.powell)
So where might it lead?
Well, my scepticism was also a side effect of my concern over the book title and where it might lead. Fine tuning? Surely that is not going lead to crazy claims of a "fine tuner"?
Sure enough, three quarters of the way through the book, the two scientists appear to be exhausted from their exhilarating debate about the cosmos - and silliness takes over with Luke postulating that:
"the Universe contains life because it was designed and constructed that way" and "it has seemed obvious to many that the various parts are put together in a purposeful way".
What a loaded statement! Scientific evidence? 0%. Biased dogma deriving a pre-determined answer? 100%.
For the first three quarters of A Fortunate Universe, I just couldn't put it down - but for the last quarter it was hard to muster the enthusiasm to even pick it up. "A Fortunate Universe" begins with the sublime and continues with the exhilarating - but ends with "An Unfortunate Chapter".
The world of religion often scorns science but from time to time, theology enthusiasts will pop up to argue (or pretend) that science legitimises their preconceived supernatural beliefs. A frequent example being the astronomers who speculate that the so-called "Star of Bethlehem" was a comet/planetary conjunction/supernova, when they would be far better saying that, like the Flood, there is no evidence for it happening at all.
Luke's philosophical argument in favour of some omnipotent Phantom of the Universe, twiddling the celestial dials to create countless universes but only one which is suitable for life defies logic; and he unscientifically attempts to justify it with a typical theologian's lack of evidence.
Christians so often start with the answer and mould the questions to suit. The rather novel scientific interactions between two fine cosmologists degenerated into a debate over whether "god did it", ferociously led by Luke and seemingly reluctantly tolerated by Geraint.
The biggest unsolved mystery of our time is what happened before the Big Bang - or more accurately, what happened before the Universe entered its inflation epoch. No doubt science will eventually work it out but in the meantime religious folks are left with a "space" in which to manoeuvre their fading god into it.
No doubt the Templeton Foundation is ecstatic with how the book ends; but without any evidence, speculation about the supposed existence of any god has no place in science. Dress this speculation up and call it philosophy if you must. I'm fine with people who choose personal religious beliefs but as Michael Shermer said:
"There is no such thing as the paranormal and the supernatural; there is only the normal and the natural and mysteries we have yet to explain."
For the record, my cynicism also applies to Geraint's hypothesis that we might live in a simulated Universe. That idea is nothing less than a caricature of the "god" concept and I half-suspect that Geraint introduced it as a satirical comparison. As with the deity hypothesis - faith, intuition and guesswork seem to abound in bucketfuls, whilst the evidence bucket remains empty.
As for the intriguing physics provided in the book about fine tuning itself, I'll take the data on board and reserve judgment. While firmly dismissing any "creator" concept, I am comfortable with mainstream science admitting that they do not yet know how the Universe began.
I hope they find out soon!
Is there a god? Dr Luke Barnes is a cosmologist attached to Sydney University. He is supported by the pro-Christian think tank, the Templeton Foundation. In "A Fortunate Universe", a book* written in collaboration with Prof Geraint Lewis (Sy
Tracked: Mar 15, 16:55