A Different Universeby Robert B. LaughlinThe Artful Universe Expandedby John D. Barrow
A Different Universe
The goal of “reductionism” is to take all of nature apart to see all the cogs and levers moving matter and energy around. A thorough going materialist could hope that reductionism is the path, however arduous, to a complete understanding of the universe. A more modest version of materialism would allow that some aspects of the universe will inevitably remain opaque to our inquiries, but still insist that looking for the underlying cogs and levers is the only way to get a valid understanding of nature.
Major opposition to mechanistic reductionism has usually come from those who argue that there must also be some kind of “vital principles” such as souls to account for some aspects of nature. Nineteenth-century vitalists pointed to wounds that heal themselves, embryos that somehow develop into offspring, and the other wonders of reproduction. One person quipped that if you put two live dogs together you may end up with puppies, but however long two mechanical clocks lie side-by-side they will never produce little tickers. Living things need goal-directed souls to reproduce. Similarly, Whiteheadian process philosophy today declares that even the simplest physical event in the universe already has a mental aspect.
Robert Laughlin represents a quite different form of antireductionism. He is an “emergentist.” From physics mainly, the field in which he won his Nobel Prize, but also from biology, he offers numerous examples of complex and surprising behavior that seems to emerge out of an underlying unpredictability.
The physical world, he claims, is like the economic activities of a large city. There are some laws regulating commerce, food quality, loan arrangements, and so forth, just as there are basic patterns to nature. But the economic flow of a city cannot be entirely reduced to these laws. Much more is going on. In any one day millions of people make decisions-merchants, bankers, tax collectors, truck drivers, and shoppers. Stores sell food past the due date; delivery trucks break down; a supplier or two go bankrupt. Yet in the city as a whole the necessary food and fuel and furniture and fixtures somehow flow to the myriad proper places for pick-up and payment. There is a basic economic order that emerges out of the mess.
Likewise, on the subatomic level, many particles play strange and erratic games. But once you pass a certain numerical boundary of a few billion atoms, let us say, the surface of the table remains wonderfully stable, in spite of all the games going on in the table with this atom or that. From the confusion of the quantum universe arises “emergent Newtonianness,” like Newton’s universe, a stable and comprehensible reality.
Laughlin says we do not quite know why this is the case. He repeatedly points out limits to science’s understanding. All the way from quantum events up to atomic and molecular activity, to conductivity and superconductivity, in fact all the way to gravity, whatever that really is, we can measure and we can predict, but much of the time we do not really understand why these patterns should exist or do exist. Yet out of the energetic but lifeless darkness emerges our reliable physical world, including its many life forms.
John Barrow’s book takes up where Laughlin leaves off. In this extension of his earlier work (eight of the forty-eight sections are new), Barrow says that he wants to take “a look at some of the unexpected ways in which the structure of the universe-its laws, its environments, its astronomical appearance-imprints itself on our thoughts, our aesthetic preference, and our views about the nature of things.” So he focuses on the larger and more complex story of the emergence of humans in cosmic history.
This book is not a sustained argument; it is a tour package. It compares fractal patterns and Jackson Pollock paintings. It tells the secret of how flies can walk on the ceiling, balanced between the forces of gravity and of adhesion. It discusses the differences between noise and music, exploring why we find certain sequences of sounds pleasing. It provides side-by-side lists of the days of the week in different languages to connect the names of the days to various gods, and through them to forces of nature. Endlessly, such things together compose our marvelous human world.
The theme that binds these topics together is that the history of the universe, of life, and of culture, has formed us humans to be the kinds of believers and doers we are. Our art, music, mathematics-our creative moments in general-are not random products of cultural variation. They are rooted in our genetic history, so that Nordic people can grasp the mathematics developed in India and Persia, and the Japanese can come to savor baroque European music.
The vastness of the universe can make human life seem insignificant, Barrow notes. Still, he asks, Why not look at it differently? Human life has appeared because the universe is big and old enough. As Barrow says in much greater detail in his book with Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford University Press), galactic hydrogen and helium had to have billions of years to condense into galaxies of stars. Supergiant stars had to go through long cycles of collapse and re-expansion to create heavier elements, out of which humans and our planet are composed. After the heavier elements gathered here and there into planets such as Earth, it took almost another 4 billion years of evolution to produce us humans, the marvelously self-conscious and artful beings. The vast time and space and variety in the universe, therefore, can be thought of as the recipe for how to make reflectively conscious and creative beings like ourselves.
Barrow does not draw religious implications out of this. Another of Barrow’s many books, though, The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless, and Endless (Pantheon), brings to mind Augustine’s famous prayer to God, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts will not rest until they rest in you.” Somehow out of the long history of this actual universe has emerged the creature whose open-ended capacity for reflection and choice can face the infinite and find there not just mystery but Holy Mystery, as Rahner has put it. Barrow shows us some of that history.
Unfortunately, one-third or more of any chapter of Laughlin’s book can probably be understood only by someone with a good knowledge of atomic and molecular physics. As with Stephen Hawking’s semi-popularized A Brief History of Time, though, much of it is still clear enough to give a glimpse into how the state of science looks to a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Barrow’s work is also a bit dense, but easier to follow. It may be best suited to those who enjoy long rambles through museums of natural history.