Books: Birth pangs of a baby universe
Will Big Science disappear up its own black holes? The Life of the Cosmos by Lee Smolin, Weidenfeld, pounds 20
Saturday 21 June 1997
At the heart of Smolin's astonishing idea are black holes. All you have to do is add the essential ingredients of natural selection - reproduction, variation and competition. Smolin suggests that every time a star collapses to form a black hole, spacetime itself is crushed out of existence and reshaped. A new universe is born; and with each birth the basic laws of physics emerge slightly different. So each baby universe is not a perfect replica of its parent, but a mutated form.
From among a huge population of competing universes, ours has evolved to maximise its production of black holes, and so of baby universes. And it just so happens that the kind of things - stars, carbon and complex organic molecules - that are ideal for making black holes are also ideal for making life. In other words, the laws of physics have evolved to maximise the reproductive success of the universe.
Not surprisingly, physicists have other ways of explaining why the universe is the way it is. Most popular is the anthropic principle, the idea that we inhabit one of an infinite number of universes, each with different constants. Smolin sees this idea as a cop-out that offers no testable predictions. Other physicists take refuge in non-scientific explanation: that a divine creator adjusted the constants of nature so we could evolve. Others still hanker after a "theory of everything".
Certainly, Smolin believes that a new view is required to unite the principles of quantum mechanics and general relativity. But he doubts that a unified theory can be encapsulated in a single formula, especially not one which assumes the laws of nature are absolute. Rather, he argues that the conditions we require for our existence are compatible only with a relational idea of space and time that takes into account the whole universe.
This is an immensely thought-provoking and thoughtful book, which tackles some of the deepest problems in physics. Along the way, we gain a clear overview of current thinking across a broad range of subjects - relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, particle physics, ecology, the origin of life. Sadly, Smolin has been let down by his publishers. The book abounds in verbiage and typographical errors.
Popular science books, unlike the cosmos, really do benefit from the fine-tuning of an editor. Which is not to say the book won't be widely read. Think of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, hardly a paragon of stylish writing. Smolin's ideas, unlike Hawking's, have the added virtue of being intuitively attractive, for they provide a self-contained historical explanation for why we are here without appealing to any external agent or mechanism. In cosmology, as in biology, the beauty of Darwinism as a unifying theory is that it can explain a multitude of facts with a minimum of assumptions.
But there are snags. We don't know for sure what goes on inside black holes, and, even if they can give birth to baby universes, we could never observe their offspring. Also, the laws of self-organised complexity that scientists discern in computer simulations, and which Smolin draws on heavily to explain how galaxies evolve, may in fact bear only a sketchy correspondence to what happens in the real world. He does, though, stress that his theory can be tested and disproved. But the theory is next to useless at giving meaningful predictions of future events. When it comes to experimenting with universes, we are stuck with a sample of one.
Smolin is nevertheless at pains to distinguish between fact and speculation. In any case, his idea is by no means the most extravagant put forward by cosmologists. Respectable scientists have fantasised about quantum jumps from one universe to another (usually through wormholes), about parallel worlds, and even about whether one can create a universe inside a test tube. Reading this hugely inventive book, one is inclined still to concur with the late, great atheist biologist J B S Haldane, when he suggested that "the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose".
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 2 Licence fee: What is the BBC charge – and how will the changes affect you?
- 3 This is what the photographer has to say about the picture of a weasel riding a woodpecker
- 4 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 5 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'