Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ultimate Explanations of the Universe

Why is there something rather than nothing? What was the origin of the universe? What is the future of the universe? Is the universe finite or infinite? Is our universe the only logically possible universe? Are there other universes? What is the relationship between life and the universe?

These fundamental metaphysical questions have always exerted a fascination for mankind, but over the past hundred years physical cosmology has begun to provide scientific answers to these questions, answers formulated using well-defined mathematical concepts, and verified by astronomical observation.

In more recent decades, however, a sub-industry has developed which produces cosmological theories and models lacking any empirical substantiation. The audience for such highly speculative cosmology consists not only of physicists and cosmologists, but the public-at-large. There is a shop-front for this brand of cosmology, composed of popular science programmes on TV, books such as Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, and articles in magazines such as Scientific American and New Scientist.

There is a problem with the manner in which this type of cosmology is presented to the public, and it conforms with Ben Goldacre's characterisation of the way in which all science is treated by the media:

On this template, science is portrayed as groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality; they do work that is either wacky or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory, probably going to change soon and, most ridiculously, 'hard to understand'. (Bad Science, p225).

Cosmology is presented in the media as being beyond the understanding of the public, and beyond their ability to engage in critical appraisal. The concepts and reasoning are rarely properly explained, and almost never subjected to critical analysis. In the case of speculative cosmology, the ideas are also presented in a credulous and philosophically naive manner.

As an antidote to this comes Ultimate Explanations of the Universe, the latest book by Michael Heller, Polish physicist, philosopher, priest, and winner of the million-pound 2008 Templeton Prize. The text offers a critical guide to all the big philosophical issues in cosmology: eternal universes, cyclic universes, the heath death of the universe, quantum creation out of nothing, inflation, the anthropic principle, cosmological natural selection, theories of everything, and multiverses. The text is quite dense, but the book is still accessible to anyone with an interest in such ultimate questions, and will assist non-specialists seeking to assess the metaphysical credentials of modern cosmology.


John Schmidt said...

A heath death of the universe sounds nice and peaceful.

John Schmidt said...

I like the sound of "heath death".

Jorgon Gorgon said...

I do not mean to sound elitist, but I find it difficult to imagine how a "non-specialist" would be able to properly evaluate the claims of, say, M-theory without a requisite mathematical background. Not to say that s/he may get a decent idea of what is going on in a particular field, only that s/he will not be able to make an informed decision whther string theory is more plausible than loop quantum gravity, for example.

Sean said...

Well if the equation count is less than 1 per page, I might give it a go.

And it will have to address the idea of the quantum mind, I do subscribe (at the moment at least) to the idea that their is something odd and not computable about this universe.

Yup I know that when you open things up in such a fashion all sort of cranks take to the field, but its the price you pay.

Gordon McCabe said...

Agreed Jorgon.

Rex said...

I bought this book after having seen it mentioned in an earlier post on your blog. So, Heller owes you for one sale at least!

AND, I thought it was well worth reading, and I agree with a lot of what he said. I think this book does a good job of correcting (supplementing?) the way that cosmology and physics is generally presented to the public.

But it could have been much better. It felt way too short...too terse. It felt as though I was being rushed.

The book was only 215 pages (including the index) - I think that adding another 100 pages, or even 200 pages, to expand on all of the ideas presented would have been very helpful.

So, really, that's my only complaint: Too short. A very condensed overview of a lot of information. You really have to bring a lot of background knowledge to this book.

I'm sure it wasn't intended an introduction to the scientific and philosophical topics discussed, but I'd really love to see this book fleshed out into something that takes a stab in that direction.

Gordon McCabe said...

Again I agree Rex, although I think part of the problem may be that the book has been translated from the Polish rather than written directly in English.

Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa said...

The English translation is the same length as the Polish original. It's a full translation: nothing has been left out, apart from a few minor changes in the bibliography and a different form of index (the one in the original book is only an index of persons). I found it terse in the original language version as I translated it.
Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa

Gordon McCabe said...

Thanks Teresa. I didn't mean to imply there was anything wrong with the translation as such.