Our Cosmic Habitat / Edition 1

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Overview

"This book is original, stimulating, and charmingly modest while sketching some grand ideas. There may be better guides to thinking about the universe than Martin Rees, but not on our planet!"—Robert P. Kirshner, Harvard University and Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

"Our Cosmic Habitat is certain to be widely quoted and widely read. It is beautifully written, using inspiring and stimulating analogies. While the book is intended for the nonscientist, it provides an accurate guide to the best current thinking about the nature and constitution of our universe. If I wanted to give a gift to a person I would like to become a close friend, this is the book I would choose."—John N. Bahcall, Institute for Advanced Study

"In this book, Martin Rees, one of the leading figures in theoretical astrophysics, offers the reader his unique perspective on the field and introduces many of the most exciting new results and ideas in astronomy."—David N. Spergel, Princeton University

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Editorial Reviews

Planetarian
As books encompassing the realm of everything in the universe (universes?) go, this one is relatively short. Its brevity, however . . . its elaborate index (a point I find refreshing), and the fact that it was written by someone so esteemed in the astronomical community, begs the reader to ask why this couldn't be used as a one-semester introductory text. Well-written, clear visuals, great author: a good combination for a first book on the subject.
— April S. Whitt
Science Books and Films

A must-read book for people who are interested in the philosophical implications of the emerging idea that, possibly, we are not alone.
Science - William G. Unruh
[This book] has an informal style and breadth of coverage that make it a joy to read. . . . Rees's explanations are exactly right.
Los Angeles Times - K.C. Cole
Rees provides a nice summary of how we got here, how the universe began and how it might end. . . . Lay readers will appreciate Rees' clear, uncomplicated prose, even when dealing with tough stuff that leaves most physicists tongue-tied. Most welcome of all, he explains how scientists know what they claim to know.
Sunday Times - John Cornwell
[An] awe-inspiring survey. . . . Rees is not only a world-class cosmologist but one of our best living science writers.
New Scientist - Ian Morison
Probably the clearest and most easily understandable account of our Universe available.
The Guardian - Steven Poole
Our very own Astronomer Royal blasts off into space, in velvety, friendly prose. His musings on the possibilities of alien life and of time travel, the necessity to colonise space, and a vision of the far future make for a pleasingly concise and always intriguing tour d'horizon.
The Washington Post - George F. Will
There is a lot of stuff in the universe—the estimated number of stars is 10 followed by 22 zeros. But as to whether there are other planets with life like Earth's, Rees says the chance of two similar ecologies is less than the chance of two randomly typing monkeys producing the same Shakespearean play.
Sir; Times Higher Education Supplement - Patrick Moore
Rees is one of the great astronomers royal; he is a leading cosmologist, and his skill in writing what may be termed popular science is probably unequaled today. I know of no other author who could present such difficult concepts in so lucid a manner. This is a brilliant book, to be read and enjoyed by all.
New Scientist - Maggie McDonald
A fabulous journey round the cosmos in excellent company.
Planetarian - April S. Whitt
As books encompassing the realm of everything in the universe (universes?) go, this one is relatively short. Its brevity, however . . . its elaborate index (a point I find refreshing), and the fact that it was written by someone so esteemed in the astronomical community, begs the reader to ask why this couldn't be used as a one-semester introductory text. Well-written, clear visuals, great author: a good combination for a first book on the subject.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Sir Patrick Moore
Rees is one of the great astronomers royal; he is a leading cosmologist, and his skill in writing what may be termed popular science is probably unequaled today. I know of no other author who could present such difficult concepts in so lucid a manner. This is a brilliant book, to be read and enjoyed by all.
From the Publisher
"As books encompassing the realm of everything in the universe (universes?) go, this one is relatively short. Its brevity, however . . . its elaborate index (a point I find refreshing), and the fact that it was written by someone so esteemed in the astronomical community, begs the reader to ask why this couldn't be used as a one-semester introductory text. Well-written, clear visuals, great author: a good combination for a first book on the subject."—April S. Whitt, Planetarian
Science
[This book] has an informal style and breadth of coverage that make it a joy to read. . . . Rees's explanations are exactly right.
— William G. Unruh
Los Angeles Times
Rees provides a nice summary of how we got here, how the universe began and how it might end. . . . Lay readers will appreciate Rees' clear, uncomplicated prose, even when dealing with tough stuff that leaves most physicists tongue-tied. Most welcome of all, he explains how scientists know what they claim to know.
— K.C. Cole
American Scientist
Ample in scope, this explicit, confident, helpful, modest and good-humored book arises from a recent lecture series spanning astrophysics and cosmology. Using not one full-fledged equation only fresh diagrams and clear, personal prose—Rees, a masterful theorist, brings readers a sheaf of insights.
Sunday Times
[An] awe-inspiring survey. . . . Rees is not only a world-class cosmologist but one of our best living science writers.
— John Cornwell
New Scientist
A fabulous journey round the cosmos in excellent company.
— Maggie McDonald
Booklist
In the instant after the big bang, there was only a one-part-per-billion preponderance of matter over antimatter, just enough to create the universe that created us. Rees, an accomplished scientist with superior writing skills, marvels over the wonder that matter even exists.
Times Higher Education Supplement
Rees is one of the great astronomers royal; he is a leading cosmologist, and his skill in writing what may be termed popular science is probably unequaled today. I know of no other author who could present such difficult concepts in so lucid a manner. This is a brilliant book, to be read and enjoyed by all.
— Sir Patrick Moore
Science Books & Films
A must-read book for people who are interested in the philosophical implications of the emerging idea that, possibly, we are not alone.
The Guardian
Our very own Astronomer Royal blasts off into space, in velvety, friendly prose. His musings on the possibilities of alien life and of time travel, the necessity to colonise space, and a vision of the far future make for a pleasingly concise and always intriguing tour d'horizon.
— Steven Poole
The Washington Post
There is a lot of stuff in the universe—the estimated number of stars is 10 followed by 22 zeros. But as to whether there are other planets with life like Earth's, Rees says the chance of two similar ecologies is less than the chance of two randomly typing monkeys producing the same Shakespearean play.
— George F. Will
Ian Morrison
Rees argues strongly that ours is just one of a myriad of universes--a multiverse-- whose properties can vary widely. Our local bylaws just happen to be right for our existence.
New Scientist
K. C. Cole
Rees provides a nice summary of how we got here, how the universe began and how it might end. This big backyard of ours had a most unlikely origin. It apparently sprang into being from a very energetic speck of empty space, then puffed itself up explosively, stretching small jitters of uncertainty into the structures that became strings of galaxies, crowded with stars and planets, the rest. All this is pretty well understood back to the Big Bang, about one millisecond into creation....Our universe. You gotta love it. Home sweet home.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
George F. Smoot
This book provides a review and explication of our current view of the universe in context of an overarching question posed as "Why is our universe biophilic, so hospitable to life?"
Astronomy
Steven Poole
His musings on the possibilities of alien life and of time travel, the necessity to colonize space, and a vision of the far future in which "being snuffed out in a Big Crunch...could be an enriching experience" make for a pleasingly concise and always intriguing tour d'horizon.
Guardian
Publishers Weekly
The cosmos depicted in this fascinating exploration of astrophysics, now in paperback, is mind-boggling-vast and old and full of supernovae, black holes and mysterious dark matter. But its greatest conundrum is how delicately attuned and "biophilic" a habitat it is. If the laws of nature had been configured just a bit differently-if gravity were slightly stronger, the electron a smidgen heavier, the texture of ripples in the universe a bit rougher or smoother, or the infinitesimal imbalance between matter and anti-matter off by one part in a billion-then galaxies, planets, atoms and life as we know it would have been impossible. Rees, Great Britain's Astronomer Royal and the author of Just Six Numbers: The Forces That Shape the Universe, is a sure guide to the science that illuminates these mysteries, from quantum mechanics to cosmology. He takes us from the Big Bang to the heat death of the universe, exploring along the way how the galaxies gelled, how elements were forged in the furnace of the stars and how planet Earth, ensconced in a warm orbit, stabilized by the Moon and shielded from asteroids by Jupiter's gravitational field, provided a sheltered breeding ground for intelligent life. He also ponders the philosophical significance of a cosmos so finely engineered to support life, asking whether our universe is a big fluke, a miracle of providential design, or just one particularly favored example of an infinite "multiverse." Rees's engaging style, lucid exposition and grand conception make this a wonderful introduction to the biggest of scientific questions. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Einstein once asked whether God could have made the world any differently; here, Rees, England's Astronomer Royal, offers an answer. Originally delivered as a series of lectures at Princeton, Rees's meditations on the origins of the universe and the laws of physics begin with the planets and stars that make up the visible universe. While Giordiano Bruno and other philosophers speculated that distant worlds might be as hospitable to life as ours is, only in the last decade has science begun to detect planets beyond the solar system. Scientists who argue that life is the inevitable product of commonplace physical conditions have little better evidence on their side than those who believe it to be a rare cosmic fluke. What they do agree on is the general uniformity of physical laws throughout the observable universe. Gravity pulls at the same strength, and the relative masses and charges of the elementary particles remain constant. All this can be accounted for by a single creation event, popularly known as the Big Bang. Radio astronomy has given theorists a good idea of what conditions were like only a fraction of a second after the Bang. But theory cannot account for certain apparently arbitrary parameters, such as the relative abundances of matter and antimatter, or the comparative strengths of the different forces that act on all matter. What would happen if these parameters were different? Could there exist universes in which they are in fact different? Rees (Before the Beginning, 1997) suggests that other "bubbles" of reality might exist in unreachable dimensions, each with its own physical laws. Nor are these alternate universes necessarily beyond the reach of science; interestingtheories prompt scientists to find ways to test them, and the future promises to be every bit as interesting as the past. A provocative survey of modern cosmology for readers who want the big picture.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691114774
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/3/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 636,733
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 8.44 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE: Could God Have Made the World Any Differently?

The preeminent mystery is why anything exists at all. What breathes life into the equations of physics, and actualized them in a real cosmos? Such questions lie beyond science, however: they are the province of philosophers and theologians. For science, the overarching problem is to understand how a genesis event so simple that it can be described by a short recipe seems to have led, 13 billion years later, to the complex cosmos of which we are a part. Was the outcome “natural,” or should we be surprised at what happened? Could there be other universes? Scientists are now addressing such questions, which had formerly been in the realm of speculation. Cosmology has a history that stretches back for millennia, but the conceptual excitement has never been more intense than it is at the start of the twenty-first century.

The Sun and the firmament are part of our environment—our cosmic habitat. Artistic and mystical geniuses share this perception with scientists. D. H. Lawrence wrote,“I am part of the Sun as my eye is part of me.” Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” was painted in the same spirit as his pictures of cornfields and sunflowers. One can find numerous other such examples in the arts.

Science deepens our sense of intimacy with the nonterrestrial. We are ourselves poised between cosmos and micro-world. It would take as many human bodies to make up the Sun’s mass as there are atoms in each of us. Our existence depends on the propensity of atoms to stick together and to assemble into the complex molecules in all living tissues. But the atoms of oxygen and carbon in our bodies were themselves made in faraway stars that lived and died billions of years ago.

Technical advances during the twentieth century, especially its later decades, have enriched our perspective on our cosmic habitat. Space probes have beamed back pictures from all the planets of our solar system: new technology enables a worldwide public to share this vicarious cosmic exploration. Pictures of a comet crashing into Jupiter, made with the Hubble Space Telescope, were viewed almost in real time by more than a million people on the Internet. During this first decade of the twenty-first century, probes will trundle across the surface of Mars and even fly over it; they will land on Titan, Saturn’s giant moon; and samples of Martian soil may be collected and brought back to Earth.

Our universe extends millions of times beyond the remotest stars we can see—out to galaxies so far away that their light has taken 10 billion years to reach us. Bizarre cosmic objects—quasars, black holes, and neutron stars—have entered the general vocabulary, if not the common understanding. We have learned that most of the stuff in the universe is not at all in the form of ordinary atoms: it consists of mysterious dark particles, or energy that is latent in space. We now envision our Earth in an evolutionary context stretching back before the birth of our solar system—right back, indeed, to the primordial event that set our entire cosmos expanding from some entity of microscopic size.

Deeper insight into the nature of space and time may enlarge our conception of the cosmos to embrace other universes beyond our own. These may manifest extra spatial dimensions and other concepts so far from our intuition that we shall grasp them with difficulty, if at all. What is surely astounding is that this enterprise has made any headway at all.

The public image of Albert Einstein is not the single-minded and ambitious researcher of his creative youth, but the benign and unkempt sage of his later Princeton years. One of the most-quoted of his aphorisms is: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” He was here expressing his amazement that the laws of physics, which our minds are somehow attuned to understand, apply not just here on Earth, but everywhere we look. Our universe could have turned out to be an anarchic place, where atoms and the forces governing them are bafflingly different elsewhere in the cosmos from those we can study locally. But atoms in the most distant galaxies seem identical to those in our laboratories. Without this simplifying feature, we would have made far less progress in understanding our cosmic environment.

But what about the many things that remain incomprehensible? The most daunting challenge is posed by our biosphere—the immense complexity and variety of organisms, ecosystems, and brains. My interest lies in issues that I genuinely think are more tractable: probing and constraining the underlying laws that govern the microworld of atoms and the grand scale of the cosmos, and understanding how these set the stage for life by allowing the emergence of planets, stars, and galaxies.

In the last few years of the twentieth century, an exciting new research area opened up: the detection of planets around other stars. The night sky will soon be far more interesting. Stars will not be just points of light: many will have a distinctive retinue of planets whose main properties we will know. Will any of these harbor intelligence—or, indeed, even the most primitive life?

If aliens exist, and if we ever establish contact with them, what common culture might we share? The obvious answer is: our cosmic habitat. However different their evolution, the aliens would be made of atoms and governed by the same forces that govern us. If they had eyes and their world had clear skies, they would gaze out on the same vista of stars and galaxies that surround us. We and they would be confronted with stupendous expanses of space, as well as huge spans of time. Contemplative aliens might already have answered questions such as: What happened before the Big Bang? What causes gravity and mass? Is the universe infinite? How did atoms assemble—on at least one planet around at least one star—into beings able to ponder these mysteries? These questions still baffle all of us. Rather than the “end of science” being nigh, we are still near the beginning of the cosmic quest.

To link cosmos and microworld requires a breakthrough. Twentieth-century physics rests on two great foundations: the quantum principle (governing the “inner space” of atoms) and Einstein’s relativity theory, which describes time, outer space, and gravity but doesn’t incorporate quantum effects. The structures erected on these foundations are still disjoint. Until there is a unified theory of the forces governing both cosmos and microworld, we won’t be able to understand the fundamental features of our universe: these features were imprinted on it at the very beginning, when everything was so squeezed that quantum fluctuations could shake the entire universe.

In his later life, Einstein focused on deep issues that are likely to attract more interest in the twenty-first century than they ever did in the twentieth. He spent his last thirty years in a vain (and, with hindsight, premature) quest for a unified theory of physics. Will such a theory—reconciling gravity with the quantum principle and transforming our conception of space and time—be achieved in coming decades?

The smart money is on a concept known as “superstring theory,” or M-theory, in which each point in our ordinary space is actually a tightly folded origami in six extra dimensions, wrapped up on scales perhaps a billion billion times smaller than an atomic nucleus, and particles are represented as vibrating loops of “string.” There is still an unbridged gap between this elaborate mathematical theory and anything we can actually measure. Nonetheless, its proponents are convinced that string theory has a resounding ring of truth about it and that we should take it seriously.

A universe hospitable to life—what we might call a biophilic universe—has to be very special in many ways. The prerequisites for any life—long-lived stable stars, a periodic table of atoms with complex chemistry, and so on—are sensitive to physical laws and could not have emerged from a Big Bang with a recipe that was even slightly different. Many recipes would lead to stillborn universes with no atoms, no chemistry, and no planets; or to universes too short lived or too empty to allow anything to evolve beyond sterile uniformity. This distinctive and special-seeming recipe seems to me a fundamental mystery that should not be brushed aside merely as a brute fact.

How we respond to this mystery will depend on the answer to another of Einstein’s questions: “Could God have made the world any differently?” Our universe, along with the physical laws that prevail in it, may turn out to be the unique outcome of a fundamental theory—in other words, nature may allow only one recipe for a universe. Alternatively, the underlying laws could be more permissive: they may allow many recipes, leading to many different universes; and these universes may actually exist.

We do not know which one of these options prevails. The answer will have to await a successful fundamental theory, and it would be presumptuous to prejudge the answer. Nonetheless, this book will focus on the fascinating consequences of the answer to Einstein’s question—posed as the title of this Prologue—being “yes”: God did have a choice. The entity traditionally called the universe—the entire domain that astronomers study, or the aftermath of “our” Big Bang—would be just one small element, or atom, in an infinite and immensely varied ensemble. The entire “multiverse” would be governed by a set of fundamental principles, but what we call the laws of nature would be no more than local bylaws—the outcome of historical accidents during the initial instants after our own particular Big Bang.

In this book I argue that the multiverse concept is already part of empirical science: we may already have intimations of other universes, and we could even draw inferences about them and about the recipes that led to them. In an infinite ensemble, the existence of some universes that are seemingly fine-tuned to harbor life would occasion no surprise; our own cosmic habitat would plainly belong to this unusual subset. Our entire universe is a fertile oasis within the multiverse.

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Table of Contents

PREFACE ix
PROLOGUE: "Could God Have Made the World Any Differently?" xi
PART I: From Big Bang to Biospheres
1 Planets and Stars 3
2 Life and Intelligence 15
3 Atoms, Stars and Galaxies 35
4 Extragalactic Perspective 49
5 Pregalactic History 65
6 Black Holes and Time Machines 87
PART II: The Beginning and the End
7 Deceleration or Acceleration? 99
8 The Long-Range Future 113
9 How Things Began: The First Millisecond 123
PART III: Fundamentals and Conjectures
10 Cosmos and Microworld 141
11 Laws and Bylaws in the Multiverse 157
APPENDIX: Scales of Structure 183
NOTES TO THE CHAPTERS 187
INDEX 197

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