Friday, July 17, 2020

Sean Carroll's "The Big Picture": Book Review

The Big Picture ISBN 9781780746074 PDF epub | Sean Carroll ...
This book by a Caltech physicist continues his series of semi-popularizations of cutting-edge theory. The Big Picture may not reveal much more about "the meaning of life" than that we are meant to ask about it, but on the origins of life and the universe, it delivers a lot. It alternates between in-depth analysis of details and paraphrases of findings. Carroll writes for the "educated reader," but despite this being read also as a audio version, the complexity of the work (and some of its diagrams or illustrations) probably is best comprehended at least for a first time around by a text in front of you.

The chapters are grouped thematically, gradually shifting among the sub-titular topics. "We humans are blobs of organized mud, which through the impersonal workings of nature’s patterns have developed the capacity to contemplate and cherish and engage with the intimidating complexity of the world around us." Carroll begins, after an opening vignette with him stuck on the notorious 405 freeway in L.A., by situating life's meaning as he pursues it in perhaps a surprising admission by a scientist, but a welcome one. "Poetic naturalism strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless." Carroll channels this.

He explains that this approach "strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless." He continues: "The raw materials of life are given to us by the natural world, and we must work to understand them and accept the consequences. The move from description to prescription, from saying what happens to passing judgment on what should happen, is a creative one, a fundamentally human act. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it." This limits the human inquiry, however.

For he cautions about this creative quest as he reminds us of its inevitable barrier. "What we can’t do is demand that the universe scratch our explanatory itches." Still, one of the most innovative aspects of Carroll's endeavor is in his notion of chronology and duration. "Our progress through time is pushed from behind, not pulled from ahead." A sensible concept, but one I'd never heard of before. 

It's worthy of elaboration even in a summation here."There is conservation of momentum: the universe doesn’t need a mover; constant motion is natural and expected. It is tempting to hypothesize—cautiously, always with the prospect of changing our minds if it doesn’t work—that the universe doesn’t need to be created, caused, or even sustained. It can simply be. Then there is conservation of information. The universe evolves by marching from one moment to the next in a way that depends only on its present state. It neither aims toward future goals nor relies on its previous history." This reminded me of the Tao, in that it does not merit any rational explanation other than that it exists. 

The core of his book is that "the critical ontological question" of "what is the world, really?" is that it's a "quantum wave function." For now, at least, given how theories keep evolving as we learn more.

As we know almost instinctively, so much we may rarely notice, time and the universe parallel each other. "There is not a moment in time where there is no universe, and another moment in time where there is; all moments in time are necessarily associated with an existing universe. The question is whether there can be a first such moment, an instant of time prior to which there were no other instants. That’s a question our intuitions just aren’t up to addressing." As you can see, this narrative does strain itself as far as our knowledge can take it. While parts of it bogged down, and while his discussion of evolution for me did not resonate with quite the same freshness as the parts quoted, it does compile a lot of information that those of us who rely on "physics for poets" accounts to make at least a bit of sense of all this data, The Big Picture is valuable; it steps back as well as looks closely. 

What it comes down to is that there's no grand meaning imposed on the universe from "beyond." Carroll concludes: "The universe is a set of quantum fields obeying equations that don’t even distinguish between past and future, much less embody any long-term goals." It keeps moving along. 

Ultimately, neither the cold reduction to those muddy blobs nor a warm embrace of transcendental guidance will do. "We are collections of vibrating quantum fields, held together in persistent patterns by feeding off of ambient free energy according to impersonal and uncaring laws of nature, and we are also human beings who make choices and care about what happens to ourselves and to others."

This balance reminds us of our short time within this space. "Three billion heartbeats. The clock is ticking." Here I found out that there are 10 to the 50th power atoms on earth, and 10 to the 100th years for the universe itself. I never knew either calculation. They awed me, and show how puny we are in the great span of existence. What may lie beyond even this universe as we barely know it? 
(Amazon US with slight additions 9/26/17)

No comments: