Lee Smolin - The Life of the Cosmos

The idea (vitalism and animism) that life is not reducible to physics seems a remnant of the Greek and Christian cosmologies (and the Pagan cosmologies which the Greek and Christian cosmologies grew out of) in which earth and sky are made from different essences. Behind it one can sense the ancient desire to escape nature and partake of heaven. (p. 26)

So there never was a God, no pilot who made the world by imposing order on chaos and who remains outside, watching and proscribing. And Nietzsche now also is dead. (p. 299)

Imagine for a moment Darwin coming up with his theory of natural selection after having only examined one species. "Not likely" you say? Well, what if he wasn't only limited to one species but he was also limited to only one member of the species? "Very unlikely" you respond. We shouldn't stop there though. Also include an additional limitation--Darwin isn't allowed to know how this member of a species came into being, nor is he allowed to know how it reproduces (or even if it reproduces!). And, for good measure, we won't permit any fossils either. Impossible for Darwin, or anyone else, to come up with a theory of natural selection under such conditions, right? Right. But that doesn't stop Smolin, in this work, from doing just that.

Smolin starts off well enough. He indicates that what is to come in the book is "frank speculation" and "a fantasy" in the Prologue on page 6. But then, for some reason, he turns his fantasy into a "theory" later on and seems convinced that it is far more than a speculative fantasy. Scientists should know better than to use a term like 'theory' when they really mean conjecture, speculation, and/or fantasy. He backs off, finally, in the Epilogue by stating that his views are "neither strongly supported by the evidence (or actually the lack thereof) nor widely embraced by my colleagues." (p. 297)

But before moving on to what else is wrong (and good) about the content of this book, let me take a minute to point out a few annoying "features." The text is horribly small. A normal-sized font may have doubled the length of an already lengthy book, but at least it would have been more readable. The book is also filled with typos. Generally they are of the wrong word or missing word variety as if the only proofreading that was done was a computerized spell check. Perhaps the publisher/type-setter, rather than the author, should be blamed for these kinds of errors. Finally, and this one is actually more content related, an editor is badly needed. Smolin rambles on and on and on... Although it didn't take me a year to read the entire work, it sure felt like it! At times, Smolin is clear and concise, but most of the time the opposite is the case.

Now back to the central case the book tries to make (although the latter half seems to stray widely from this focus). Smolin's assertion is that the universe is a product of cumulative natural selection similar to the biology of life on this planet. How do universes reproduce you may ask? By producing black holes is Smolin's answer. Unfortunately, we don't really know (nor can we know) if our universe formed out of another universe's black hole; nor do we know if the black holes in our universe give rise to other universes (as Smolin finally admits on page 258 when he says that "we do not know what happens inside a black hole"--let alone whether it becomes another universe). Because one begins and ends in a singularity doesn't mean they are the same thing on the other side (assuming there even is another side) of the singularity. Smolin doesn't dwell on this aspect (or many of the main skepticisms that his arguments will raise in the minds of most).

His next point is that like begets like; our universe must have come from a similar universe and those our universe is producing via black holes must be identical or very similar to ours in the basic physics. Why would black holes produce universes similar to the ones they came from? There is no DNA or signature that we know of to pass on. It seems to me that if (and that is a BIG if) black holes create a new universe outside our universe the new universes would vary widely.

The only proof Smolin has come up with (given the complete lack of evidence surrounding what lies on the other side of a singularity) is that our universe has many black holes in it. Indeed, he feels that the universe's properties are finely tuned (naturally) to produce the maximum number of black holes that any universe could produce. That may, or may not, be the case, but even if it is, so what? Nothing is really proven if we live in a black hole prone universe. Organisms aren't all at the optimal level of DNA structure or even reproduction. In fact, none are. Cumulative natural selection can only work with what a creature has inherited. Because of this limitation, less than maximum fitness is the norm. Why should we expect a universe built on the same processes to be any different? And many individual organisms who don't reproduce are still alive. So even if our universe didn't produce any black holes Smolin's theory could still be correct. In other words, there is no way to falsify his hypothesis.

I'm going to take one of Smolin's quotes out of context here as it sums up my view of his theory so well.

"A great part of the art of physics is the talent to ignore details and proceed by analogy." (p. 132)

The discussion of the anthropic principle and the numerical values that matter and energy have is always interesting, if not amusing. For instance, Smolin states on page 76 that "the world has much more structure than it would were the parameters to take more typical values." What in the hell are more "typical values?!?!" Has Smolin visited other universes to find out that ours is atypical? ;) Champions of anthropic reasoning and the 'amazing' values our universe runs on that allow for life and structure, as we know it, to exist should only be shocked and looking for explanations if our universe contained values that didn't allow for life, planets, galaxies, etc. as we know them yet they/we still existed. Now that would be a true miracle! The good part of Smolin's discussion of this topic is that he doesn't use it as many people do, to use circular reasoning to postulate or 'prove' god(s). Rather, he uses it for his theory which is that universes that produce many black holes also have properties that allow for the things exhibited in our world.

The Life of the Cosmos turns out to be more of a philosophical treatise than a cosmological theory from a physics professor. Some of this philosophy discussion is interesting, but other portions were either over my head or not of interest to me. I found the idea that the history of cosmology, even within the realm of science, to be based on Judeo-Christian notions (i.e., an absolute being outside of the Universe and hence the quest for a unique unified theory that unambiguously predicts the values of all the parameters) new and fascinating. (This topic is discussed in many places including page 264.) Here is one such philosophical quote which I will reproduce almost in its entirety:

I would like to set... the new search for knowledge, which is based in the understanding that the world is a network of relations, that what was once thought to be absolute is always subject to evolution and renegotiation, that the complete truth about the world is not graspable as any single point of view, but only resides in the totality of several or many distinct views. We understand now that there is no meaning to being at rest, and hence no sense for stasis; this new understanding of knowledge might be said to be imbued with the freedom of the principle of inertia and grounded not in space but only in relations. And these develop not in absolute time but only in succession, in progression. (p. 298)
So, in the end, there is some good stuff in this book. Now, I'm glad I read it, although while reading it I frequently didn't share this view.
The references to God in the founders of my science made no sense; they seemed so quaint, so unnecessary. Can there be any doubt that science is a better road to truth about nature than any received dogma? ...How many times, reading late at night, have I wished it were possible to confront Newton and the others with the contradiction between their irrational identification with God and the rationality they created. (p. 193)

Anyone who attempts to think about the world discovers that their thoughts are imbedded in a network of the thoughts of other people, both past and present, so that most of the ideas that they may for a moment have mistakenly taken for their own were in fact only passing through, having traveled from mind to mind from some origin far in the past. (p. 222)

from the publisher:
We live in the age of a new scientific revolution, one as sweeping and profound as that launched by Copernicus, one that continues to unfold. Beginning at the turn of the century, with the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics, this second revolution has collapsed the elegant old Newtonian universe. Yet physicists have yet to complete a replacement, as they search for a grand unified theory. Now cosmologist Lee Smolin offers a startling new approach--a theory of the universe that is at once elegant, comprehensive, and radically different from anything proposed before.

In The Life of the Cosmos, Smolin cuts the Gordian knot of cosmology with a simple, powerful idea: "The underlying structure of our world," he writes, "is to be found in the logic of evolution." Today's physicists, he writes, have overturned Newton's view of the universe, yet they continue to cling to an understanding of reality not unlike Newton's own--as a clock, an intricate yet static mechanism. Smolin sees the very fabric of reality as changing and developing. "The laws of nature themselves," he argues, "like the biological species, may not be eternal categories, but rather the creations of natural processes occurring in time." A process of self organization like that of biological evolution shapes the universe, as it develops and eventually reproduces through black holes, each of which may result in a new big bang and a new universe. Natural selection may guide the appearance of the laws of physics, favoring those universes which best reproduce. Smolin's ideas are based on recent developments in cosmology, quantum theory, relativity and string theory, yet they offer, at the same time, a completely new view of how these developments may fit together to form a new theory of cosmology. The result will be a cosmology according to which the fact that the universe is a home to life will be seen to be a natural consequence of the fundamental principles on which it has been built. This will be in direct contrast with the older point of view, coming from Newtonian physics, according to which the fact that the universe contains life, or any form of organization, is accidental. We exist in a universe filled with an array of beautiful structures ranging from the molecular organization of living things upwards to the galaxies, and science must ultimately explain why. In so doing, science will give us a picture of the universe in which, as the author writes, "the occurrence of novelty, indeed the perpetual birth of novelty, can be understood."

Lee Smolin is one of the leading cosmologists at work today, and he writes with an expertise and force of argument that will command attention throughout the world of physics. As startling as many of his ideas sound, each is subject to testing, and he includes several ideas on how they might be confirmed or disproved. Perhaps most important, however, is the humanity and sharp clarity of his prose, offering access for the layperson to the mind bending space at the forefront of today's physics.

"Lee Smolin's The Life of the Cosmos is a fascinating book. Its central theme is an extraordinary speculative idea, but very well argued for. There is wealth of interesting and informative accompanying material here--as one would expect from an author of such breadth and depth of physical understanding."--Roger Penrose

"Smolin is a deep and original thinker. In this provocative book he merges key elements of Einstein and Darwin in a breathtaking synthesis. The result is nothing less than a radically new view of the cosmos and our place within it."--Paul Davies

"In The Life of the Cosmos Lee Smolin asks some of the most fundamental unanswered questions in cosmology and physics. A wonderful book--indeed a thrilling book. Read it."--Stuart Kauffman

"One of the more informed imaginative thinkers of our time, Lee Smolin, has set forth a challenging exploration of natural philosophy. This book will surely change your thinking about some things, maybe about everything."--Harold J. Morowitz, Director, Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, George Mason University

Lee Smolin is Professor of Physics at the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at the Pennsylvania State University. As a theoretical physicist, he has contributed several key ideas to the search for a unification of quantum theory, cosmology, and relativity.