Lunar New Year Reads, #45: Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe by Martin Rees

First off, yes, book #45. Book #44 is in a private post, and you may, if you wish, login to see it.

Well, here I am: this weekend is Seolnal, which is the Lunar New Year. I took up the challenge to read and post about 50 books in one Lunar New Year, which is a little difficult, since it’s a shorter span of time than a Solar New year by about a week or so. So I am picking up the books I have read halfway during the last year, and finishing them; I’m pushing myself to get a little more reading done, for no other reason than I do not like to fail in a task.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not having fun or learning something.

Distinguished scientist and author Martin ReesJust Six Numbers is a book that puts me in mind of Olaf Stapledon and his 1937 novel Star Maker, a book I am now aching to reread. It’s kind of a medieval dream-narrative, recast into a kind of theological SF visionary-narrative. In it, a character travels through time and space on a spiritual journey of ever-evanding perspective, watching civilizations birthed and civilizations collapse themselves through shortsighteness and bad decisions. Finally, in the end, the traveler in the novel, along with his pilgrim band of fellow souls, encounters the Star Maker, a kind of Deity that, unlike the God of the Bible, is more of an experimenter, a maker of universes, of which ours is only one, a late experiment and the subject of further refinements and experiments by the Star Maker. With infinite precision, the Star Maker creates each successive universe with precise specifications and characteristics, so that life and complexity will develop and evolve, so that stars may live and minds may develop and the universes themselves may be experienced, even if it is only briefly, only in short bursts of perception and reflection (from the multigalactic timescale perspective of the Star Maker).

(Notable here is the absolute difference between the Star Maker — really, much closer to a kind of Paley-conceived Darwinist watchmaker than anything — and the kind of God that Intelligent Design advocates seem to be talking about. Unlike the ID enthusiasts, Stapledon has at least the guts to confront and try to understand a Creator whose creations involve constant, collosally perplexing theodicy. Intelligent Design theorists would do well to consider what may follow if they win and the notion of a God creating all via evolution spreads wide and far; after all, with this given, the more basic moral theodicy suddenly would span all suffering in the universe. The Star Maker is a being of intense curiosity and interest, and though it even feels a kind of scale-befuddling love for its creations, its conception of everything is so beyond the human one that we scarcely could factor into its mind in any way better than an ant could factor into the mind of even the most observant, compassionate, enlightened human, such as a Jain who fears even to tread upon an ant. This is not a Deity most people would be comfortable with, and yet, within the novel, the picture makes perfect sense. Might it be that, even surviving the confrontation with evolution, the human conception of Yahweh cannot but be transformed radically?)

Stapledon’s novel is, essentially, an assault on the limited perspective of man, on the fragility and preciousness of life, on the loneliness of intelligent beings in the universe, and on that great darkness out there and why, perhaps, we find ourselves in the middle of it. And this is why it brings to mind the book I am reviewing here, by Sir Martin Rees.

Rees book coverI’ve read a number of books on cosmology and their links to these kinds of ideas, including the sneaky and (to my mind slightly despicable) Paul Davies’ The Last Three Minutes. One finds that physicists, unlike biologists, have a high degree of susceptibility to deist assumptions being founded upon the marvelous, very fine-tuned characteristics of the universe we’re living in. Rees’ 1999 text Just Six Numbers, however, is about the finest text I’ve ever read on the subject.

It discusses the deep forces of our universe, those that give it the particular shape it has now, and seems to have had all the way back to the Big Bang. Those forces, specifically, are:

?: the strength of the electrical forces holding atoms together, divided by the force of gravity between them; it has a value of 1×1036.

Σ: the determinant of how firmly atomic nuclei bind together and how all the atoms on Earth (and anywhere) were made, because it controls the power of the sun and how stars convert through nuclear processes hydrogen into all other elements; if its value of 0.007 differed by as much as 0.001, life as we know it would be impossible.

Ω: this is the cosmic number which tells us how much material there is in the universe. Too much would have resulted in collapse, and too much in a universe where matter was so sparsely distributed that stars and galaxies would not have formed, suggesting that our universe’s “initial expansion speed seems to have been finely tuned” (3).

λ: Lambda was measured in 1998. It is the force of antigravity, and it controls the expansion of the universe through its constant, miniscule action. It is extremely small and this is why galaxies managed to form and cosmic evolution as we know it was possible in the first place.

Q: Q describes how tightly bound together the material of the universe is — how weakly gravity actually acts on megastructures like galaxies and galactic clusters. It therefore determines the “texture” of the universe, as a result of the ratio between gravity and entropy: it’s valued at 1×10-5.

D: There are three spatial dimensions in our universe, plus a single time-arrow. Rees asserts that life would be impossible in a 2-space or a 4-space, something I’m not so sure about, but the 2-space or 4-space and the life within it would certainly be radically different not just from what we know, but also what we have heretofore imagined (with, perhaps, the exception of a few SF authors, such as Greg Egan in his novel Diaspora, where life in 4+-spaces is imagined in some detail). More interestingly, Rees touches upon the difference in physics between universes that could be possible if superstring theory is true: he imagines, for example, small adjustments in the original tuning of forces in the universe which result in more manifested macrospaces, of the ten dimensions in which superstrings are said to vibrate.

What I appreciated about Rees is that, unlike Davies, he does not come at all of this with an agenda, or at least not one so strong as to lead him to overstate one possibility to the exclusion of others. While Davies is guilty of nothing so ridiculous as what we find in Frank Tipler’s downright ridiculous The Physics of Immortality — a muddle-headed book I can only grasp if I consider it vaguely entertaining fiction narrated by a madman narrator, perhaps after Nabokov’s Pale Fire — Davies nonetheless does go to great lengths to convince readers that all of that fine-tunedness suggests a “creator”. This old argument by Paley (more often familiar in discussions of evolution and often cited as the notion that a watchmaker is suggested by the existence of a watch) is brought up by Rees, but neither strongly affirmed, nor wholly denied.

Rather, Rees sets aside the why and the what preexisting the Big Bang as a currently insuperable mystery, but one that does not have only two possible answers: he mentions all kinds of other possibilities, from the notion that it’s simply coincidence that our universe evolved as it did (and that had it not, we wouldn’t be here to note the coincidence that it hadn’t) to the notion that perhaps whole series of Big Bangs occur in disjuncted “spaces”, inaccessible to one another, as a matter of course in multiverse evolution or development.

There are other theories, too, which Davies hid and Rees only hints at, such as the possibility that there is indeed a creator, but that the creator is merely some sentient beings in another universe like ours, who effectively created a special kind of black hole that resulted in a Baby Universe (cf. Hawking) with specific characteristics and force ratios that, as it turns out non-coincidentally, are perfectly tuned for the development of the kind of universe in which we live, tending towards complexity, life, and sentience. Even Providence needn’t invoke a creator, and while Rees does well not to nastily dismiss the idea, he does at least do the honest work of admitting that right now, we simply don’t know and can’t know, and refuses to substitute his own personal suspicions for this (unlike, if I recall my sense of his work, Davies seems to have done, at least as I remember it).

And fascinatingly, like Stapledon, Rees is profoundly concerned with what humans do in the immediate future and how it will affect our biological survival: Stapledon’s narrator returns home to England on the eve of what everyone can see is a second horrific war in Europe, and not only that but to a home upset by argument between husband and wife. Rees, likewise, is deeply concerned with how our management of science and its potential military misuse (or human error) could render us extinct by the end of the 21st century. I cannot help but wonder whether Rees read Stapledon as a boy, as we know Freeman Dyson did. Rees has even placed a virtual bet about a major (1 million casualties from one event) attack by bioterrorists, or an equivalent result from a major bioerror event, at longbet.org, which you can view here.

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