BOOK REVIEW / Cosmic billiards when the stars grow old: The Last Three Minutes - Paul Davies; Orion, pounds 9.99

Tom Wilkie
Tuesday 18 October 1994 23:02
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PROFESSOR Paul Davies takes us on a tour of the universe past, present and yet to be. It is the first in a rolling manifesto for science: 22 titles by such authors as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.

Davies surveys the life's work of some of this century's profoundest thinkers: men like Einstein and Feynman, whose thoughts can properly be expressed only in the advanced mathematical formalism of general relativity and quantum electrodynamics. Yet so clear is his exposition that the reader scarcely pauses to remark how exotic is the cosmos we inhabit.

Some stars will develop cores of solid iron, we are told, but our own sun will eventually burn out and shine no longer with nuclear fire. Instead it will float in space, literally as a 'dark crystal', composed of carbon and oxygen.

Ours is indeed a culture in trouble when the language of modern politics is more obscure and jargon ridden than that of modern science. I used to think quantum physics was difficult until I read the Demos open letter to Tony Blair. At first sight, cosmology could scarcely be more remote from our personal concerns. Yet I would bet that the next generation will find more to inspire and stimulate in modern science than modern politics.

As politicians have retreated across a wasteland of lifeless language, so in recent years, the physicists have tended to talk in terms that have become almost biblical. Stephen Hawking's famous conclusion to A Brief History of Time - that through physics we might come 'to know the mind of God' - gets much of the blame, but actually it all began long ago with Einstein, who laid down the law so often - 'God does not play dice'; 'The Lord is subtle but not malicious' - that one exasperated colleague eventually remarked: 'Stop telling God what to do.'

This inclination to find quasi-religious meaning in the discoveries of modern physics has been heavily criticised, most cogently by Mary Midgley in her excellent Science as Salvation - a Modern Myth and its Meaning. In this urge to lift our eyes to the outermost reaches of the universe, Dr Midgley sees a distraction from the less exalted but essential business of making sure that the life support system of our own planet lasts into the next century, never mind the billions of years which seem to trip so easily off the tongues of physicists.

Yet all human cultures have their creation stories. The fascination with beginnings and endings is common to all mankind. Cosmology, it turns out, is not so remote after all.

And as narrated by Davies, what wonders there are to stimulate and test our imaginations] Compared to the richness and interest inherent in the scientists' universe, the descriptions of creation afforded by Western religion and by other cultures now seem crabbed and narrow things. And the world as understood by modern physics is 'holistic': Davies's exposition, for example, links the apparently minor, technical matter of the efficiency of steam engines in the 19th century with the behaviour of subnuclear matter at the furthest reaches of the universe, billions of years from now.

But the physicists' god is an Old Testament deity. There is precious little personal salvation to be had. Davies sketches a scenario whereby a race of insubstantial superbeings, faced with a universe in which the very stars have grown old, might play cosmic billiards, using black holes to strike sparks off each other in order to stave off the endless darkness of a universe that is slowly winding down. Like Mary Midgley, I am not sure if I derive any real comfort from the thought.

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