Joel R Primack and Nancy Abrams
The view from the center of the universe
Since the ideas of Copernicus which removed the earth from the centre of the solar system, new scientific discoveries seem to belittle our importance in the scheme of things. Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams think that this process has gone too far - that the tendency to see things in this way is little more than a bad habit. In The view from the center of the universe they show how it is due to an out-of-date mindset, and that recent discoveries rather emphasise our importance in the universe. For instance the fact that 99.5% of the universe seems to consist of either mysterious dark energy or of matter that we can't see doesn't relegate us to the sidelines - it shows that we are in the important bit. They symbolise this with a picture of a pyramid, with dark energy as the base, topped by non-baryonic matter, followed by dark baryonic matter and then the matter that we can actually see. The 0.01% which contains the elements heavier than hydrogen or helium is placed at the top of the pyramid. For many of the ideas which they introduce in the book the authors introduce such a symbol. For instance to illustrate that our size is midway between that of the Planck scale - the smallest possible size - and that of the observable universe they introduce the Cosmic Ouroboros, a serpent swallowing its own tail.
A special place and time
You might feel a bit uneasy with the title of this book. Any decent introduction to cosmology will try to make sure that the reader understands that there is no centre to the universe, and it would be right. But when you look at the best way to represent the universe, such a representation will invariably put us in the centre. As we look out into the universe we are looking back in time, back through the development of galaxies and quasars to the cosmic microwave background and on towards the Big Bang itself. Primack and Abrams represent this as a series of concentric spheres resembling the medieval idea of the solar system. Also, every treatment of relativity will introduce the idea of the light cone, and that certainly emphasises the importance of the here and now. The book also looks at the position of the earth in our galaxy, and the present stage of the lifecycle of the sun. These observations demonstrate the significance of where and when we live.
Joel Primack has played a significant part in the development of particle physics and cosmology, and the book provides a useful introduction to these subjects for the non-techical reader. The Cosmic Ouroboros highlights the link between the nature of the universe as a whole and the of the physics which occurs on the smallest scales. Such links give rise to the theory of cosmological inflation, and in particular the book describes ideas of eternal inflation, where the universe we see is simply a part of the universe which has stopped inflating, embedded in a larger universe where inflation continues. Thus the reader is led through the various stages of existence of the universe.
Our place in the cosmos
But the book isn't just about teaching the reader some science, it also has the purpose of highlighting what is important in our lives. The authors consider whether we are alone in the universe, but then question what we mean by being alone, that is what sort of beings would need to be out there for us to think of them as being 'like us'. And this is really a question about us - what do we consider to be the important things in defining what we are. And most important of all we exist at a critical time for humanity, Thus to solve the problems we encounter today and in the future we will need a much wider perspective than we have had in the past - Think Cosmically, Act Globally.
What I liked about the book was that it wasn't dogmatically pushing some new idea, rather it was a wake up call to recognise what we already know. For instance, in other books links between religion and modern science can seem a bit artificial, but I think that in this book such links work well. Thus the stages of existence of the universe are compared with Kabbalistic ideas, showing that the same sort of ideas occur in many different situations. But this isn't some post-modern claim that there is no way of judging which ideas are correct - the authors emphasise that much of modern science is firmly established, and are very clear on which ideas might be considered speculative. They don't see new ideas as pushing aside those which came before though - consigning them to the dustbin of history. Rather they see new ideas as encompassing earlier ones, making the whole Religion versus Science controversy seem a bit daft. I'd recommend this book to everyone - if you have no knowledge of modern cosmology then it gives an easy to follow introduction, whilst if you are more expert then it gives you insight into how the subject can be presented, and it will give all readers a new view of the place of humanity in the universe
|More Reviews of 'The view from the centre of the universe'|