Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review – A Tear At The Edge of Creation

Sometimes books jump out at you.

While I was last at the bookstore I was walking along the isles and found a book sitting out of place on a table. It seemed interesting enough, so I picked it up.

The book is A Tear at the Edge of Creation by Marcelo Gleiser. The main notion of the book is that science in general (and physics/cosmology in specific) is fixated on trying to find unified theories that are beautifully elegant and simple. There's a belief that there must be a simplest, unified form from which all natural laws spring, if only we could understand it.

Marcelo's argument is that perhaps it's time to give up on this idea; To get past the notion that the universe must inherently make sense and that all forces must be tied together by some uniting background symmetry that unites everything into a great “Oneness”. He suggests this idea is rooted in monotheistic religion and is baseless as the faiths themselves. Instead, he suggests, we should look at the universe from the point of view of asymmetries.

This is best summarized in his chapter entitled “Science of the Gaps”. He states:
unification begins where our current theories stop. What we don't know, unification will explain. As science advances and we learn more about Nature and its violation of symmetries, unification, to its humiliation, gets squeezed into an ever-shrinking gap. Theories are hastily revised, parameters are shifted, the whole mission of unification gets redefined.
Obviously, he is making reference to the God of the Gaps fallacy, implying that now, we scientists are relying on faith to suppose that our remaining gaps will be filled by a single theory. However, there's some obvious differences Gleiser ignores; Namely, God has never successfully filled a gap. When we've looked into the gap, it's not been God, it's always been something else. Meanwhile, the expectation that forces will unify has filled many gaps.

As he points out, time and time again, nature has proven us wrong. At one time we held that atoms were the smallest, indivisible units that tied all matter together. But those fundamental units weren't the quintessential building blocks. Nor were the protons, neutrons and electrons that made those up. Nor were even the hadrons. The rabbit hole is much deeper than we've ever suspected and aside from our desires that it will, there is no actual evidence to suggest that there is an end.

To illustrate the point, Marcelo discusses several of the problems facing particle physicists today in which symmetry is apparently being violated. Charge and Parity have both seen to be violated with exotic subatomic particles. New particles have been proposed to rectify this, but have not (yet) been discovered. Will they be?

While I agree with this point, I feel the author's claims are somewhat overstated. Although I'm sure there is a large contingent that holds a belief in a final theory that will unify all branches of knowledge, I've never really felt that anyone has ever expected this to truly be the end. Sure, we can tie everything we know about together, but what of the things we don't know about? Are we really so arrogant to assume we've discovered enough about the universe to truly say when we've reached the end? I find science to be much the opposite: It's a humbling experience that is constantly reminding us how much there is to discover and we exalt in the joy of doing so. Regardless of whether there is an end or not, we'll keep exploring. Meanwhile, names like the “Theory of Everything” are overstated, but I look at it in much the same way as naming new telescopes: We have to call them something. And given we keep making them bigger, it's no surprise that our descriptions of their size are often somewhat hyperbolic. It would be more appropriately named a "Theory of Everything (we know about right now)".

But what of the claims that we should abandon the notion that things must be “beautiful” and “symmetric”. The symmetry argument has worked well in the past. It's led to the discovery of new sub-atomic particles when charge symmetry has been violated. But Marcelo points out it hasn't panned out so well in the search for things like magnetic monopoles or anti-mater. The latter we know exists, but for some reason, there's far more matter in the universe than anti-matter (thank goodness). Meanwhile, magnetic monopoles haven't been discovered at all. So “theories are hastily revised” to constantly explain why. We're constraining where they could be, but only on one end. Are we to forever chase it to infinity?

The “beauty” concept is one that I can't get on board with. To me, the idea that a solution for a problem must be “beautiful” is a ridiculous concept due to a loose definition of the concept itself. As is said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Obviously not an objective standard. It's much the same problem as trying to define the second law of thermodynamics as dealing with “order” and “disorder”. Many times you can call a system either, depending on how you look at it.

One of my favorite parts of this book came later in as the author discussed the realization that there is an inherent asymmetry in life: our proteins all share the same chirality. This was initially discovered by Pasteur and Gleiser walks the reader through the feat of the discovery (which also fundamentally linked biological life to molecular roots). He finishes it with a quote from one of Pasteur's contemporaries that is a good summary of the excitement that such discoveries can cause:
My dear child, I have loved science so much throughout my life that his makes my heart throb.
Gleiser discusses why life may have selected this chirality posing several possible scenarios. Although it was unlikely, the one that most interested me was the potential that it was due to an interaction with neutrinos which only appear in a "left-handed" form. If this was the case, then any life would have a preference for similar chirality. This would put a wrench in the works of looking for the "shadow biosphere" Davies wrote about in Eerie Silence. However, Gleiser dismisses this possibility because the interactions are not strong enough to create a statistically significant initial preference. Oh well. Fun to think about.

So what was the grand conclusion of this book? It seemed to be that we need to give up the idea that there is a single underlying cause to everything that we should try to figure out. In the last few chapters, Gleiser discusses the potential for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe concluding that there is no imperative for intelligence to evolve (although simplistic life is probable). With no divine guardian and no guarantee that if we fail, other intelligent life will surely rise, that makes us, as a species, even more unique and special. If we realize this specialness, we should to more to protect it.

Overall, I think it's a nice sentiment, but it's not especially well supported. While I agree that there's no fundamental reason to assume that there will be a complete unification of everything, it's a methodology that has worked well in the past. Gleiser even acknowledges this. What I don't think he gives enough credit to, is that, even with this assumption, scientists can do perfectly well because we're very good at compartmentalizing. Essentially, although we'd like to eventually get to some sort of unification, we'll work on this little corner over here for now. Unification will come later. The way Gleiser paints it, everyone's so busy trying to fit everything into the big picture, science is about to fall apart because they're not focusing in enough on things that may well not be connectible. Perhaps the people in his crowd do, but I absolutely disagree that it's a prevailing condition of science.

Furthermore, I just can't get onboard with the idea of "beauty". I did have an encounter with a professor that was very into this concept, but he couldn't really define it. As such, it seemed pretty useless. Gleiser doesn't define it either. Thus, the substantial portion of the book devoted to it is pretty useless as well. I've seen people describe the Friedmann-Walker metric described as beautiful. I don't get it. I think it's pretty nasty. I think the universe would be much more beautiful if everything could boil down to very simple quadratics. I like those. So again, what one person deems "beautiful", another may not.

What I do find beauty in, is that we can write equations that accurately describe the workings of the universe. But in my book, the beauty comes from them working. Them being beautiful doesn't tell me that they'll work as Gleiser seems to imply they will. It seems he's stuck in a circular logic loop in which they work which makes them beautiful which makes them work which makes them beautiful..... And somehow you can start at either point. If he ever believed this (or other scientists do) then I'd say they have a serious problem, but again, it's not something I've ever viewed as pervasive in science.

The last thing that ate at me was Gleiser's frequent attacks on Dawkins and other "New" Atheists early on in the book. For no real reason, Gleiser chastised Dawkins for daring to call theists "deluded" (ie, The God Delusion) even though he Gleiser makes it perfectly clear that there is no reason to believe in that God. He goes on to ask if scientists are "deluded" for believing in unification. I'll have to go back to what I stated earlier: Unification has a track record of success. Thus, "believing" in it is not "deluded". So really what it boiled down to was Gleiser whining about the tone. That was not necessary in the book, especially since he goes on to use the exact same language as well.

Overall, the grand conclusions of this book weren't worth much. There was quite a bit of good science that may make it worthwhile. In general, this book may be worth it as a paperback, but don't blow the money for the hardback version.


Unknown said...

"While I agree with this point, I feel the author's claims are somewhat overstated."

I think your criticism of him is understated.

I thought one of the main points of science was to make hypotheses, then test them. If it's right, good, we've learnt something. if it's not, good, we might have learned even more.

The hypothesis that there's a unifying theory seems a pretty good idea to me. If it turns out to be false, we've learned something. If it turns out to be true - wow!

voltaire69 said...

"a unifying theory seems a pretty good idea to me. If it turns out to be false, we've learned something. If it turns out to be true - wow!" this comment echoes the Rig Veda - oldest science discussion. Beginning - either something or nothing.
Atomism; Einstein/Wheeler: The basis of reality information -

voltaire69 said...

"a unifying theory seems a pretty good idea to me. If it turns out to be false, we've learned something. If it turns out to be true - wow!" this comment echoes the Rig Veda - oldest science discussion. Beginning - either something or nothing.
Atomism; Einstein/Wheeler: The basis of reality information -
"in the beginning logos".