Once Before Time

It is a bold and confident theorist indeed who can characterize his chosen field of research in the frank and humble manner in which Martin Bojowald speaks of “loop quantum gravity,” the core subject of Once Before Time, his rigorously enthralling and speculatively mindblowing survey of this ultra-new physics “framework”:

What is nowadays referred to as quantum gravity is, strictly speaking, not yet a theory even though many independent (but only mathematical) tests have successfully been done. The final demonstration of complete consistency is missing, and so far not a single supporting observation is available (though no observations clearly contradicting such theories exist either).

But such cautious self-deprecation fails to conceal the author’s real pride and eager excitement at the suite of intellectual tools that he and his peers have been developing over the past two decades.The book is pervaded by an at-times near-giddy zeal and zest that will surely infect any reader similarly attuned.

Bojowald and company merely propose a “theory of everything” (different from that embraced by rival “string” physicists, as outlined fairly and compactly herein) which would unite all the cosmic forces and particles, explain the mystery of time, define the multiverse’s evolution as cyclic, and reveal the realms that existed before the Big Bang.  Whew! No wonder Bojowald feels compelled at one point to address the topic of hubris!

But far from coming across as an insensitive megalomaniac, Bojowald appears as a deferential seeker, a visionary attempting to understand the mind of creation. While maintaining the strictest intellectual probity and clarity—although feeling free to indulge in some wild SF scenarios—he also gives respectful weight to the very human emotions and dreams that drive him and his peers.

Bojowald’s prose is always crystalline and picturesque. But this is not to deny its conceptual density.  The reader will have to contribute his or her share of close attention to grasp the many non-intuitive ramifications of this new framework for interpreting the cosmos.But Bojowald is a superb guide, as exemplified in this passage:

Loops build space in a dense mesh.  Even empty space is full of them…  This mesh is ever-shifting, for the change of loops is what encodes time.  Moreover, this is a fuzzy mesh, subject to quantum fluctuations…  One might visualize it as a mass of fluttering heated air above a dark road exposed to the glaring sun of a hot summer day.

In Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem, brainy monks inhabit a series of walled retreats dubbed “concents,” in which they seek to plumb the mysteries of all that is.  Bojowald’s book, with its earnest missionary drive to show us the awesome wonders of limitless human speculation, seems to have slipped across from the Stephenson continuum, where it is probably one of the texts high on the concent reading lists.


The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.