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

We are often reminded that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolutionary theory. In this bold yet modest book, Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist at Pennsylvania State University, seeks to persuade us that Darwin's theory of natural selection is also the best way of understanding the existence of the universe itself. In his view, the cosmos and in particular the physical laws that control it have evolved by natural selection. It is for this reason that the universe is so hospitable to life. Tweak the properties of the fundamental particles, or the forces between them, by just a fraction, and the world as we know it would fall to bits - all the variety, order and complexity we see would simply vanish. The universe, so it appears, has been finely tuned for the existence of galaxies, stars, subatomic particles and, of course, living things capable of observing it.

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".

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?