‘The View from the Center of the Universe’ – Chapter 1


“The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Place in the Cosmos” by Joel R. Primac and Nancy Ellen Abrams – a book. Amazon | Book Website | Primack is a physicist who has done significant work in cosmology. He is married to Abrams, a lawyer and writer with wide-ranging interest and knowledge. | This entry is an experiment in personal blogging. I have read this book three times. I now wish to go through it one chapter at a time, writing a summary in my own words. I see this as primarily an exercise for me, but it may be of use to others.


Chapter 1 – Two definitions of cosmology, three of truth, a fresh perspective on how science works, and even some arguments in favor of ugly – this chapter is loaded with a lot of fundamental and challenging ideas.

One that caught me off guard was the very nature of how science works, challenging the assumption that new theories overthrow old ones in massive paradigm shifts. The authors argue this was true in a single case – the Copernican Revolution – but that this single case does not represent what is typical of science.

Until now I have fully accepted the idea of paradign shifts, but the authors argue that what science really does is encompass older theories, perhaps limiting their application, but retaining and extending them. Thus, Newtonian physics is still good on the scale of the solar system, giving essentially the same answers as relativity. But go to larger scales and relativity is needed.

This was the newest new idea for me in the chapter, but there are many other stimulating thoughts here that I have nibbled around the edges of in my own mind before discovering this book. Here’s a catalog of the concepts presented.

Science as metaphor

Science is both a consumer and creator of metaphors and is meaningless without thousands of them.

Never thought of it with that empahsis. I have always seem science as a creator of models – but that’s different. Metaphors – I love them dearly – but what role do they play in science? Well, I think what they are saying is words as basic as “truth” and “universe” have meanings beyond those used in ordinary speech, so they are, in fact, metaphors? Perhaps. I’m not cmofrtable with the use of the word metaphor to describe the fact that in science many words have special meanings beyond their street meaning.

The two cosmologies
The first defnition is that a cosmology is the world view of a particular culture – how “human life, the natural world, and God or the Gods fit together.” Scientific cosmology, however, is the branch of astrophysics that studies the origin and nature of the universe. They want to combine the definitions in this book creating a “science-baseed explanation of our human place in the universe.” They argue that this is needed – that our modern, developing global culture is adrift without it and that such a science-based cosmology is the only neutral foundation that can bring us all together. Yes!

The mdoern cosmologist has faith that “we humans can get close enough to some aspect of the real universe to uncover a secret.”

Some thing

The authors ask “is the universe something” and I go tripping off the edge of a flat Earth – here’s my aside:

We have to think cause and effect – we think every creation has to have a creator. So for all of creation we create one and call it “God” – and, of course, conveniently ignore the child’s question, “did God have a mother?” Of course she did – a mother and a father – us. We created god. So we get locked in a huge circle.

But I have to ask this question because of these few sentenes:

What scientific cosmology does is put a mental frame, so to speak, around the universe. A frame gives its contents an identity, and until something has an identity, we can’t think about it; we can’t distinguish it from what is not-it.

Whoa! That’s good – but exactly what is not-it? That is, if it’s not the universe, what is it? That’s what bothers me about the whole idea of space expanding. Other minds may feel comfortable in this frame, not me. I’m always wondering what the universe is expanding into. I know, I know – space and time are part of the creation. Right. So space is something. Some thing. Fine. And beyond it? Well, there is no beyond. See, if you sail west too far you fall off the edge of the flat Earth. OK – back, to the book. I actually like it because it stimulates so many of these little asides.

. . . the universe of modern cosmology is not just a container – it’s a dynamic, evolving being.

Being? Yes, they said “being.” Sounds like Gaia taken to the nth degree. And science puts “a mental frame” around the universe so we can distinguish it from what is not-it.

And how are we going to get people to trust this science in an age where we do battle over teaching creationism in our schools? Perhaps on of the most startling – and useful – claims of the authors is that there already is a global consensus on science, though people may not admit it.

. . . no matter where p[eople fall along apolitical or religious spectrum, and no matter what they may claim, in practice they trust their lives to airplanes, computers, and other technological products based on modern science.

That’s a simple and powerful argument that I don’t think we use often enough when faced witht he inevitable cultural clashes between science and religion.

There are also some powerful throw aways here. For example the authors ask isn’t there really a Universe that created us? And they answer in two words.

No doubt.

Now isn’t that the heart of the matter? Isn’t that the foundational statement of the new faith they appear to be proposing? That we are the children of the universe and that all scientific evidence to date clearly show this? No doubt!

Truth and theory

I think the most important thing they say about theory is this:

A scientific theory can be disproved by a single counterexample, but it can never be proved true because that would mean it couldn’t be refuted; and if it can’t be refuted, by definition it’s not a scientific theory – it’s faith, not science.

The other, of course, is that a scientific theory has to be testable.

But truth – now there I found some new ground. It doesn’t come until later in the chapter, but I think it fits here. The authors define three different kinds of truth – religious, legal, and scientific. Frankly, the one that set me thinking the most was the legal one, having just sat on a four-day trial and been the one opposing point of view on a 14-person jury! But I hadn’t thought of legal truth the way Primack and Abrams do.

Religious truth is either a quiet certainty, or a certainty so obvious that for other people to believe otherwise is an offense against God. This kind of truth is, by definition, unquestionable.

Legal truth: is a set of “facts” found to be true by a judge or jury.

The facts “found” by the judge or jury may or may not be exactly what happened; but if they arrive at their findings by following the right procedures, then those findings become officially true.

My problem with the jury I was on was that there was not enough systematic, rational discussion of the issues. There was a rambling, disjointed discussion across a table with several people talking at once – and there was a vote – and it was over. Yes, mine was a dissenting vote, but the requirement in this instance was for 12 out of 14 to agree – so it was meaningless. The procedure had been followed, the case decided, the “truth” thus determined. Until reading this book I hadn’t seen that so clearly.

Scientific truthScientific truth is never certain – always open to challenge. And I love this point, for I think it has many profound implications:

People who crave this kind of Ultimate Truth rarely consider that they themselves are at only an intermediate stage of evolution and therefore in no position to understand anything ultimately.

and what about Beauty?

This seemed to me a bit of an aside, but an interesting one, especially since one of the favored words in describing a scientific truth is frequently that it’s “elegant.” The author argues from hard experience in developing cosmological theories that stand the tests of colleagues that the elegant answer isn’t always the truth and we should be very cautious not to let the beauty of an idea prejudice us. The problem is scale.

When we extrapolate such feelings about how things work to the universe, what we are actually imagining is how the universe would work in miniature if it existed on the size scale of our experience. But miniatures never work like the real thing. A toy care doesn’t run with a combustion engine, an atom is not like the solar system, and Earth doesn’t work like the larger universe.

I have been fond for some time of asserting that science is “uncommon sense” and in developing practices that overcome our common sense misconceptions. So I was very encouraged to read that the authors feel that common sense – “despite it’s default-setting of ‘on-Earth,'” – can be educated. They even go on to raise one of my pet peeves – that we continue to speak of “sunrise” and “sunset” when we have known for nearly three centuries that these words do not accurately describe what is happening.

As a cure for this last they suggest a contemplation. I think it is good, but I think you need much more – you need real exercises associated with the contemplation and you need to repeat them often for the lesson to sink in and become part of your mental furniture.

Myth in the age of science

Ah, yet another of my pet peeves – the common use of “myth” to mean untrue when in fact myths are designed to present the most profound truths that can’t be expressed in other ways. (Sadly, from my perspective even people who accept a myth as true frequently feel their myths – the ones they grew up with – are true, but others aren’t – and they fail to understand the deeper meaning that their myths convey. They see them as literal rather than metaphorical.)

They cite Joseph Campbell’s “the Inner Reaches of Outer Space” as helping set a major theme for this book – the development of a new myth that “must demonstrate humanity’s connection to all there is, yet be consistent with all we know scientifically.”

And it is here the author’s get down to what has bugged me for several years and lead me to create a Web site called “rapt in awe” and sent me on a multi-year mission to try to develop ways of achieving this state. I was a bit shocked – a tad embarrassed, actually – to see reflections of myself in this paragraph:

By endlessly creative means, including prayer, alcohol and other drugs, meditation, music, study, contemplation, sexual practices, shamans, priests, rituals, dancing, drama, art, and now science, people have sought to connect to the invisible at a level deep enough to trigger in themselves a sense of awe.

Yep – my embarrassment comes form being crammed in with some of the methods mentioned – but I am certainly trying to use science, contemplation, and meditation with experiences of the night sky to trigger a “sense of awe.”

The authors conclude the chapter by stressing the need for more involvement – more participation – of the citizens of the world with the universe. As they say, we don’t need simply to be educated, we need “to do something with it.”

This book’s attempt at seeking meaning through history, symbols, imagery, metaphors, and contemplation, as well as straight scientific explanation, is not entirely cosmology, but perhaps is the point of cosmology.

Mumbai – running towards the explosion!

No religion which is narrow and which cannot satisfy the test of reason, will survive the coming reconstruction of society in which the values will have changed and character, not possession of wealth, title or birth will be the test of merit. – Mahatma Gadhi

In my youth religion shone brightly with non-violence. The religion of Jesus preached by my father – Jesus, who told Peter to put down his sword, who turned the other cheek, who reminded us of the commandment: “thou shalt not kill.” And the religion of Martin Luther King who lead a non-violent revolution that has born fruit this year in the rise of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States. And the broad, encompassing faith of Mahatma Gandhi who lead all of India non-violently out of the bondage of colonialism. That was beautiful, that was different, that was then – not now.

Now the religion that walks the streets – makes the news – is the religion of hate and violence. It is not the faith of my father. Christianity in the US now spawns the ugliest of politicians and preachers, trading on fear and tribalism; generating fear’s child, hatred, and fear’s grandchild, violence. I find myself cursing Christians more often these days than blessing them, for the most noisy of them, like Bush and Palin and a slew of wealthy, tv-star preachers, feed on the anti-life forces while drawing the protective cloak of Christianity about them. And in the old worlds – the places where it all started – the most visible Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are now on the side of violence, rallying the old against the new in the name of false gods – not that the Christian god, nor Muslim god, nor Jewish god, nor Hindu gods are false – but the new face of religion hides behind these gods, denying them while claiming allegiance.

I knew that was what was at work when I first heard of the Mumbai bombings. It is confirmed today, in a wonderful piece done by an Indian/American journalism professor and writer, Suketu Mehta, in the New York Times. He has both explanations and solutions. He is the face of tomorrow turned towards yesterday in disgust and outrage.

In the Bombay I grew up in, your religion was a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle. In my school, you were denominated by which cricketer or Bollywood star you worshiped, not which prophet. In today’s Mumbai, things have changed. Hindu and Muslim demagogues want the mobs to come out again in the streets, and slaughter one another in the name of God. They want India and Pakistan to go to war. They want Indian Muslims to be expelled. They want India to get out of Kashmir. They want mosques torn down. They want temples bombed.

He goes on to describe a Mumbai built on “transaction” – on money and glitter and fame and dreams – what many would call fantasies – more false gods.

Just as cinema is a mass dream of the audience, Mumbai is a mass dream of the peoples of South Asia. Bollywood movies are the most popular form of entertainment across the subcontinent. Through them, every Pakistani and Bangladeshi is familiar with the wedding-cake architecture of the Taj and the arc of the Gateway of India, symbols of the city that gives the industry its name. It is no wonder that one of the first things the Taliban did upon entering Kabul was to shut down the Bollywood video rental stores.

Oh I understand the frustration of the faithful with the shallowness of Bollywood – and Hollywood. Religion could have an answer to that – an answer that would be heard. We heard that answer half a century ago in India and the US. But now the answer is much different, much uglier. As I pondered this an image popped into my head of Snoopy doing his happy dance.

snoopy_dance

Only these Snoopy’s weren’t dancing in the joyful gleam of a child’s eyes – they were dancing like so many tin ducks in a carnival shooting gallery and the shooters were the religious fanatics in jeans and t-shirts who climbed out of the boats and methodically – with malice and forethought – slaughtered the dancers in Mumbai.

Yes, Snoopy can be simplistic and shallow, as can the fantasies of modern society – sophisticated, shallow, money-grubbing – obsessed with appearance, with sex, with fame, and with money. Snoopy, too, can turn ugly. But in the end, he is mostly harmless silliness. And in the best of times he is LIFE in huge letters, flashing across the screen in unbridled exuberance and lifting us all up. Life is a dance – a constantly moving, shifting, changing pattern – and as such a joy. Unless you fear change. Then you want to freeze it. And in the name of the Lord of the Dance, you invoke death. And that’s what these religious fanatics – these people who view themselves holier than the rest of us, who want to impose their values on us, and feel threatened by joy – these sad, sick, hateful, and violent people.

In such a world I choose life – even shallow, vain, grasping, and greedy life – over the mindless, souless automatons who would cut it down.

I like Suketu Mehta’s answer to all this. He concludes:

But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever. Dream of making a good home for all Mumbaikars, not just the denizens of $500-a-night hotel rooms. Dream not just of Bollywood stars like Aishwarya Rai or Shah Rukh Khan, but of clean running water, humane mass transit, better toilets, a responsive government. Make a killing not in God’s name but in the stock market, and then turn up the forbidden music and dance; work hard and party harder.

If the rest of the world wants to help, it should run toward the explosion. It should fly to Mumbai, and spend money. Where else are you going to be safe? New York? London? Madrid?

So I’m booking flights to Mumbai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bollywood movie at the Metro. Stimulus doesn’t have to be just economic.

Yes – have the courage to run towards the explosion, the courage to live!

‘The View from the Center of the Universe’ – Introduction

“The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Place in the Cosmos” by Joel R. Primac and Nancy Ellen Abrams – a book. Amazon | Book Website | Primack is a physicist who has done significant work in cosmology. He is married to Abrams, a lawyer and writer with wide-ranging interest and knowledge. | This entry is an experiment in personal blogging. I have read this book three times. I now wish to go through it one chapter at a time, writing a summary in my own words. I see this as primarily an exercise for me, but it may be of use to others.

Introduction

We’re out of touch with the universe and disconnected from it and this is a relatively new phenomenon. Past cultures have shared a world view – we don’t. Some of us have a world view based on religion, but science challenges that world view – has for four centuries – and leaves many of us adrift: We feel we inhabit a universe without meaning and we feel insignificant within it. It doesn’t have to be this way.

From a scientific perspective, we are central to the universe and significant. At first glance this looks like a huge step backwards to the perspective held for more than a thousand years where the Earth was at the center of a universe which clearly revolved around it. Man, in this view, is central to the Earth. But science – starting with Copernicus – describes a much different universe, starting with the Sun at the center of our solar system, not Earth. From that point onward nearly every new astronomical discovery made us look less and less significant. Our sun is a fairly ordinary star which is part of a typical galaxy of billions of stars which is, in turn, one of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe. I mean, how insignificant can you be?

Well, you could be a flea – or a bacterium, or an elementary particle.

Seriously, one of the arguments made by the authors is that we are at the center of things in several ways. We are “in the center of all possible sizes in the universe, we are made of the rarest material, and we are living at the midpoint of time for both the universe and the Earth.”

The authors derive our central position from science – not from a misguided sense of self-importance. Of the three points just made, I’m very comfortable with the first two – I’m not sure how they derive the third one about time. As I understand it, the universe has been around for about 13 billion years, but it should last much longer than that, although I don’t know how you define when it ends. But this is just the start of the case they make, so I’ll wait.

More importantly, the authors argue that we should take our scientific understanding of the cosmos as the model for our lives and religions. I’m not sure what “religions” means in this context, unless it simply means our view of ultimate reality. While I don’t like the term “religion” here, I do see that there is plenty of mystery left – plenty of undiscovered and perhaps undiscoverable – science, so maybe this is where they are going.

They say we’re the first generation who “can know what the universe may really be saying.” I’ve seen it a little differently. I think we are the universe becoming aware of itself. Hmmmm . . . is that different? well, yes. Their view makes it sound a bit like we are outside the universe looking in – as if we are a separate entity discovering the universe. I see us as inside the universe – at one with it – and becoming self-aware in much the same way an individual can become self-aware through meditation. But again, perhaps this is where they are heading – or perhaps they will convince me to modify my view.

They plan to explore several themes that are close to my heart – my own explorations – such as:

  • “There’s no way to have intuition about things one has never experienced, and most of the universe fits into that category.”
  • “It’s ironic that seeing reality takes a lot of imagination.”
  • Big questions with scientific answer: “What is the Universe made of? How did it get this way? How big is it? Where did it come from, and where is it going? Are we alone in it?”
  • And the biggest question not addressed by science which I think can be summed up by what someone once called the two most devastating words in the English language:”So what!?”
    They put the question a bit differently – “What difference does all this make for me?”

I would ask another related question – Is there a cosmic order? And if the answer is “yes,” as I suspect it is, why should there be?

One basic approach they adapt here is to try to create a new, symbolic shorthand. They argue that “symbols are far easier to remember than a long, logical argument or a mathematical equation. . . . Each of the symbols in this book represents a fundamental but incomplete insight about the universe . . . No single symbol can ever represent the universe completely. To get a sense of the whole, we have to somehow absorb the meaning of all the symbols together, and this takes imagination.”

As I said, this is my fourth time through this book. I obviously think it is good and worth the effort. But that doesn’t mean I think everything in it is correct and for me the jury is still out on the entire approach of creating these symbols. Maybe I need to make more of an effort to accept them, but something in me has rebelled against them to this point.

This concluding sentence to the introduction, though, I like:

What matters above all is not the details but the overarching realization that we are living at the center of a new universe at a pivotal time.

Yes – but again, the implied dichotomy bothers me. We are that universe. This grand separation – this implication that the universe is something we stand out of and study – bothers me. Still, this is a very important book written by people who have a far, far greater command of the science than I do.