Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life

Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life

4.2 7
by Paul Davies

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Cosmic Jackpot is Paul Davies’s eagerly awaited return to cosmology, the successor to his critically acclaimed bestseller The Mind of God. Here he tackles all the "big questions," including the biggest of them all: Why does the universe seem so well adapted for life?

In his characteristically clear and elegant style, Davies shows how recent scientific… See more details below


Cosmic Jackpot is Paul Davies’s eagerly awaited return to cosmology, the successor to his critically acclaimed bestseller The Mind of God. Here he tackles all the "big questions," including the biggest of them all: Why does the universe seem so well adapted for life?

In his characteristically clear and elegant style, Davies shows how recent scientific discoveries point to a perplexing fact: many different aspects of the cosmos, from the properties of the humble carbon atom to the speed of light, seem tailor-made to produce life. A radical new theory says it’s because our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes, each one slightly different. Our universe is bio-friendly by accident -- we just happened to win the cosmic jackpot.

While this "multiverse" theory is compelling, it has bizarre implications, such as the existence of infinite copies of each of us and Matrix-like simulated universes. And it still leaves a lot unexplained. Davies believes there’s a more satisfying solution to the problem of existence: the observations we make today could help shape the nature of reality in the remote past. If this is true, then life -- and, ultimately, consciousness -- aren’t just incidental byproducts of nature, but central players in the evolution of the universe.

Whether he’s elucidating dark matter or dark energy, M-theory or the multiverse, Davies brings the leading edge of science into sharp focus, provoking us to think about the cosmos and our place within it in new and thrilling ways.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With an articulate blend of science, metaphysics and philosophy-and a dash of religion-physicist and cosmologist Davies discusses the implications of the fact that the conditions of our universe are "just right" for life to exist: a concept known as the anthropic principle. Had any of the universe's physical laws or constants been just a bit different, life as we know it would have been impossible. In attempting to explain why this is so, Davies summarizes the current state of knowledge in cosmology and provides an accessible introduction to particle physics. He evaluates numerous explanations for the structure of our universe, such as the possibility that ours is but one of an infinite number of "multiverses," and examines the question that inevitably arises in discussing the anthropic principle: does the design of the universe imply the existence of an intelligent designer? Davis's own feeling is that there is likely some sort of still undefined "life principle" in the cosmos but recognizes that this "is something I feel more in my heart than in my head." While there is much of interest, readers of Davies's earlier book The Mind of God will be familiar with a good deal of what is presented. 35 b&w illus. (Apr. 11) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

This is not a traditional popular science book; its BS651 call number reveals an emphasis on the religious and philosophical aspects of cosmology. Coming from physicist and cosmologist Davies (Arizona State Univ.; The Mind of God), 1995 winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, this is not surprising, though selectors should be aware of this teleological emphasis. What makes the book unique is Davies's ability to write in an approachable and human tone and with little technical jargon about "life, the universe, and everything." He successfully reveals the beauty with which science can describe the world, with phrases like "the silent mathematical tune to which it (the cosmos) dances." Descriptive diagrams help to introduce complex concepts and enrich major scientific ideas. Clear language and analogies make this work more accessible than most other popular cosmology books and enjoyable for all audiences. Recommended for larger public libraries. (Index not seen.)
—Joseph H. Murphy Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Kirkus Reviews
Some cosmologists consider our presence in the universe a central clue to its inner workings. Others strongly disagree. Davies (Physics/Arizona State; How to Build a Time Machine, 2002, etc.) is one of those who embrace the so-called anthropic principle (a name many of its advocates now wish they could change): the idea that our universe's suitability for intelligent life is not an accident but a logical development. He spends the first half of his book outlining the current state of our knowledge of the universe, from relativity and quantum theory to dark energy and M-theory. With this foundation laid, he raises a key question. Many of the fundamental properties of matter and of the forces that act upon it appear to be fine-tuned to permit the existence of living beings. Even minute changes in certain physical values would alter the universe so radically that not only life, but matter itself, could never have come into existence. The excess of matter over antimatter created in the Big Bang allowed our universe to form. A change in the strength of gravity might have prevented the formation of stars and planets. Why are these values what they are and not some other, equally plausible numbers? While many physicists are likely to shrug and say, "The universe doesn't have to make sense," Davies and his anthropic comrades counter with the idea that the universe we know is one of many, each slightly different, making up a multiverse; life simply arose in the area most suited to it. Davies admits that many of his colleagues detest the multiverse concept and the anthropic principle, but he clearly and comprehensively lays out their primary features and the fascinating questions they raise,without dodging the controversy they have stimulated. A lively exposition of cutting-edge science.
From the Publisher
"Paul Davies' Cosmic Jackpot is a truly mesmerizing book, no matter which you universe you may inhabit!"—Michio Kaku, prof. of theoretical physics, author of Hyperspace and Parallel Worlds

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Meet the Author

PAUL DAVIES is an internationally acclaimed physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist at Arizona State University. He is the author of more than twenty books, including The Mind of God, About Time, How to Build a Time Machine, and The Goldilocks Enigma.

Read an Excerpt

1 The Big Questions
Confronting the Mystery of Existence

For thousands of years, human beings have contemplated the world about them and asked the great questions of existence: Why are we here? How did the universe begin? How will it end? How is the world put together? Why is it the way it is? For all of recorded human history, people have sought answers to such "ultimate" questions in religion and philosophy or declared them to be completely beyond human comprehension. Today, however, many of these big questions are part of science, and some scientists claim that they may be on the verge of providing answers.

Two major developments have bolstered scientists' confidence that the answers lie within their grasp. The first is the enormous progress made in cosmology — the study of the large-scale structure and evolution of the universe. Observations made using satellites, the Hubble Space Telescope, and sophisticated ground-based instruments have combined to transform our view of the universe and the place of human beings within it. The second development is the growing understanding of the microscopic world within the atom — the subject known as high-energy particle physics. It is mostly carried out with giant particle accelerator machines (what were once called "atom smashers") of the sort found at Fermilab near Chicago and the CERN Laboratory just outside Geneva. Combining these two subjects — the science of the very large and the science of the very small — provides tantalizing clues that deep and previously unsuspected linkages bind the micro-world to the macro-world. Cosmologists are fondof saying that the big bang, which gave birth to the universe billions of years ago, was the greatest ever particle physics experiment. These spectacular advances hint at a much grander synthesis: nothing less than a complete and unified description of nature, a final "theory of everything" in which a flawless account of the entire physical world is encompassed within a single explanatory scheme.

The Universe Is Bio-Friendly

One of the most significant facts — arguably the most significant fact — about the universe is that we are part of it. I should say right at the outset that a great many scientists and philosophers fervently disagree with this statement: that is, they do not think that either life or consciousness is even remotely significant in the great cosmic scheme of things. My position, however, is that I take life and mind (that is, consciousness) seriously, for reasons I shall explain in due course. At first sight life seems to be irrelevant to the subject of cosmology. To be sure, the surface of the Earth has been modified by life, but in the grand sweep of the cosmos our planet is but an infinitesimal dot. There is an indirect sense, however, in which the existence of life in the universe is an important cosmological fact. For life to emerge, and then to evolve into conscious beings like ourselves, certain conditions have to be satisfied. Among the many prerequisites for life — at least, for life as we know it — is a good supply of the various chemical elements needed to make biomass. Carbon is the key life-giving element, but oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus are crucial too. Liquid water is another essential ingredient. Life also requires an energy source and a stable environment, which in our case are provided by the sun. For life to evolve past the level of simple microbes, this life-encouraging setting has to remain benign for a very long time; it took billions of years for life on Earth to reach the point of intelligence.

On a larger scale, the universe must be sufficiently old and cool to permit complex chemistry. It has to be orderly enough to allow the untrammeled formation of galaxies and stars. There have to be the right sorts of forces acting between particles of matter to make stable atoms, complex molecules, planets, and stars. If almost any of the basic features of the universe, from the properties of atoms to the distribution of the galaxies, were different, life would very probably be impossible.1 Now, it happens that to meet these various requirements, certain stringent conditions must be satisfied in the underlying laws of physics that regulate the universe, so stringent in fact that a bio-friendly universe looks like a fix — or a "put-up job," to use the pithy description of the late British cosmologist Fred Hoyle. It appeared to Hoyle as if a superintellect had been "monkeying" with the laws of physics.2 He was right in his impression. On the face of it, the universe does look as if it has been designed by an intelligent creator expressly for the purpose of spawning sentient beings. Like the porridge in the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, the universe seems to be "just right" for life, in many intriguing ways. No scientific explanation for the universe can be deemed complete unless it accounts for this appearance of judicious design.

Until recently, "the Goldilocks factor" was almost completely ignored by scientists. Now, that is changing fast. As I shall discuss in the following chapters, science is at last coming to grips with the enigma of why the universe is so uncannily fit for life. The explanation entails understanding how the universe began and evolved into its present form and knowing what matter is made of and how it is shaped and structured by the different forces of nature. Above all, it requires us to probe the very nature of physical laws.

The Cosmic Code

Throughout history, prominent thinkers have been convinced that the everyday world observed through our senses represents only the surface manifestation of a deeper hidden reality, where the answers to the great questions of existence should be sought. So compelling has been this belief that entire societies have been shaped by it. Truth seekers have practiced complex rituals and rites, used drugs and meditation to enter trancelike states, and consulted shamans, mystics and priests in an attempt to lift the veil on a shadowy world that lies beneath the one we perceive. The word occult originally meant "knowledge of concealed truth," and seeking a gateway to the occult domain has been a major preoccupation of all cultures, ranging from the Dreaming of Aboriginal Australians to the myth of Adam and Eve tasting the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.

The advent of reasoned argument and logic did nothing to dispel the beguiling notion of a hidden reality. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato compared the world of appearances to a shadow playing on the wall of a cave. Followers of Pythagoras were convinced that numbers possess mystical significance. The Bible is also replete with numerology, for example, the frequent appearances of 7 and 40, or the association of 666 with Satan. The power of numbers led to a belief that certain integers, geometrical shapes, and formulas could invoke contact with a supernatural plane and that obscure codes known only to initiates might unlock momentous cosmic secrets.3 Remnants of ancient numerology survive today: some superstitious people still believe that numbers such as 8 and 13 are lucky or unlucky.

Attempts to gain useful information about the world through magic, mysticism, and secret mathematical codes mostly led nowhere. But about 350 years ago, the greatest magician who ever lived finally stumbled on the key to the universe — a cosmic code that would open the floodgates of knowledge. This was Isaac Newton — mystic, theologian, and alchemist — and in spite of his mystical leanings, he did more than anyone to change the age of magic into the age of science. Newton, together with a small number of other scientific luminaries who included Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei, gave birth to the modern scientific age. The word science is derived from the Latin scientia, simply meaning "knowledge." Originally it was just one of many arcane methods used to probe beyond the limitations of our senses in the hope of accessing an unseen reality. The particular brand of "magic" employed by the early scientists involved hitherto unfamiliar and specialized procedures, such as manipulating mathematical symbols on pieces of paper and coaxing matter to behave in strange ways. Today we take such practices for granted and call them scientific theory and experiment. No longer is the scientific method of inquiry regarded as a branch of magic, the obscure dabbling of a closed and privileged priesthood. But familiarity breeds contempt, and these days the significance of the scientific process is often underappreciated. In particular, people show little surprise that science actually works and that we really are in possession of the key to the universe. The ancients were right: beneath the surface complexity of nature lies a hidden subtext, written in a subtle mathematical code. This cosmic code4 contains the secret rules on which the universe runs. Newton, Galileo, and other early scientists treated their investigations as a religious quest. They thought that by exposing the patterns woven into the processes of nature they truly were glimpsing the mind of God.5 Modern scientists are mostly not religious, yet they still accept that an intelligible script underlies the workings of nature, for to believe otherwise would undermine the very motivation for doing research, which is to uncover something meaningful about the world that we don't already know.

Finding the key to the universe was by no means inevitable. For a start, there is no logical reason why nature should have a mathematical subtext in the first place. And even if it does, there is no obvious reason why humans should be capable of comprehending it. You would never guess by looking at the physical world that beneath the surface hubbub of natural phenomena lies an abstract order, an order that can't be seen or heard or felt, but deduced. Even the wisest mind couldn't tell merely from daily experience that the diverse physical systems making up the cosmos are linked, deep down, by a network of coded mathematical relationships. Yet science has uncovered the existence of this concealed mathematical domain.We human beings have been made privy to the deepest workings of the universe. Other animals observe the same natural phenomena as we do, but alone among the creatures on this planet, Homo sapiens can also explain them.

How has this come about? Somehow the universe has engineered, not just its own awareness, but also its own comprehension. Mindless, blundering atoms have conspired to make not just life, not just mind, but understanding. The evolving cosmos has spawned beings who are able not merely to watch the show, but to unravel the plot. What is it that enables something as small and delicate and adapted to terrestrial life as the human brain to engage with the totality of the cosmos and the silent mathematical tune to which it dances? For all we know, this is the first and only time anywhere in the universe that minds have glimpsed the cosmic code. If humans are snuffed out in the twinkling of a cosmic eye, it may never happen again. The universe may endure for a trillion years, shrouded in total mystery, save for a fleeting pulse of enlightenment on one small planet around one average star in one unexceptional galaxy, 13.7 billion years after it all began.

Could it just be a fluke? Might the fact that the deepest level of reality has connected to a quirky natural phenomenon we call "the human mind" represent nothing but a bizarre and temporary aberration in an absurd and pointless universe? Or is there an even deeper subplot at work?

The Concept of Laws

I may have given the impression that Newton belonged to a small sect that conjured science out of the blue as a result of mystical investigation. This wasn't so. Their work did not take place in a cultural vacuum: it was the product of many ancient traditions. One of these was Greek philosophy, which encouraged the belief that the world could be explained by logic, reasoning, and mathematics. Another was agriculture, from which people learned about order and chaos by observing the cycles and rhythms of nature, punctuated by sudden and unpredictable disasters. And then there were religions, especially monotheistic faiths, which encouraged belief in a created world order. The founding assumption of science is that the physical universe is neither arbitrary nor absurd; it is not just a meaningless jumble of objects and phenomena haphazardly juxtaposed. Rather, there is a coherent scheme of things. This is often expressed by the simple aphorism that there is order in nature. But scientists have gone beyond this vague notion to formulate a system of well-defined laws.

The existence of laws of nature is the starting point of this book, and indeed it is the starting point of science itself. But right at the outset we encounter an obvious and profound enigma:

Where do the laws of nature come from?

As I have remarked, Galileo, Newton, and their contemporaries regarded the laws as thoughts in the mind of God, and their elegant mathematical form as a manifestation of God's rational plan for the universe. Few scientists today would describe the laws of nature using such quaint language. Yet the questions remain of what these laws are and why they have the form that they do. If they aren't the product of divine providence, how can they be explained?

Historically, laws of nature were discussed by analogy to civil law, which arose as a means of regulating human society. Civil law is a concept that dates back to the time of the first settled communities, when some form of authority was needed to prevent social disorder. Typically, a despotic leader would concoct a set of rules and exhort the populace to comply with them. Since one person's rules can be another person's problem, rulers would often appeal to divine authority to buttress their power. A city's god might be literally a stone statue in the town square, and a priest would be appointed to interpret the god's commandments. The notion of turning to a higher, nonmaterial authority as justification for civil law underpins the Ten Commandments and was refined in the Jewish Torah. Remnants of this notion survived into the modern era as the concept of the divine right of kings.

Appeal was also made to an invisible higher power in support of laws of nature. In the fourth century BCE the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes described "Universal Nature, piloting all things according to Law."6 The order of nature was perhaps clearest in the heavens — the very domain of the gods. Indeed, the word astronomy means "law of the stars." The first-century bce Roman poet Lucretius referred to the way in which nature requires "each thing to abide by the law that governs its creation."7 In the first century ce, Marcus Manilius was explicit about the source of nature's order, writing that "God brought the whole universe under law."8 It was a position wholeheartedly embraced by the monotheistic religions: God the Creator was also God the Lawmaker, who ordered nature according to his divine purposes. Thus the early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo wrote that "the ordinary course of nature in the whole of creation has certain natural laws."9

By the thirteenth century, European theologians and scholars such as Roger Bacon had arrived at the conclusion that laws of nature possess a mathematical basis, a notion that dates back to the Pythagoreans. Oxford University became the center for scholars who applied mathematical philosophy to the study of nature. One of these so-called Oxford Calculators was Thomas Bradwardine (1295–1349), later to become archbishop of Canterbury. Bradwardine has been credited with the first scientific work to announce a general mathematical law of physics in the modern sense. Given this background, it is no surprise that when modern science emerged in Christian Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was perfectly natural for the early scientists to believe that the laws they were discovering in the heavens and on Earth were the mathematical manifestations of God's ingenious handiwork.

The Special Status of the Laws of Physics

Today, the laws of physics occupy the central position in science; indeed, they have assumed an almost deistic status themselves, often cited as the bedrock of physical reality. Let me give an everyday example. If you go to Pisa in Italy, you can see the famous leaning tower (now restored to a safe inclination by engineering works). Tradition says that Galileo dropped balls from the top of the tower to demonstrate how they fall under gravity. Whether or not this is true, he certainly did carry out some careful experiments with falling bodies, which is how he came to discover the following law. If you drop a ball from the top of a tall building and measure how far it falls in one second, then repeat the experiment for two seconds, three seconds, and so on, you will find that the distance the ball travels increases as the square of the time. The ball will fall four times as far in two seconds as in one, nine times as far in three seconds, and so on. Schoolchildren learn about this law as "a fact of nature" and normally move on without giving it much further thought. But I want to stop right there and ask the question, Why? Why is there such a mathematical rule at work on falling bodies? Where does the rule come from? And why that rule and not some other?

Let me give another example of a law of physics, one that made a big impression on me in my school days. It concerns the way magnets lose their grip on each other with separation. Line them up side by side and measure the force as the distance between them increases. You will find that the force diminishes with the cube of the distance, which is to say that if we double the distance between the magnets, the force falls to one eighth, treble it and the force will be one twenty-seventh, and so on. Again, I am prompted to ask the question, Why?

Some laws of physics bear the name of their discoverer, such as Boyle's law for gases, which tells you that if you double the volume of a fixed mass of gas while keeping the temperature constant, its pressure is halved. Or Kepler's laws of planetary motion, one of which says that the square of the period of an orbit is proportional to the cube of the orbit's radius. Perhaps the best-known laws are Newton's laws of motion and gravitation, the latter supposedly inspired by an apple falling from a tree. It states that the force of gravity diminishes with distance as the square of the separation between the two bodies. That is, the force that binds the Earth to the sun, and prevents it from flying off alone across the galaxy, would fall to only one quarter the strength if the Earth's orbit were twice as big. This is known as an inverse square law. I have drawn a graph depicting it in Figure 1.

The fact that the physical world conforms to mathematical laws led Galileo to make a famous remark. "The great book of nature," he wrote, "can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And this language is mathematics."10 The same point was made more bluntly three centuries later by the English astronomer James Jeans: "The universe appears to have been designed by a pure mathematician."11 It is the mathematical aspect that makes possible what physicists mean by the much-misunderstood word theory. Theoretical physics entails writing down equations that capture (or model, as scientists say) the real world of experience in a mathematical world of numbers and algebraic formulas. Then, by manipulating the mathematical symbols, one can work out what will happen in the real world, without actually carrying out the observation. That is, by applying the equations that express the laws relevant to the problem of interest, the theoretical physicist can predict the answer. For example, by using Newton's laws of motion and gravitation, engineers can figure out when a spacecraft launched from Earth will reach Mars. They can also calculate the required mass of fuel, the most favorable orbit, and a host of other factors in advance of the mission. And it works! The mathematical model faithfully describes what actually happens in the real world. (Of course, in practice one may have to simplify the model to save time and cost of the analysis, making the predictions good only to a certain level of approximation, but that is not the fault of the laws.)

When I was at school I took a fancy to a young lady in my class named Lindsay. I didn't see much of her because she was studying mainly the arts and I was studying the sciences and mathematics. But we did meet up in the school library from time to time. On one occasion I was busy doing a calculation. I even remember what it was. If you throw a ball in the air at a certain speed and angle, Newton's laws let you work out how far it will travel before it hits the ground. The equations tell you that to achieve maximum range you should throw the ball at 45° to the horizontal. If the ground on which you are standing slopes upward, however, the angle needs to be greater; by how much depends on the amount of slope. I was deeply engrossed in calculating the maximum range up an inclined plane when Lindsay looked up and asked what I was doing. I explained. She seemed puzzled and skeptical. "How can you possibly know what a ball will do by writing things on a sheet of paper?" she asked. At the time I dismissed her question as silly — after all, this was what we had been taught to do! But over the years I came to see that her impulsive response precisely captures one of the deepest mysteries of science: Why is nature shadowed by a mathematical reality? Why does theoretical physics work?12

How Many Laws Are There?

As scientists have probed deeper and deeper into the workings of nature, all
sorts of laws have come to light that are not at all obvious from a casual inspection of the world, for example, laws that regulate the internal components of atoms or the structure of stars. The multiplicity of laws raises another challenging question: How long would a complete list of laws be? Would it include ten? twenty? two hundred? Might the list even be infinitely long?

Not all the laws are independent of one another. It wasn't long after Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Boyle began discovering laws of physics that scientists found links between them. For example, Newton's laws of gravitation and motion explain Kepler's three laws of planetary motion and so are in some sense deeper and more powerful. Newton's laws of motion also explain Boyle's law of gases when they are applied in a statistical way to a large collection of chaotically moving molecules.

In the four centuries that have passed since the first laws of physics were discovered, more and more have come to light, but more and more links have been spotted too. The laws of electricity, for example, were found to be connected to the laws of magnetism, which in turn explained the laws of light. These interconnections led to a certain amount of confusion about which laws were "primary" and which could be derived from others. Physicists began talking about "fundamental" laws and "secondary" laws, with the implication that the latter were formulated for convenience only. Sometimes physicists call these "effective laws" to distinguish them from the "true" underlying fundamental laws, within which, at least in principle, the effective, or secondary, laws can all be subsumed. In this respect, the laws of physics differ markedly from the laws of civil society, which are an untidy hodgepodge of statutes expanding without limit. To take an extreme case, the tax laws in most countries run to millions of words of text. By comparison, the Great Rule Book of Nature (at least as it is currently understood) would fit comfortably onto a single page. This streamlining and repackaging process — finding links between laws and reducing them to ever more fundamental laws — continues apace, and it's tempting to believe that, at rock bottom, there is just a handful of truly fundamental laws, possibly even a single superlaw, from which all the other laws derive.

Given that the laws of physics underpin the entire scientific enterprise, it is curious that very few scientists bother to ask what these laws actually mean. Speak to physicists, and most of them will talk as if the laws are real things — not physical objects, of course, but abstract relationships between physical entities. Importantly, though, they are relationships that really exist "out there" in the world and not just in our heads.

For brevity I have been a bit cavalier with my terminology. If you confront a physicist and say, "Show me the laws of physics," you will be referred to a collection of textbooks — on mechanics, gravitation, electromagnetism, nuclear physics, and so on. But a pertinent question is whether the laws you find in the books are actually the laws of physics or just somebody's best stab at them. Few physicists would claim that a law found in a book in print today is the last word on the subject; all the textbook laws are probably just some sort of approximation of the real ones. Most physicists nevertheless believe that as science advances, the textbook laws will converge on the Real Thing.13

Are the Laws Real?

There is a subtlety buried in all this that will turn out to be of paramount importance when I come to discuss the origin of the laws. The idea of laws began as a way of formalizing patterns in nature that connect physical events. Physicists became so familiar with the laws that somewhere along the way the laws themselves — as opposed to the events they describe — became promoted to reality. The laws took on a life of their own. It is hard for nonscientists to grasp the significance of this step. One analogy might be made with the world of finance. Money in the pocket means coins and notes — real physical things that get exchanged for real physical goods or services. But money in the abstract has also taken on a life of its own. Investors can grow (or shrink, in my case) money without ever buying or selling physical stuff. For example, there are rules for manipulating different currencies that are at best tenuously connected to the actual purchasing function in your local corner shop. In fact, there is far more "money" in circulation, much of it swirling around cyberspace via the Internet, than can ever be accumulated as coins and notes. In a similar vein, the laws of physics are said to inhabit an abstract realm and touch the physical world only when they "act." It's almost as if the laws are lying in wait, ready to seize control of a physical process and compel it to comply, just as the rules of monetary conversion are "in place" even when nobody is actually converting anything. This "prescriptive" view of physical laws as having power over nature is not without its detractors (namely, philosophers who prefer a "descriptive" view).14 But most physicists working on fundamental topics inhabit the prescriptive camp, even if they won't own up to it explicitly.

So we have this image of really existing laws of physics ensconced in a transcendent aerie, lording it over lowly matter. One reason for this way of thinking about the laws concerns the role of mathematics. Numbers began as a way of labeling and tallying physical things such as beads or sheep. As the subject of mathematics developed, and extended from simple arithmetic into geometry, algebra, calculus, and so forth, so these mathematical objects and relationships came to assume an independent existence. Mathematicians believe that statements such as "3 × 5 = 15" and "11 is a prime number" are inherently true — in some absolute and general sense — without being restricted to "three sheep" or "eleven beads."

Plato considered the status of mathematical objects and chose to locate numbers and idealized geometrical shapes in an abstract realm of perfect forms. In this Platonic heaven there would be found, for example, perfect circles — as opposed to the circles we encounter in the real world, which will always be flawed approximations to the ideal. Many modern mathematicians are Platonists (at least on weekends). They believe that mathematical objects have real existence yet are not situated in the physical universe. Theoretical physicists, who are steeped in the Platonic tradition, also find it natural to locate the mathematical laws of physics in a Platonic realm. I have depicted this arrangement diagrammatically in Figure 2. In the final chapter I shall take a critical look at the nature of physical laws and ask whether the Platonic view has become an unwelcome fixation in the drive to understand the mathematical underpinnings of the universe.

Goodbye God?

Religion was the first systematic attempt to explain the universe comprehensively. It presented the world as a product of mind or minds, of supernatural agents who could order or disorder nature at will. In Hinduism, Brahma is creator and Shiva destroyer. In Judaism, Yahweh is both creator and destroyer. For the traditional Aboriginal people of the Kimberley in Australia, two creator beings acted in synergy. Wallanganda, a male space being, sprinkled water on Wunngud, a female snake coiled in jelly, to make Yorro Yorro — the world as we see it.15 In these sorts of schemes, things are as they are because a god (or gods) decided they should be so. The major world religions devoted centuries of scholarship in attempts to make these theistic explanations cogent and consistent. Even today, millions of people base their worldview on a religious interpretation of nature.

Science was the second great attempt to explain the world. This time, explanations were cast in terms of impersonal forces and natural, physical processes rather than the activities of purposive supernatural agents. When scientific explanations conflicted with religious explanations, religion invariably lost the battle. Mostly, theologians retreated to concentrate on social and ethical matters such as spiritual enlightenment, content to leave interpreting the physical universe to the scientists. There are still people who believe that rain is made by rain gods rather than by atmospheric processes, but I wouldn't rate their chances in a debate with a meteorologist.

When it comes to actual physical phenomena, science wins hands down against gods and miracles. That is not to say that science has explained everything. There remain some pretty big gaps: for example, scientists don't know how life began, and they are almost totally baffled by consciousness. Even some familiar phenomena, such as turbulent fluids, are not completely understood. But this doesn't mean that one needs to appeal to magic or miracles to plug the gaps; what is needed are advances in scientific understanding. This is a topic I shall address in detail in Chapter 10.

When it comes to metaphysical questions such as "Why are there laws of nature?" the situation is less clear. These sorts of questions are not much affected by specific scientific discoveries: many of the really big questions have remained unchanged since the birth of civilization and still vex us today. The various faith traditions have had hundreds of years to ponder them carefully. Religious scholars such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas were not pious simpletons, but the intellectual heavyweights of their age.

Many scientists who are struggling to construct a fully comprehensive theory of the physical universe openly admit that part of the motivation is to finally get rid of God, whom they view as a dangerous and infantile delusion. And not only God, but any vestige of God-talk, such as "meaning" or "purpose" or "design" in nature.

These scientists see religion as so fraudulent and sinister that nothing less than total theological cleansing will do. They concede no middle ground and regard science and religion as two implacably opposed worldviews. Victory is assumed to be the inevitable outcome of science's intellectual ascendancy and powerful methodology.

But will God go quietly? Even within the world of organized religion, the concept of God means many different things to different people. At the level of popular, Sunday-school Christianity, God is portrayed simplistically as a sort of Cosmic Magician, conjuring the world into being from nothing and from time to time working miracles to fix problems. Such a being is obviously in flagrant contradiction to the scientific view of the world. The God of scholarly theology, by contrast, is cast in the role of a wise Cosmic Architect whose existence is manifested through the rational order of the cosmos, an order that is in fact revealed by science. That sort of God is largely immune to scientific attack.

Is the Universe Pointless?

Even atheistic scientists will wax lyrical about the scale, the majesty, the harmony, the elegance, the sheer ingenuity of the universe of which they form so small and fragile a part. As the great cosmic drama unfolds before us, it begins to look as though there is a "script" — a scheme of things — that its evolution is following. We are then bound to ask, Who or what wrote the script? Or did the script somehow, miraculously, write itself? Is the great cosmic text laid down once and for all, or is the universe, or the invisible author, making it up as it goes along? Is this the only drama being staged, or is our universe just one of many shows in town?

The fact that the universe conforms to an orderly scheme, and is not an arbitrary muddle of events, prompts one to wonder — God or no God — whether there is some sort of meaning or purpose behind it all. Many scientists are quick to pour scorn even on this weaker suggestion, however. Richard Feynman, arguably the finest theoretical physicist of the mid- twentieth century, thought that "the great accumulation of understanding as to how the physical world behaves only convinces one that this behavior has a kind of meaninglessness about it."16 This sentiment is echoed by the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Steven Weinberg: "The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless."17Weinberg came in for some flak from his colleagues for writing this comment — not because he denied that the universe had a point, but for even suggesting that it could have a point.

To be sure, concepts like meaning and purpose are categories devised by humans, and we must take care when attempting to project them onto the physical universe. But all attempts to describe the universe scientifically draw on human concepts: science proceeds precisely by taking concepts that humans have thought up, often from everyday experience, and applying them to nature. Doing science means figuring out what is going on in the world — what the universe is "up to," what it is "about." If it isn't "about" anything, there would be no good reason to embark on the scientific quest in the first place, because we would have no rational basis for believing that we could thereby uncover additional coherent and meaningful facts about the world. So we might justifiably invert Weinberg's dictum and say that the more the universe seems pointless, the more it also seems incomprehensible. Of course, scientists might be deluded in their belief that they are finding systematic and coherent truth in the workings of nature. It could be we who weave a tapestry of dazzling intellectual elegance from what is nothing more than a banality. Ultimately there may be no reason at all for why things are the way they are. But that would make the universe a fiendishly clever bit of trickery. Can a truly absurd universe so convincingly mimic a meaningful one? This is the biggest of the big questions of existence that we will confront as we embark on our investigation of life, the universe, and everything.

Key Points
• Many big questions of existence are now on the scientific agenda.
• A really big question is why the universe is fit for life; it looks "fixed up."
• The universe obeys mathematical laws; they are like a hidden subtext in
nature. To appreciate this book you have to be comfortable with that idea.
• The mathematical laws of physics underlie everything. Many physicists
think they are real and that they inhabit a transcendent Platonic realm.
• Science reveals that there is a coherent scheme of things, but scientists do
not necessarily interpret that as evidence for meaning or purpose in the
universe. Most, but by no means all, scientists are atheists or agnostics.
• Somehow I am supposed to explain all this.

Copyright © 2007 by Orion Productions. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.

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