Just Six Numbers
Mar 3 2002 @ 01:42 by Tormod Guldvog
If any of the six most fundamental values in our Cosmos were changed, you would not be around. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees asks how come, pointing to endless multitudes of universes which are governed by different physical laws.Book Review:
Just Six Numbers
The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe
by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees
(Science Masters Edition) Phoenix, 2001
The Anthropic Principle
One of the emerging philosophies within cosmology for the past decades has been that of an "anthropic principle". It basically states that the universe we live in, is built the way it is simply because we are here to observe it.
This at first sounds much like the old geocentric ideas of previous times, where the Earth was the center of the universe and everything was measured by human scales.
However, writers like Carl Sagan, John D Barrow and numerous other cosmologers have pointed out that there is a basic distinction. The anthropic principle does not state that the Cosmos was created for humans ? but that human existence is one of the prerequisites of the universe in which we live.
I have read countless books on cosmology over the past few years, and they all seem to struggle with the big concepts: we are now seeing so far back into time, realizing which enormous multitude of worlds surrounds us, of which we constitute only one (as Sagan would have put it, wonderful, blue pearl) among countless peers.
So What? Or Where Do We Go From Here?
The problem of the cosmology writer must be this: how can I write something new, without repeating the eternal chattering about the origin of atoms, the generations of suns, the exotic matter and the possible futures of the universe?
Marcus Chown made a good effort in his book The Magic Furnace, in which he lays bare the workings of the stars, and takes the ?we are made of star stuff? chant and shows us that yes, it is indeed true, and we are extremely lucky for it.
Just Six Numbers
But then along comes other people with other insights and look at the more fundamental issues of the anthropic principle. Because it is a marvellous fact indeed, according to Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, that some of the most basic constituents of our Cosmos have values which are so unbelievably well tuned, that without these values we would not, could not, exist.
We need only look at six numbers, he writes, to prove his point. Take, for example, N, which is 10 to the power of 36 (yes, that is 1 with 36 zeroes). It measures the ratio of the electrical force binding the atoms together, to the gravity between them. Add or take a zero, and the Cosmos would fall apart.
Or the "cosmic number" Omega, which measures the amount of material in our universe ? all of it. It is so finely tunes that if it has dictated the expansion of the universe and holds the key to whether it will expand forever or not. Tweak it, and our universe might never grow beyond a golf ball sized soup bowl.
Mockery aside, what Rees accomplishes is a marvellous feat. By forcing the reader to accept the fact that yes, indeed, these numbers have a truly marvellous impact on our very lives, he uses cosmology for all it is: a philosophy of what the place of humanity is within our Cosmos. Mathematics, physics, chemistry ? these are all the tools of the scientists, but putting them all together and dreaming up possible scenarios to explain how intelligent life arose at all is not an easy task.
The Origin Of Creation
Of course, it would always be easy to resort to the First Mover escape route and blame it all on God. But the marvels of cosmology is that it can take God out of the equations and they still hold, er, true ? which makes cosmology and religion two sides of the same thing: both want to explain why we are here, but one needs a creator while the other simply asks, "how can this creation be so finely tuned"?
Martin Rees takes it a step further and brings in the discussion of the "multiverse", a kind of emerging theory in which our universe is just one of an infinite amount of universes ? not parallell, but siblings, much like children born out of the same parents, a parent which we will never be able to meet because we cannot look beyond the Cosmos in which we live.
And that is perhaps the conclusion of this book: out of six seemingly ordinary numbers, the author finds hope that there is something more to our Cosmos than we might think ? and so he keeps alive the hope that one day we might catch a glimpse of what came before us. It is a wonderful dream, indeed, and makes for a readable book which is guaranteed to make you think twice about the causes and effects which have brought you to read this article, in this place, in this time. Is it mere coincidence?
Whether it is 9 or 15 billion years old, the age of the Universe is just one of the mysteries of the Cosmos. Get a grip on things with our cosmology special.
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