GTFH: The universe

The most interesting parts of God: The Failed Hypothesis is not what the book has to say about god, but about science and morality (which I’ll save for a post next week.) In chapters four and five, the book tackles why there is something rather than nothing, and why our something is the way it is.

Nothing is unstable.

In a way, chapter four argues that on a cosmic scale, there is nothing, as the total energy of the universe is zero; the gravitational potential balances the total mass.  And then it shows how “nothing” is an unstable symmetry that spontaneously breaks down into the laws of physics, matter and energy, in short, the universe. It would take supernatural intervention to maintain “nothing”.

The coolest part is that it was a woman, Emmy Noether, who proved that symmetries give rise to the laws of conservation. Though she’s only mentioned in passing, her theorem is fundamental to the Standard Model of particle physics. And that was a sideline to her, as her main work was in abstract algebra and group theory. For me, it was worth reading this book just to find out about her.

The anthropic principle.

Of the most significant cosmological constants, chapter five boils them down to the four parameters needed to specify the broad features of the universe as it exists today: the masses of the electron and proton and the current strengths of the electromagnetic and strong interactions. Stenger has done some work with cosmological fine-tuning, and finds that if you change one cosmological constant, the others must also vary. There could be plausible universes with different constants where stars and planets form and support life. (Which suggests rich pickings for science fiction.)

The book also discusses at length spaceflight is not feasible (much like Stross) and how so much of the universe is completely hostile to life. While some believe there is some intrinsic purpose that causes life to appear, the book argues that most of the matter and energy is unstructured.  In short, the universe was not expressly created for life; life adapted to sustain itself in the niche of (at least) this planet.

Though we haven’t filled in the gaps as thoroughly as we have for evolution, it’s reassuring to learn that we know more than you might think about the origin and nature of the universe. And it’s also stimulating to test the book’s arguments. For example, when it says it seems wasteful for a god to create so much for so little, I suppose one could argue that we’re so important the creator made a whole universe just so we could exist. When you’re talking about someone as slippery as god, the argument can go either way. And this book is nothing if not argumentative.

Ball’s in your court.