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A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos 1st Edition, Kindle Edition
|Length: 388 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Language: English|
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My only minor quibble is that I suspect Canberra is probably a nicer place in the universe than one of the authors seems to suggest. ;o) Enjoy this read, as I did!
I highly recommend. (Get cracking on the sequel, guys!)
Geraint F. Lewis is a Professor of Astrophysics and head of the Gravitational Astrophysics Group at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy, part of the University of Sydney’s School of Physics. Luke A. Barnes is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy, University of Sydney, where his focus is on cosmology, galaxy formation, and the fine-tuning of the Universe for life. Given the authors’ education, present research, public engagements and sharp interest in the subject of the Universe’s fine-tuning for life, they are well qualified to dig into deciphering the laws of nature and initial conditions of the Universe. Lewis, admittedly, first took on the challenge of writing this book out of a long-held desire to pen one. Lewis invited Barnes to be his co-author, an appropriate choice given the latter’s keen interest in cosmological fine-tuning. Being heavily invested in cosmology, the authors are motivated to set forth a coherent exposition of the Universe’s fine-tuning for life, all the while supplying the reader with valuable lessons on the most up to date physics.
What would happen if one were to tinker with the properties of the fundamental particles from which everything is constructed or the fundamental forces that dictate physical interactions? The surprising answer is that it would leave the Universe dead and sterile. In A Fortunate Universe, Lewis and Barnes seek “to present the scientific viewpoint of the fine-tuning of the laws of science, and delve into its implications for the inner workings of the Universe.” The authors note that far from getting closer to resolving the question of fine-tuning as cosmological research advances, the problem only grows in magnitude and complexity. This “elephant in the room” draws interest not only from cosmologists, but philosophers, theologians, physicists of all types and even regular Janes and Joes not directly involved in academia. It is to this mystery that Lewis and Barnes direct their efforts, a mystery that points to a deeper question, “Why are we here?”
A Fortunate Universe consists of eight chapters divided roughly into three sections. Chapter 1 (“A Conversation on Fine-Tuning”) sets the stage for the topic of the book in which following chapters give a detailed explanation and discussion. Chapters 2-6 (“I’m Only Human!”, “Can You Feel the Force?”, “Energy and Entropy”, “The Universe Is Expanding”, and “All Bets Are Off!”) form its scientific grounding from which the current idea of the Universe as finely-tuned is derived. Chapters 7 and 8 (“A Dozen (or So) Reactions to Fine-Tuning” and “A Conversation Continued”) present the common reactions as well as the authors’ favorite explanations as to the mystery of why the Universe’s conditions are just right so as to allow such amazing complexity, including life. The following contains a more detailed summary of the material contained in A Fortunate Universe.
Part I: What is Fine-Tuning?
The 20th century witnessed the unveiling of much of the Universe’s fundamental forces and building blocks. While there is admittedly a lot left undiscovered, there has emerged a question that looms large over science in general and the work of physicists in particular, “Why, in the almost infinite sea of possibilities, was our Universe born with the conditions that allow life to arise?” It is to this issue the book is devoted.
In chapter one Lewis and Barnes state that fine-tuning is “a technical term borrowed from physics, and refers to the contrast between a wide range of possibilities and a narrow range of a particular outcome or phenomenon.” It implies “a sensitivity of an outcome to some input parameters or assumptions.” Fine-tuning for life is a subset of the above physics fine-tuning in which the outcome is life. The fine-tuning for life problem is “the realization that if the laws of physics were different, even just by a little bit, life would not exist.”
Part II: How is the Universe Fine-Tuned?
Chapter two features the authors taking the reader down in scale from that of the human body to the level of protons, neutrons, and electrons. As one digs deeper into the smaller details of life, “biology becomes chemistry and chemistry becomes physics . . . .” Lewis and Barnes state, “The secrets of life were laid bare by molecular biology. Molecular machinery churns and grinds within every one of us.” Beneath the atoms (which compose molecules) lie the even smaller fundamental particles such as the individual types of quarks and leptons. Playing with their properties, like small changes in their mass, would prove disastrous to the Universe. “Their properties might seem like mere textbook technicalities, and yet their role in how the Universe plays out is enormous. The smallest ingredients of the universe dramatically affect its bigger structures, especially the chemistry of life.”
The fundamental forces of nature are addressed in chapter three. In the Universe, there are merely four forces: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, electromagnetism, and gravity. What if one were to change the values of these forces? “With some tweaking of the free parameters of the Standard Model of particle physics, we could create a universe in which there was no energy gap between chemical and nuclear. If you left your cake in the oven for too long, you might end up with a burnt cake, or you might end up with a lump of lead.” The relative power and number of forces in the Universe are just so as to provide the stability to allow the life and the existence of a variety of elements and chemical interactions.
In chapter four, Lewis and Barnes discuss “the other principles that animate life in the Universe: energy and entropy.” Life needs energy to operate, and it needs energy in a useful form. “A system with low entropy has energy that can be extracted and converted into another form. By contrast, the energy of high-entropy systems is stuck, unable to be tapped.” The Universe started with an amazingly low amount of entropy which carried with it a treasure trove of free energy. It could have started in many ways that entailed a high entropy state; instead, the “Universe was endowed with ample free energy for driving the processes that allowed us to be here.” The question naturally follows: why?
The focus of the story in chapter five is zoomed out to the entirety of the Universe itself. When we do, we find a scandal: “[t]he mathematical structure of cosmology is deceptively simple!” As to the energy content of the Universe, it appears to be fine-tuned. “If our Universe had had a differing mixture of dark energy and matter to the one we observe, its evolutionary history would have been dramatically different. With dark energy, a universe is rather easy to ruin.” Not only is the mixture of matter and energy in the Universe “just right,” so is the (effective) cosmological constant; if its value were a little higher or a little lower, the Universe would lose its underlying structure and order.
Chapter six features the authors considering a change not in the constants of nature or initial state of the Universe as in the previous chapters but in the laws of nature themselves. Quantum mechanics influences only the very small, stabilizing atoms, while everything larger is predictable - something one needs for life in order to store and process information. If, for example, the scale of activity for quantum mechanics were larger there would not be the predictability and order to allow for life forms. As another thought experiment, what if our Universe was without symmetry, and so without conservation laws? It “would be chaos. There would be no simple laws to be discovered beneath the complex events around us.” On the other hand, what if there were no matter/antimatter asymmetry? In that case, “our Universe would be nothing but a cooling sea of radiation, completely devoid of the particles that make nuclei and atoms. This is a wonderfully clear case of a life-prohibiting universe - there’s no structure at all!” Similarly, if the Universe had a different number of spatial and temporal dimensions, “the prospect for complex life arising would have been severely diminished if not downright impossible.” To sum up, the laws of nature in the Universe “reflect the order and stability that allow life to exist.”
Part III: Why is the Universe Fine-Tuned?
Over years of presenting on the topic of cosmic fine-tuning, Lewis and Barnes have encountered many common and (despite the passion evoked) misguided reactions. These are as follows:
It’s Just a Coincidence
We’ve Only Observed One Universe
Low-Probability Events Happen All the Time
Fine-Tuning Has Been Disproved By (Insert Name Here)
Evolution Will Find a Way
How Can the Universe Be ‘Fine-Tuned’ When It Is Mostly Inhospitable To Life?
This Universe Is Just As Unlikely As Any Other Universe
How Do We Know What Would Happen In Other Universes? Go Do the Experiment!
Fine-Tuners Turn Only One Dial at a Time
Life Chauvinism - Why Think That Life is Special?
We Don’t Even Have a Good Definition of Life
There Could Be Other Forms of Life
The Anthropic Principle Explains Our Existence
Whence the Possibilities?
Whence the Probabilities?
The above objections are dealt with fairly easily in chapter seven, while the more plausible explanations are left for the eighth chapter.
In their final chapter, the authors give what they take to be the more robust potential explanations for the fine-tuning of the Universe. The first, the so-called “Lady Gaga Defence,” is to say “the Universe just is and that’s all there is to it,” but that’s more like ignoring the question than answering it. The second is that we just need more and deeper knowledge of the physics of the Universe, but even the existence of unknown theories that simplify physics cannot discount the fact that the Universe is fine-tuned for life. What about the Multiverse theory? Maybe the Universe is not unique after all. Nevertheless, the Multiverse theory itself has major hurdles to overcome such as the problem of Boltzmann Brains and lack of any empirical support. What if the answer is beyond the limits of scientific study? God as creator would account for the existence of life in the Universe, because He would have intended it that way. Another strength of this answer is that it’s not an ad hoc explanation to the problem of fine-tuning; the nature of God and His role as creator and designer of the Universe have been studied, critiqued and discussed for over a millennia. While Barnes favors this explanation, Lewis does not, proposing the possibility of a “Simulated Universe.” What if the Universe is fine tuned because it was programmed to be that way? This last option is more plausible to Lewis than Barnes. In the end, what cannot be denied is that our Universe is incredibly fine-tuned for life.
There is much to say in favor of A Fortunate Universe. While learning about the fine-tuning of the Universe for life, the reader is provided with a basic primer on current physics - something I found invaluable. The authors are cosmologists and have interacted with their subject at length; thus, the story they tell is credible. Additionally, Lewis and Barnes do well to make the content interesting and readable via use of the mode of dialogue as well as occasional humor. My favorite line (rather timely given the release of the new Star Wars movies this month and last year) was made in the context of variations of life as we know it: “Chewbacca, while adorable, is a combination of a human, a dog, and a crossbow.” This gave me a chuckle, and similar comedic prose tends to keep readers engaged.
The authors are to be commended for not only giving robust and detailed evidence in favor of cosmological fine-tuning but also for addressing the most common objections and discussing the most plausible explanations. In other words, their treatment of the “why” question was handled in a fair, honest and thorough manner. Perhaps because the writers themselves represent differing worldviews, no favoritism is shown toward an atheistic or theistic reading of the evidence. All options are laid on the table for examination.
Robin Collins of Messiah College lays his finger on another aspect of A Fortunate Universe that is praiseworthy. He opines that the book “is among the two most philosophically sophisticated treatments” of the fine-tuning of the Universe. I must agree with Collins that the authors do not stumble (as many writers from the same profession do) amongst the hills and valleys of philosophical discourse. Finally, it must be mentioned that the diagrams and visual maps provided were of great benefit to my comprehension of the more heady concepts in physics. To anyone not well-versed in modern physics, these visual aids were essential and most welcome.
What may be said by way of critique about A Fortunate Universe? The helpful use of visual aids and the writing style of dialogue might have been expanded. As to the latter, the back and forth between the two writers was a little “canned,” yet this kept the discussion civil and instructive. I found Lewis’ response to Barnes’ argument for God as the explanation for fine-tuning to be somewhat weak, but (in Lewis’ defense) it is a common and probably the strongest possible counterargument. As discovered from perusing other book reviews of A Fortunate Universe, there are skeptics of theism who strongly disagree with the conclusions reached in this book concerning the fine-tuning of the Universe for life, but their objections more likely reveal a weakness in their underlying belief system than in the tightly logical reasoning of the authors.
The authors’ thesis is chiefly that our Universe is finely-tuned for life. To this end a veritable mountain of evidence is provided. Lewis and Barnes make a slam-dunk case for the incredible preciseness of the laws of nature and initial conditions of the Universe so as to allow not only beauty and complexity but life itself. As such, the authors have succeeded in proving their thesis and opening up for conversation the question of why this is so.
A Fortunate Universe draws conclusions that affect a broad audience, namely everyone, yet its technical nature would be a bit daunting for most. However, for philosophers, theologians, scientists, and even untrained science enthusiasts, this book is not only helpful and engaging but, I would say, a necessary read. The big question of “Why are we here?” receives support as being valid from the scientific data presented in this book that our Universe is especially fit for life. As far as presenting thorough evidence and carefully crafted argumentation, A Fortunate Universe surpasses many others of the science genre. Hence, I recommend this book to those particularly fascinated by cosmological fine-tuning as well as those interested generally in science or religion.
The authors make a compelling case that life-permitting physics is rare among possibilities - many fundamental parameters have to be set within ranges that are narrow among possibilities to a startling degree. Also, most initial conditions of the universe would have resulted in a lifeless universe. Barnes and Lewis provide some excellent arguments that this evidence cries out for an explanation - for example, they show that it's mistaken to dismiss the evidence because observers can only find themselves in a life-permitting universe. This book also covers many other reactions to fine-tuning in a more thorough way than other books and exposes the fallacies committed by naive reactions.
My favorite part of the book is the last chapter in which there is an excellent dialogue between the authors as they argue about the best explanation of the evidence. Whether you're a theist or an atheist you'll find your point of view represented in the debate over God vs. the multiverse as the best explanation of the fine-tuning. Whether you're a scientist or just someone fascinated by nature, I highly recommend this book!
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