The universe in three books

Dur­ing my short vaca­tion, I looked at three books on the same sub­ject. I have long been fas­ci­nat­ed by dis­cov­er­ies about the uni­verse. If I had­n’t had the poet­’s fuzzy mind, I prob­a­bly would have gone into a lot of sci­en­tif­ic stuff, espe­cial­ly physics. Why did­n’t I do that would be more the sub­ject of psy­cho­analy­sis whose con­clu­sion would exceed my small existence.

In any case, I read these books almost back­ward, start­ing with the most com­plex and end­ing with the simplest.

  1. Until the End of Time, Mind, Mat­ter, and the Search for Mean­ing in an Evolv­ing Uni­verse, Bri­an Greene
  2. The Work Accord­ing to Physics, Jim Al-Khalili
  3. Sev­en Brief Lessons on Physics, Car­lo Rovelli

The pur­pose of End of Time Tool begins with an almost philo­soph­i­cal state­ment, even if it is in per­fect agree­ment with “real­i­ty” as we know it : In the full­ness of time all that lives will die. In oth­er words, we will all die, every­thing dies, every­thing plunges back into the bal­ance of dis­or­der. Pro­fes­sor of physics and math­e­mat­ics, the author explains it to us in 326 pages, not in a philo­soph­i­cal gloss, but by describ­ing the path of the dis­cov­er­ies relat­ing to the uni­verse and the philo­soph­i­cal, exis­ten­tial con­sid­er­a­tions that can result (what is life ? for example).

It is some­times dense, always very well writ­ten – after all, he is a suc­cess­ful author. The book leads us to under­stand the extra­or­di­nary dis­cov­er­ies relat­ed to our under­stand­ing of the uni­verse, as well as it gives us a glimpse of the immense path that sci­ence still has to take to pos­sess the truth on this subject.

As with the oth­er two books, the con­clu­sion is the same : the more we advance, the more we seem to move back­ward or instead to come up against oth­er questions.

The sec­ond book is a bet­ter sum­ma­ry, in my opin­ion, of the state of this sci­ence. The World Accord­ing to Physics is as devoid of com­plex equa­tions as the pre­vi­ous book. Its pur­pose is to explain to peo­ple, like you and me, the won­ders of the uni­verse, as we under­stand it, at least through the lens of physics. This book was a real charm to read.

The third book is even short­er. Sev­en Brief Lessons on Physics is a col­lec­tion of arti­cles from a news­pa­per col­umn. It is a sum­ma­ry of abstracts, so to speak. It may seem super­fi­cial after the more exhaus­tive read­ings, but if there is one book to explain it to your moth­er, this is it ! With the excep­tion of a few dis­turb­ing sen­tences such as :

The heat of black holes is like the Roset­ta Stone of physics, writ­ten in a com­bi­na­tion of three lan­guages – Quan­tum, Grav­i­ta­tion­al and Ther­mo­dy­nam­ic – still await­ing deci­pher­ment in order to reveal the true nature of time.

No won­der we lose as much of our Latin as we lose our Eng­lish or our breathing.

In each of these three books, I still learned var­i­ous things. So they can­not be reduced to one anoth­er even if they overlap.

Let’s try the exer­cise anyway :

  • On the one hand, there was a first impor­tant step for­ward, notably with Ein­stein’s help (but he is real­ly not the only one, nor the first). A sim­ple equa­tion will have allowed the adven­ture of an aston­ish­ing under­stand­ing of the infi­nite­ly great. We have made giant steps in the under­stand­ing of the mech­a­nism of grav­i­ty (New­ton’s famous apple real­ly did not explain every­thing). The world of space-time, of the Big Bang, of worlds per­haps par­al­lel or rather mul­ti­vers­es, has opened up before us. In these the­o­ries, the uni­verse is curved, the time is elas­tic and the vision of the world can be inter­pet­ed as a trip of LSD some­times. These dis­cov­er­ies have great­ly inspired sci­ence-fic­tion authors, but also tech­no­log­i­cal advances.
  • On the oth­er hand, the dis­cov­ery of quan­ta (Plank’s hypoth­e­sis), that light is made of small quan­ti­ties. It is then the adven­ture into the immense­ly small, and the results of these con­sid­er­a­tions have led us, among oth­er things, to the smart phone, to com­put­ers, to uncer­tain­ty too since every­thing becomes prob­a­bil­i­ty. It is in the uni­verse of the infi­nite­ly small that the study of the brain plunges with these large devices result­ing from the first grav­i­ta­tion­al and ther­mo­dy­nam­ic advances. It is the uni­verse of the minus­cule that attracts the researchers of con­scious­ness. The uni­verse, accord­ing to this the­o­ry, is some­how flat. Nasty contradiction.
  • Thus, between the two the­o­ries, grav­i­ta­tion­al and quan­tum, there is a thick opaque wall. The dance of the equa­tions of one does not go at the same rhythm as the oth­er, con­tra­dicts it. The two expla­na­tions of the uni­verse, although log­i­cal, effi­cient, giv­ing con­crete results both in sci­ence and in our every­day life, can­not merge as they appear incompatible.
  • On top of that, more than 90% of mat­ter is for­eign to us, can­not be observed. This is the dark mat­ter (noth­ing to do with Darth Father) and its com­pan­ion, the dark ener­gy (noth­ing to do with the Death Star).

Phys­i­cal sci­ence has now reached this point, try­ing to stick these two giant expla­na­tions of the uni­verse into one big the­o­ry. It sim­ply does not suc­ceed. Not yet, and many physi­cists are already con­tent to live with these sides of real­i­ty as best they can, while oth­ers, more stub­born, pre­fer to con­tin­ue the uncer­tain adven­ture. Their attempts infuse more com­plex­i­ty to make it ele­gant as are the con­tra­dic­to­ry the­o­ries. Sci­ence is con­stant­ly search­ing for sim­plic­i­ty. The same is true of nature, which, after hav­ing tak­en many paths, reach­es stages of sim­plic­i­ty. Think only of your fin­gers typ­ing on a key­board and try to under­stand all its move­ments and coordination.

My first con­tact with physics goes back to the vogue of pseu­do-eso­teric books such as The Tao of Physics. The temp­ta­tion was great, indeed, to take short­cuts, to merge phi­los­o­phy for the sim­ple rea­son that the answers, the cer­tain­ties still don’t come. These temp­ta­tions have their use­ful­ness too. Imag­i­na­tion is the best breed­ing ground for discovery.

Faced with the imper­fec­tions of the con­clu­sions, we must tell our­selves that the path tak­en by sci­ence should not be so false since it brings us so many ben­e­fits. We are at a time when we can see the foun­da­tions of life through beau­ti­ful equa­tions. Our real­i­ty, our poor under­stand­ing of things, the one that does not go beyond our fin­gers and neu­rons, has a lot of trou­ble get­ting used to the sci­ence-fic­tion uni­verse of physics and neu­ro­science. What is life ? What is con­scious­ness ? What is the begin­ning of the world ? These are ques­tions that have nour­ished both the sacred texts and the vol­umes of con­stant­ly renewed gen­er­a­tions of philoso­phers and believers.

These ques­tions are some­what sim­i­lar to those of sci­ence, and if sci­ence now accepts to make them its own, it is only on one con­di­tion : it must be ver­i­fi­able and, more­over, fal­si­fi­able, that is to say that any the­o­ry can be con­tra­dict­ed by facts. One day or anoth­er, even if, in the mean­time, one can enjoy the result­ing cer­tain­ties and advances. How­ev­er, one must face the music. Our ques­tions are not ready to be answered.

Now, the whole human race, impa­tient, seems more inclined to retreat, to want to remain in the com­fort of ancient rites and in the drunk­en­ness of blood that it can make col­or by the weapons of myths alone. We are fac­ing the return of mul­ti-faceted fun­da­men­tal­ism, a return to rit­u­als that have often gen­er­at­ed more blood than fer­til­i­ty. This is a sad reflex, which lacks courage.

Under­stand­ing real­i­ty and the ques­tions that sci­ence rais­es is cer­tain­ly not giv­en to every­one. Nev­er­the­less, these three books are proof that sci­en­tists believe they are more and more respon­si­ble, oblig­ed to attempt a prop­er popularization.

It is a noble, almost mes­sian­ic task. Artists should take hold of these expla­na­tions, make good use of them. They still need to be able to unite their inspi­ra­tions with these the­o­ries. But they must have the intel­li­gence to do so and stop wor­ry­ing about their ego.

Of course, you don’t need to know all this to live your life well. You can make songs, write nov­els, paint pic­tures, make babies, dance, raise a fam­i­ly, and die quite peacefully.

How­ev­er, it would be imper­a­tive that peo­ple be grad­u­al­ly edu­cat­ed to put their exis­tence and their cer­tain­ties into per­spec­tive. Physi­cists some­times have spir­i­tu­al orgasms because the real­i­ty they imag­ine exceeds the val­ue of their own lives. Read­ing these three books also sug­gests that these physi­cists are some­how wait­ing for the next Ein­stein, Plank, Maxwell, and many others…

Sci­ence does not have answers to every­thing, but at least it dares to explain and ques­tion. Its stub­born­ness should be for each of us an exam­ple of lucid­i­ty and humility.

To read there­fore, at the very least, Rov­el­li’s opuscule.