The Life of the Cosmos

( 5 )


Cosmologist Lee Smolin offers a startling new theory of the universe that is at once elegant, comprehensive, and radically different from anything proposed before. In The Life of the Cosmos, Smolin cuts the Gordian knot of cosmology with a simple, powerful idea: "The underlying structure of our world," he writes, "is to be found in the logic of evolution." Today's physicists have overturned Newton's view of the universe, yet they continue to cling to an understanding of reality not unlike Newton's own - as a ...
See more details below
Paperback (Reprint)
$20.60 price
(Save 17%)$24.95 List Price
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (21) from $3.40   
  • New (11) from $14.83   
  • Used (10) from $3.40   
The Life of the Cosmos

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$11.89 price
(Save 30%)$16.99 List Price


Cosmologist Lee Smolin offers a startling new theory of the universe that is at once elegant, comprehensive, and radically different from anything proposed before. In The Life of the Cosmos, Smolin cuts the Gordian knot of cosmology with a simple, powerful idea: "The underlying structure of our world," he writes, "is to be found in the logic of evolution." Today's physicists have overturned Newton's view of the universe, yet they continue to cling to an understanding of reality not unlike Newton's own - as a clock, an intricate mechanism, governed by laws which are mathematical and eternally true. Smolin argues that the laws of nature we observe may be in part the result of a process of natural selection which took place before the big bang. Smolin's ideas are based on recent developments in cosmology, quantum theory, relativity and string theory, yet they offer, at the same time, an unprecedented view of how these developments may fit together to form a new theory of cosmology. From this perspective, the lines between the simple and the complex, the fundamental and the emergent, and even between the biological and the physical are redrawn. The result is a framework that illuminates many intractable problems, from the paradoxes of quantum theory and the nature of space and time to the problem of constructing a final theory of physics. As he argues for this new view, Smolin introduces the reader to recent developments in a wide range of fields, from string theory and quantum gravity to evolutionary theory the structure of galaxies. He examines the philosophical roots of controversies in the foundations of physics, and shows how they may be transformed as science moves toward understanding the universe as an interrelated, self-constructed entity, within which life and complexity have a natural place, and in which "the occurrence of novelty, indeed the perpetual birth of novelty, can be understood."

Cosmologist Lee Smolin offers a startling new theory of the universe that is at once elegant, comprehensive, and radically different from anything proposed before, arguing that the laws of nature may be subject themselves to natural selection. "A radically new view of the cosmos and our place within it."--Paul Davies. 416 pp. 25,000 print.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Philadelphia Enquirer
If you have a willingness to exercise your mind by entertaining a more interdisciplinary view of the universe as a grand evolutionary system, then Life of the Cosmos is the kind of book you will want to read -- one that describes our universe as a more holistic, interrelated ecosystem of galaxies, stars, planets and life.
Kirkus Reviews
Physics has long assumed that the laws of nature are immutable; here's a cosmological theory that challenges even that common-sense notion.

The great problem facing physics at the end of the 20th century remains the integration of relativity and quantum theory. While both have scored impressive triumphs in their spheres of concern, the two operate at different poles of the physical universe: Relativity concerns itself with large objects and great distances, whereas quantum theory is at home with subatomic particles. And while quantum theory has brilliantly accounted for three of the four major forces in the universe, it has failed to make heads or tails of gravity—the one force that affects all the particles in the universe, no matter what the distance between them. A further difficulty, from Smolin's point of view, is that the ratios of the masses of the known particles do not fall into any coherent pattern, and small changes in those parameters would lead to a universe radically different from ours. So why is our universe as we see it? Why, for that matter, do we exist at all? Smolin (Physics/Penn. State Univ.) suggests that an evolutionary principle has been at work, that the Big Bang was only the most recent in a series of creations, and that the laws of physics can vary (although only a tiny bit) with each new bang. Universes that tend to create many stars (and thus many black holes, as those stars die) can give birth to more descendants than those with a paucity of stars. Thus the universe evolves according to a principle similar to natural selection.

Much of the material is fascinating, and Smolin gives the reader a thorough tour of the latest in cosmological speculation. The early chapters are slow going, but once his argument builds up momentum, Smolin is a thought-provoking theorist.

From the Publisher

"Lee Smolin's The Life of the Cosmos is a fascinating book. Its central theme is an extraordinary speculative idea, but very well argued for. There is wealth of interesting and informative accompanying material here--as one would expect from an author of such breadth and depth of physical understanding."--Roger Penrose

"Smolin is a deep and original thinker. In this provocative book he merges key elements of Einstein and Darwin in a breathtaking synthesis. The result is nothing less than a radically new view of the cosmos and our place within it."--Paul Davies

"In The Life of the Cosmos Lee Smolin asks some of the most fundamental unanswered questions in cosmology and physics. A wonderful book--indeed a thrilling book. Read it."--Stuart Kauffman

"One of the more informed imaginative thinkers of our time, Lee Smolin, has set forth a challenging exploration of natural philosophy. This book will surely change your thinking about some things, maybe about everything."--Harold J. Morowitz, Director, Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, George Mason University

"In The Life of the Cosmos Lee Smolin asks some of the most fundamental unanswered questions in cosmology and physics. A wonderful book--indeed a thrilling book. Read it."--Stuart Kauffman

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195126648
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 795,527
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Lee Smolin is Professor of Physics at the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at the Pennsylvania State University. As a theoretical physicist, he has contributed several key ideas to the search for a unification of quantum theory, cosmology, and relativity.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Prologue/Revolutions 1
Introduction 11
1 Light and Life 23
2 The Logic of Atomism 30
3 The Miracle of the Stars 36
4 The Dream of Unification 47
5 The Lessons of String Theory 58
6 Are the Laws of Physics Universal? 75
7 Did the Universe Evolve? 90
8 Detective Work 107
9 The Ecology of the Galaxy 116
10 Games and Galaxies 129
11 What is Life? 141
12 The Cosmology of an Interesting Universe 161
13 The Flower and the Dodecahedron 177
14 Philosophy, Religion, and Cosmology 192
15 Beyond the Anthropic Principle 202
16 Space and Time in the New Cosmology 213
17 The Road from Newton to Einstein 222
18 The Meaning of Einstein's Theory of Relativity 233
19 The Meaning of the Quantum 240
20 Cosmology and the Quantum 257
21 A Pluralistic Universe 267
22 The World as a Network of Relations 276
23 The Evolution of Time 285
Epilogue/Evolutions 294
App Testing Cosmological Natural Selection 301
Notes and Acknowledgments 324
Selected Bibliography 337
Glossary 342
Index 347
Read More Show Less

First Chapter



Science is, above everything else, a search for an understanding of our relationship with the rest of the universe. We may begin it with the simplest, most basic fact about ourselves: Each of us is a living thing. As such, the most obvious and fundamental medium of our connection to the universe is light. For we, living things, live in a universe of light. We all see; even the simplest fungus or protozoa has receptors that respond to the presence of light. And is it not true that the most feared thing about imprisonment, or even death, is the loss of contact with the light? The dependence of life on light underlies so many metaphors and so much of the imagery of our culture (think of the fear of the dark) that to even quote examples is to risk cliche, but let me mention one, that to understand something is to attain an insight.

But, of course, light is the ultimate source of life. Without the light coming from the sun, there would be no life here on earth. Light is not only our medium of contact with the world; in a very real sense, it is the basis of our existence. If the difference between us and dead matter is organization, it is sunlight that provides the energy and the impetus for the self-organization of matter into life, on every scale, from the individual cell to the life of the whole planet and from my morning awakening to the whole history of evolution.

We will never know completely who we are until we understand why the universe is constructed in such a way that it contains living things. To comprehend that, the first thing we need to know is why we live in a universe filled with light. Thus, the problem of our relationship with the rest of the world rests partly on at least one question that science ought to be able to answer. Why is it that the universe is filled with stars?

But before we approach this question, there is another kind of relationship that I must comment on; that between author and reader. This is, as my literary friends have been telling me for some time, a rather problematic relationship. After all, the dominant literary theory taught by my colleagues these days is that books must be read as if, in a certain sense, the author does not exist. But, beyond my natural protest against such an assertion (in my present situation), there are special problems that arise when the author is a scientist and the reader is not. Anyone who sets out to teach ideas from physics to those who are not specialists, whether as a teacher in a lecture room or through a book such as this one, faces a curiously paradoxical situation. To begin with, there is no doubt that a great many people have a deep interest in physics and cosmology. Who has not looked up at the stars, or gazed at a tree or a kitten and wondered what the universe is and what our place in it might be? And, what culture has not had a story about how the universe was created?

It is a cliche to say that in the twentieth century science has replaced religion as the dominant cosmological authority. While this does not seem to have actually done much to decrease the popularity of religion, it is true that at the present time, for many of the cultures of the planet, we physicists are the official makers and keepers of the story of the cosmos. This, perhaps more than anything else, accounts for the peculiar combination of interest and distance that many people seem to bring to a meeting with a physicist. At the same time, it is unlikely that there is any subject in high school or university that is more disliked than physics. If a great many people want to know about what we think the universe is, almost no one seems much interested in the tools with which we acquire and construct this knowledge.

I have been teaching physics to non-science students for much of my career. While I am considered a good teacher, what has most impressed me is how unsuccessful, on the whole, I have been at imparting my love of physics. Thus, at some point during the last few years I began to ask my students directly why they don't like physics. Of course, a number found the sustained attention required to learn how to think in new ways disagreeable. Others are understandably put off by the unfortunate connection between physics and weapons of mass destruction. But from the most interesting students, the artists, the philosophers, the hot shot literary theory types who can sail through Derrida and Christeva but cannot penetrate textbooks developed and marketed at great expense especially for nonscientists, I began to hear another kind of answer. They find physics difficult because they don't like and don't believe the picture of nature embodied by the science they are being taught.

There is at least one good reason not to believe the physics that is taught in most courses for nonscientists. It isn't true. For a reason that after many years of university teaching remains opaque to me, physics is the only subject in the university curriculum in which the first year's study rarely gets beyond what was known in 1900. Now, Newtonian physics is a beautiful subject, as are the plays of Shakespeare. But no one tries to teach first year students to think about Shakespeare the way critics thought in the nineteenth century. A good literature teacher will teach the classic books in the context of the current debates about the nature of texts. Almost no one teaches Newtonian physics to beginning students in the context of the current debates about the nature of space and time.

Newtonian physics is useful, even if it is not true, as an approximation that helps us to understand many different phenomena. But it is completely discredited as an answer to any fundamental question about what the world is. It has a great deal of historical and philosophical interest, but this is rarely mentioned in beginning courses. Thus, it is not surprising if students find the subject uninspiring.

But, beyond the fact that they are given little reason to believe in it, I find that students simply are not drawn to the description of the world offered by Newtonian physics.

Once I suspected this I began to ask myself what exactly is it that they don't like about the Newtonian view of the cosmos?

I believe that the answer is that there is no place for life in the Newtonian universe. On the basis of the physics that was known in the nineteenth century, it is impossible to perceive a connection between ourselves as living things and the rest of the universe.

But physics must provide a way to understand what life is and why we are here. It is the "science of everything" whose task is to uncover those facts and laws that apply universally. Physics must underlie and explain biology because living creatures, like all things in the universe, are made out of atoms which obey the same laws as do every other atom in the world. An approach to physics that does not make the existence of life comprehensible must eventually give way to one that does.

One might have expected that before the twentieth century people would have been concerned about the fact that life did not fit easily into the Newtonian cosmos. If few scientists worried about this, it may in part be due to a philosophy called vitalism that was popular in the last century. According to it, there is no reason to expect that physics should illuminate the processes of life because living and non-living matter may obey different laws. Imagine how disappointing it would be were vitalism true, it would mean that there is no essential connection between us and what we see when we look around us. Still, there is no denying the attraction such a view holds for many people. The idea that life is not reducible to physics seems a remnant of the Greek and Christian cosmologies in which earth and sky are made from different essences. Behind it one can sense the ancient desire to escape nature and partake of heaven.

But in any case, before Einstein, people had little choice. Had Newtonian physics turned out to be correct, vitalism would have been necessary. It is only with the physics of the twentieth century that we have been able to understand how living things are constructed from the same ordinary atoms that make up rocks and stars. Thus, part of the movement from the Newtonian world to the modern one is a transition from a universe in which life is impossible to one in which life has a place. It is partly for this reason that the question of the existence of life becomes central to the twentieth century revolution in physics. Quantum physics, for all its intrinsic weirdness, gives us for the first time an opportunity to comprehend our relationship to the rest of the universe in a way that avoids both the Aristotelian fiction of our absolute centrality and the Newtonian fiction of our absolute alienation.

To appreciate the meaning of this change, we must first understand why it is that we would not expect to find anything like life in a universe governed by Newton's laws. Let us begin with an image that comes to mind when one asks the question of what our place is in the universe. This is the image of a warm, living earth, lost in the depth of an infinite, cold and dead cosmos. This image, which embodies one of those basic ideas that are so obvious as to seem almost beyond examination, hides, in my opinion, an absurdity. To see why, we may start by asking what must be true about the universe in order that it contain living things.

The first thing required for life is a variety of different atoms that can combine to form a very large number of molecules, which differ greatly in their sizes, shapes and chemical properties. It is often stressed that carbon is required because it is the only element that forms a sufficient variety of stable molecular structures. All of the living things on earth are made out of carbon compounds that are built with copious amounts of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, as well as traces of many other atoms. But beyond the specifics of carbon chemistry, life would be impossible were there not a sufficient variety of atoms. A universe containing only one kind of atom would almost certainly be dead.

The problem with Newtonian physics is that it does not allow the existence of many distinct kinds of atoms. A Newtonian atom would be something like a solar system, but held together by the electrical attraction of the nuclei and electrons rather than by gravity. However, there is a problem with this, because when the electrons move in circles they radiate light waves, which carry energy away from the atom. The result is that the electrons lose energy and spiral into the nucleus.

If the world suddenly became Newtonian it would take only a fraction of a second for most of the electrons to fall into the nuclei. This was, in fact, the direct motivation for the introduction of the quantum mechanical picture of the atom. The fact that atoms are like solar systems, with most of the mass in the nuclei and most of the space taken up by the electrons, was discovered by Ernest Rutherford, in his laboratory in Cambridge in 1911. Within months his young protege, Niels Bohr, had invented the first quantum mechanical theory of the atom. Whatever else one may say about the quantum theory, its central success is that it explains the stability of atoms.

However, it is not enough that the laws of physics allow the existence of a variety of stable atoms. The universe must, during its history, produce these atoms in copious quantities so that they may be available for the development of living things.

Thus, we must ask what is required of a universe so that large amounts of carbon, oxygen and the other ingredients of life are plentifully produced. This question has a simple answer: the universe must contain stars. All but the lightest elements were forged in stars. Thus, it is not a coincidence that when we look up we see stars, just as it is not a coincidence that when we look around we see plants and trees Just as the plants produce the oxygen we breath, it is the stars that produced all the chemical elements out of which we, and the plants, are made.

This, at least in outline, settles the question of where the ingredients for life come from. But there is another, deeper question we must ask. Given the ingredients, what are the conditions that make the universe hospitable to life? What must be true about the world so that some of its atoms will spontaneously invent the astoundingly intricate dance which makes them living? That life arose from a simpler world seems the ultimate miracle. But, if we are to understand our place in the universe, we must come to understand it.

In its capacity to create organization and complexity where none existed before life seems to run contrary to the laws of physics. This was, in any case, what was thought by many in the nineteenth century, who worried that the law of increasing entropy (or, as it is also called, the second law of thermodynamics) contradicted the observed record of biological evolution.

Most people have an intuitive idea of the meaning of the law of increasing entropy. A hot cup of tea cools down until it is the same temperature as the air in the room. Snow melts on a warm day. These examples illustrate the tendency for differences between the temperatures in different parts of a system to be erased. The configuration in which all parts of a system have the same temperature, density and chemical composition is called thermodynamic equilibrium. The law of increasing entropy says that if I have a closed system, which is isolated from the rest of the universe, it is overwhelmingly probable that it will come to, and remain in, a state of thermodynamic equilibrium.

Living things, of course, do not behave like this. My body stays at about the same temperature, no matter what the temperature of my environment might be, at least as long as I am healthy. My cat also maintains a constant body temperature, which is different from mine. If I sleep with my clothes on, then when I wake up they have the same temperature as me. If I sleep with my cat, he wakes up (for the few minutes he condescends to enter that state) with his own unique temperature.

Another, related meaning of entropy is that it is a measure of disorganization. The atoms in a gas are disordered to the extent that there is no way to tell one from another. In equilibrium there is maximal disorder, because every atom moves randomly, with the same average energy as any other atom. A living system, on the contrary, continually creates an enormous number of different kind of molecules, each of which generally perform a unique function. The entropy of a living thing is consequently much lower, atom for atom, than anything else in the world.

It is an interesting historical fact that the laws of thermodynamics were put in their modern form during the second half of the nineteenth century, more or less at the same time that the theory of natural selection was introduced by Darwin and Wallace. Since that time, many people, both inside and outside of science, have made a great deal of the apparent contradiction between these two developments. The fossil record tells us that the biosphere has become more organized and more varied over time. The laws of thermodynamics say that there is a tendency for systems to become less organized and less varied over time. Thus, one argument that was often made for vitalism during the last century is that the matter living things are made of must be excluded from the strictures of the laws of thermodynamics.

In fact, the case of thermodynamics is different from that of Newtonian physics. The laws of thermodynamics are not in contradiction with the existence or the evolution of life. Not only is the existence of life compatible with thermodynamics, the two subjects are actually so intimately related that the clearest characterization of life I know of is one given in thermodynamic terms. This is because once we understand what it means for a system to be in thermodynamic equilibrium, we can understand its opposite: what is required for a system to be out of equilibrium, as all living things are, for arbitrarily long periods of time.

Nothing can live in an environment in thermal equilibrium. If life is to exist there must then be regions of the universe that are kept far from thermodynamic equilibrium for the billions of years it takes for life to evolve. We then want to ask, What is required of the universe so that it contains such regions? The answer to this question is easy. There must be things in the universe that are much hotter than the rest of it, and are able to maintain themselves as constant sources of light and heat for enormous periods of time.

What kinds of things can do this? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to the other questions we raised in this chapter: There must be stars.

We can thus begin to see what is wrong with the picture of a warm living earth inside a cold dead cosmos. If the universe really were cold and dead, if it contained no stars, there would be no living planets. The existence of stars is thus the key to the problem of why the cosmos is hospitable to life.

I would like to inject one note of caution before proceeding. If we were interested only in feeling better about ourselves, we might be happy to jump from vitalism to a kind of pantheism according to which life exists because the universe itself is alive. But our goal should be more than inventing a story that explains what we are doing in the universe. In the end what is wrong with the Newtonian theory of the universe is its essential irrationality, as it leaves unexplained too many aspects of the world that we may hope to comprehend. What is needed is a deeper understanding of what both life and the universe are that allows us to comprehend why it is natural to find one inhabited by the other.

The scientific revolution did not take off when Copernicus simply switched the places of the earth and sun in the Aristotelian cosmos. To put the earth on one of the crystal spheres was logically absurd, as it contradicted the basic assumptions behind the Aristotelian cosmos such as the immutability of the heavens. Any intelligent sixteenth-century person could explain why what Copernicus had done didn't really make sense. The revolution began in earnest when Kepler abolished the crystal spheres and cast the planets adrift in empty space. Then he had to ask a new question: How does a planet in the midst of empty space know where to move? It was this and other new questions that drove the revolution.

Similarly, to assert simply that the universe is alive is absurd. Instead, I would like to suggest that the time has come for us to knock our understanding of what the laws of physics represent off a kind of philosophical mooring that has become as outdated as Aristotle's crystal spheres were in the seventeenth century. Set adrift, we have now to ask new questions about how the regularities we refer to as the laws of physics came to be and whether, and how, they can change. The search for answers to these questions may then lead us to reconsider our familiar understandings about the relationships between the fundamental and the emergent and between physics and biology. To put it another way, one of the questions we will be seeking to answer in the following chapters is whether it is purely an accident, or whether it is to some extent necessary, that this, or any, cosmos is a universe of light and life.

You must become an ignorant man again And see the sun again with an ignorant eye And see it clearly in the idea of it. --Walace Stevens,

"Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction"



"We are stardust" Joni Mitchell sings, and it rings so true that we have to pinch ourselves to remember that it is less than seventy years since we learned that everything we are made of, except hydrogen, was fused in stars. What is, on the other hand, very old is the idea that the world is made of atoms. The philosophy of atomism goes back at least to the Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus in the 6th century BC. According to them, the universe consists of a large number of fundamental particles, moving in empty space. As obvious as this idea may seem to us now, it was rejected by Aristotle, and was only revived many centuries later at the start of the scientific revolution. But atomism triumphed only in this century, as quantum physics opened up the atom to our understanding. In quick succession we descended through several levels of structure, so that we now study the quarks: the things within the things within the atom.

The triumph of atomism is by now so complete that any challenge to it seems at first to point outside of the boundaries of science. The Greeks could only dream of a science in which the properties of anything in the world could be explained by decomposing it into its atoms. We have this science, it is the foundation of everything we understand from immunology to transistors to nuclear physics. And if the atoms and the nuclei turned out to be divisible, we have now reasonable candidates for truly elementary particles in the electrons, neutrinos and quarks.

But if it is hard to conceive of it being wrong, there are still questions that the atomistic philosophy cannot help us answer. Some of these have to do with the elementary particles themselves: The electron is lighter than the proton, but not as light as the neutrino. Why? Why is the neutron just a bit heavier than the proton? Why doesn't the neutrino have any electric charge?

We cannot understand the elementary particles, as we do everything else, by breaking them into parts. First of all, there is no evidence that they are made of still smaller things. But even if there were, eventually the game must stop, we must at some point arrive at some truly elementary particles. In a whimsical mood we may entertain the idea that there is an infinite regress, but this seems unlikely. For one thing, there is good reason to believe there really is a smallest ultimate size to things, which I will explain later, in Part Five. Whatever the elementary particles are, we are going to have to understand them, and we are going to have to do this in terms different than those we use to understand everything made from them.

According to the Greek philosophers, the elementary particles are eternal, never created or destroyed. This seemed to them the only alternative, for if they were created they would have to be put together out of some parts. Then they would no longer be the smallest things. Making the elementary particles eternal puts the questions as to their properties in the realm of the absolute: They are like that because they always were and always will be. As a consequence, each of the elementary particles exist independently of all of the others. Neither the history of the universe nor its present configuration can have any effect on the properties of any single elementary particle. It is completely conceivable that the universe might have but one neutron in it. And, according to this philosophy, that neutron would be exactly the same as one found in an atom of my cat's whisker.

Modern elementary particle physics does allow the elementary particles to be created and destroyed. But their properties are determined by laws, which endow each particle, when created, with certain properties, completely independent of whatever else may exist in the universe. These laws are presumed to be absolute and to hold for all time. Thus, the idea of the absolute plays an essential role for us, as it did for the Greeks. It has just been abstracted, from eternal atoms to eternal laws. That the laws of physics might be created or modified seems to us as nonsensical as it would have seemed to Democritus to build a machine that creates elementary particles.

The idea that there is an absolute law of nature, which fixes once and for all the properties of the elementary particles, has been so successful it is difficult to imagine a scientific approach to understanding nature that does not begin there. But, in fact, there are very good reasons to believe that in the end this idea cannot be right. Some of these reasons come from the logic of atomism itself. I will argue as we go along that the reductionist philosophy that underlies atomism is necessarily incomplete. A philosophy that tells us to explain things by breaking them into parts will not help us when we confront the question of understanding the things that have no parts. At that point we must turn to some different strategies if science is to progress.

For most of the last century, elementary particle physics moved at a rapid pace, with a new discovery appearing at least once a decade. During this time we have come to see it as the route to answering all the most fundamental questions about nature. When I was trained as an elementary particle theorist, I believed myself to be joining the exalted ranks of those whose task is to discover the fundamental reality behind our perceptions of nature. I always felt a bit sorry for scientists who were not elementary particle theorists, for I could never understand how they could find complete satisfaction in investigating nature at any other than its most fundamental level. Nor was I terribly interested in the "higher order sciences", such as biology or astronomy, because nothing that they could learn could have any bearing on the fundamental questions, which were about the elementary particles.

Unfortunately, for the last twenty years elementary particle physics has not moved at the pace it once did. In the middle-1970's, there was a great triumph, in which the theory that we call the standard model of elementary particle physics was constructed. This theory puts us in the position to predict the results of virtually any experiment that could be done with present technology, with one significant exception, which encompasses anything having to do with gravity. But it leaves open a large number of questions, and these past twenty years have been a very frustrating period because almost none of these questions have been answered.

The most important of these questions is how to include gravity, and this cannot be done until we know how to unify general relativity with quantum theory. But there are also other questions that the standard model does not answer, which have remained mysteries. Many of these have to do with the properties of the elementary particles, such as: Why do they have particular masses and charges?

The persistence of these problems does not imply that important work has not been done. On the theoretical side especially, new ideas have been invented that are likely to help explain some of the questions left over by the standard model. But on the experimental side, nothing has been discovered that could not be explained in terms of the standard model. At the same time, not one of the theoretical ideas intended as answers to the questions left open by the standard model has been confirmed experimentally. Perhaps if elementary particle physics had not been so successful, this situation would not be so worrying. But one has to look back more than a century to find a comparable twenty-year period without definitive progress in our understanding of the basic laws of nature.

There are several reasons for this, one of which is certainly the great difficulty and expense of making new experiments that probe layers of structure smaller than those described by the standard model. But I believe that part of the present crisis is inevitable, and is due to our having reached the limits of what we can learn solely by breaking things into their parts. The very success of the reductionist philosophy may have brought us to the moment when we have in our hands at least some of the truly elementary particles. If so, it should not surprise us if methods that have been so successful up to this point seem to be failing.

In science, detective movies, love or any other area of life, when one is confronted with a situation in which the old assumptions are no longer working as they used to, it is perhaps time to look for new questions to ask. But how does one search, not for new answers, but for new questions? Perhaps the first thing to do is to try to look around us with fresh eyes and examine the evidence that is close at hand. Sometimes a crucial piece of evidence lies right in front of us that has up till now lacked any significance. Looked at in a new way, our familiar world can all of a sudden reveal new meanings.

It is exactly such a new look that I would like to propose we take to the problems of elementary particle physics. The important question, if we are to try to begin again, is which assumptions we should keep and which we should throw away. To begin with, there can be nothing wrong with atomism, as long as we take that to mean only the simple idea that most things in the world are made of elementary particles, which are not themselves composed of anything smaller. But we may question the more radical assumption that the properties of these elementary particles themselves are fixed eternally in terms of absolute laws. To distinguish this idea from commonsense notions of atomism and reductionism, I will give it a name. I will call it radical atomism. Similarly, there is no need to question the idea that there are laws of nature. But we can question the idea that if we knew only those laws, and nothing else about the history or organization of the universe, we could deduce the properties of a quark or electron.

One reason to question radical atomism is that it must eventually lead either to infinite regress or to a brick wall. If the elementary particles have no parts, then no explanation of any of their properties can be found by looking inside them. The only alternative may be to look outside them. This means we must try to determine if the properties of the elementary particles might be somehow influenced by their relationships with the things that are around them. If elementary particles are so influenced, then perhaps those properties are not absolute and eternal. Instead, to understand a quark or an electron, we may have to know something about the history or organization of the universe.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 5 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2013

    Truly underrated

    Smolin's theory of cosmological natural selection compares favorably with a lot of multiverse and anthropic based approaches. This is a brilliant book, a masterpiece of the speculative imagination. His argument that life is a self organized far from equilibrium structure nested within a hierarchy of self organized far from equilibrium structures, the largest of which is the universe, is convincing. I'm sold.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 27, 2012

    I don't think you could find a better explication of the issues

    I don't think you could find a better explication of the issues that confront 21st century physics, the unification of quantum physics and relativity, the fine tuning problem,  and scores of other issues.  The book is crisp, unpretentious, and  finely written.  Smolin is an excellent teacher, and has an unusually broad range of reference among physicists; he refers to literature, philosophy and biology frequently for inspiration.  

    I can't imagine a book that covers this sort of stuff any better than this.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2008

    Life of the Cosmos

    An additional comment: Chapters 8 an 9 describe how stars are made in the cosmos and may well be the most exciting chapters in all literature dealing with the cosmos, entropy and mega-physical processes

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2007

    Life of the Cosmos

    Smolin introduces a whole new set of ways to examine and study the Cosmos. He lifts the reader from the standard texts and descriptions to a new level of thought and insights into the interrealtionship that may have evolved over the life of the Universe. (Yes, evolved)

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)