‘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.