Book Review: The View from the Center of the Universe

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Book Review: The View from the Center of the Universe

Postby sanscardinality » Tue Apr 10, 2007 9:37 pm

Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams' book is both a 101 on modern cosmology for the layperson and a proposal on what this means for us in our daily lives. There's a web site to accompany at http://viewfromthecenter.com/

So on to the review...

First, I recommend the book highly to anyone who wants a survey of the current state of knowledge in astronomy and astrophysics as it relates to cosmology. There is no apparant bias (or even mention for the most part) towards any ideas that aren't pretty well established, and when they get into the more speculative areas (like strings) they make it very clear just how much evidence there isn't. The book's science is, to the best of my knowledge, highly balanced and factual. So it's good on that level alone, but that's not the real point of the thing.

The title is referring to the fact that we humans are about midway on many scales of measure - time, size, location, etc. and that this central position is very rare and special. They make the point effectively, and give examples of why it is a pretty darn good place to be. They also provide some nice explanation for how rare our constituent components are (carbon, etc.) and even assuming a great many intelligent life forms, how particularly rare minds are.

But here's the cool part; they provide a set of proposed symbols for conceptualizing our place in things that doesn't require math. These are symbols in the Jungian sense as opposed to signs (they refer to concepts that cannot be contained easily and that have lots of implication/mental mappings). Their rationale for this is that the lack of understanding our rarity, value (they are related by almost all human value systems) and integration into the universe has diminished us to greedy, materialistic fatalists and that this will likely destroy what we have/are if allowed to continue. They use many historical examples to show that peoples who see themselves as fitting into the broader scheme of the universe tend to be stable and devoted to maintenance of that scheme, while those who see themselves as insignificant and the universe as vast and unconnected to themselves tend to be selfish and violent. One example is the Egyptians and their concept of Ma'at.

One other aspect of the book I enjoyed is it's realistic and respectful view of myth. The authors use ancient myths liberally to illustrate concepts without claiming any of them are literally true. They propose that Campbell was correct in that myths are omnipresent in human thought and unavoidable, and I think rightly point out that fundamentally Newtonian cosmology combined with existential philosophy are the dominant myths of the educated class. They propose that we have yet to integate into our myth-making the advances of modern astronomy and cosmology, and that when we do our myths and overall perception of reality will be warmed and softened - and also made more accurate.

Finally, they make a strong case that the current cosmological view is pretty darn correct, and that all earlier views were less correct, but valid and important for their times and places and led to the current one. Also, they mine the old ones for explanations that non-mathematicians and physicists can grasp to create a reasonable mental model, but never claim equivalence to their original meaning. I think this is a valuable thing to do, and one of the major deficiencies in lay books about science is the authors' need to come up with new symbols that are generally inferior to ones that can be found from our long and rich history. This is the quintessential myth-making process; taking old stories and refining them to express new ideas and information.

My only real criticism is that the book goes on a bit more than is needful. It could be 40% shorter and make it's points more effectively in my view. This is a compliment of a sort, as their explanations of modern theory and their choice of symbols are powerful enough to not need extensive explanation.

SC
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Postby Windwalker » Wed Apr 11, 2007 4:28 pm

I haven't read the whole book. This will be a verdict based only on its introduction, which I read at the link that you sent. I detected many dollops of sloppy thinking in that excerpt. I'm all for integrated viewpoints, but the moment I see praise of medieval worldviews I become extremely wary.
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Postby sanscardinality » Wed Apr 11, 2007 4:56 pm

Windwalker wrote:I haven't read the whole book. This will be a verdict based only on its introduction, which I read at the link that you sent. I detected many dollops of sloppy thinking in that excerpt. I'm all for integrated viewpoints, but the moment I see praise of medieval worldviews I become extremely wary.


Actually, the authors propose that our current worldview is closest to the medieval and that this is a problem. They really don't propose the worldviews of ancient cultures, but that ours is flawed and based on old infomation in many cases. They reinterpret symbols from old myths to help explain modern cosmology. It's worth reading I think, but would be interested in anything anyone finds that is factually incorrect or a leap of logic that isn't backed up by facts.

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Postby Windwalker » Wed Apr 11, 2007 6:55 pm

Again, I can only extrapolate from the introduction. But since you asked, I will mention a couple of recurring points.

One of the authors' repeated assertions (apparently a core thesis of the book) is that humans are significant and central to the universe in several ways (scale, location in both local and global time, rarity of materials). With the approximate exception of scale, none of the other centralities is correct. In fact, the introduction is a long take on the anthropic principle -- the strong version of it.

Another of their assertions is that people see the universe as a random scattering of stars in empty space and that the age of enlightenment is to blame for this (they specifically name Galileo, Newton and the rest of 17th century science as the culprits). However, most people do know of galaxies and the larger structure of the universe in space and time, even though their knowledge is (of necessity) vague.

Finally, it is fatuous at best and reactionary at worst to assert that we need to feel central and significant in order to act ethically. It reminds me of fundamentalists who argue that unless threatened by hellfire, people will revert to bad behavior.

Yes, our universe is rich and fascinating and so are we. But we do not occupy an extraordinary place. If we are to think differently from pre-scientific cultures, it is precisely this conclusion that we need to incorporate in our worldview -- and still have the strength to act morally and appreciate beauty when we see it.
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Postby sanscardinality » Wed Apr 11, 2007 9:15 pm

Windwalker wrote:Again, I can only extrapolate from the introduction. But since you asked, I will mention a couple of recurring points.


I think the introduction has given you a caricature of the book as a whole. Publishers (and authors) do like to be controversial in their marketing, but in this case, the substance of the book is more balanced than the impression you've gained from the intoduction.

One of the authors' repeated assertions (apparently a core thesis of the book) is that humans are significant and central to the universe in several ways (scale, location in both local and global time, rarity of materials). With the approximate exception of scale, none of the other centralities is correct. In fact, the introduction is a long take on the anthropic principle -- the strong version of it.


I don't see an equivalence between a claim that we are made of exceedingly rare material (metallic atoms) and the strong anthropic principle. We are made of second or third generation star and supernova output, and even leaving dark matter out of the equation, this makes us pretty darn rare vs. say hydrogen and helium.

Earth is about midway through its lifecycle (~10-12 billion years, about 4-5 of which have passed). So I think they are correct on the time issue, and they don't make any metaphysical claims about this - they just note that as time goes on, the universe is likely to cool down and get less interesting. Pre-planck time or the early universe wouldn't be a great place to "be" (nor could we in most cases) and fast forward 14 billion years and the sky gets a lot darker. It's a pretty good time to be a sentient - that's really their point.

The authors don't claim or imply that humans are "special" in that anything was done *for* us, but rather that we occupy a special time and place and should appreciate and embrace that fact. It's less about anthropocentrism than appreciation. Earth as we know it is a truly remarkably rare place/time, and perhaps if we were more conscious of that, we'd be more tuned to larger issues. I can see where you may be suspicious based on the bridge between philosophy and science, but I honestly couldn't detect any agenda and I'm about as cynical as it gets when it comes to motives.

Another of their assertions is that people see the universe as a random scattering of stars in empty space and that the age of enlightenment is to blame for this (they specifically name Galileo, Newton and the rest of 17th century science as the culprits). However, most people do know of galaxies and the larger structure of the universe in space and time, even though their knowledge is (of necessity) vague.


Most people perceive galaxies and the larger structure in Newtonian terms - a massive solar system. The authors aren't critical of Galileo and Newton (though they are highly critical of reactionary forces in every age, including the current one), but rightly point out that the modern lay world view is more based on their perspective than that of Bohr and Einstein. I agree with them that grokking relativity and quantum physics, whatever the particular interpretation (multiverse, superstring or what have you) yields a warmer, more connected universe than a Newtonian perspective.

Finally, it is fatuous at best and reactionary at worst to assert that we need to feel central and significant in order to act ethically. It reminds me of fundamentalists who argue that unless threatened by hellfire, people will revert to bad behavior.


I agree with you to some degree, but I think we both share a deeper understanding of recent discoveries than most people do and have likely integrated this into our emotional/subconscious reactions. I find that the typical choice is between fundamentalist/irrational religious leanings and and unappreciative fatalism. This tends to yield suicide bombings on the one hand, or crass materialism on the other. I think the authors have a real point about societies that saw themselves as valuable. Debasement tends to make people selfish and violent, and this is borne out in the historical record. In many ways, our society is debased - not in terms of sexual mores or the normal reactionary positions, but in terms of selfishness, capitalism and our perspective on time. We care at most about a generation or two ahead, while Egyptians for example thought in terms of millennia. We should be thinking in terms of more than millennia, and we should ask why we aren't. I'm not at all sure the authors' rationale is correct, but they are onto something.

Yes, our universe is rich and fascinating and so are we. But we do not occupy an extraordinary place. If we are to think differently from pre-scientific cultures, it is precisely this conclusion that we need to incorporate in our worldview -- and still have the strength to act morally and appreciate beauty when we see it.


I disagree. We are in an extraordinary place by almost any measure. We are made up of exceedingly rare elements that formed in a statistically nearly impossible universe, configured into improbably complex molecules and even less likely bodies. We have minds, which appear to be dependent upon this stack of outrageously exceptional circumstances. Even if there are ten billion or more worlds like ours, they are all exceedingly rare in the scheme of things. Exceptions are defined by the norm, and the norm is empty space, dark matter and energy, hydrogen, gas clouds, stars, lifeless planets (most likely) and unintelligent life. This does not mean that we were engineered or that the universe was made for us by some power, and to me, the natural process of our development is even more astounding and awe inspiring than a jealous God who raised a firmament.

SC
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Postby caliban » Thu Apr 12, 2007 10:22 am

sanscardinality wrote: The authors aren't critical of Galileo and Newton (though they are highly critical of reactionary forces in every age, including the current one), but rightly point out that the modern lay world view is more based on their perspective than that of Bohr and Einstein. I agree with them that grokking relativity and quantum physics, whatever the particular interpretation (multiverse, superstring or what have you) yields a warmer, more connected universe than a Newtonian perspective.

I haven't read the book or the introduction so I won't comment on that. I will make two comments:

First, having taught physics for over ten years now, it is clear to me that students are natural Aristotleans, not Newtonites. The typical student has to struggle just to master Newton's point of view, and even then most of them don't really believe it.

And I disagree with the idea of quantum mechanics--or even relativity, for that matter, but especially QM--yielding a more connected universe. Einstein and many others objected to QM on the philosophical grounds that it made the universe a set of stuttering, random acts. (Incidentally, The Tao of Physics is utter and complex codswalllop. Quantum entanglement is a delicate thing and does not make us all connected.) I can write more on length later, but I have some paper pushing to do.
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Postby sanscardinality » Thu Apr 12, 2007 10:57 am

caliban wrote:I haven't read the book or the introduction so I won't comment on that. I will make two comments:

First, having taught physics for over ten years now, it is clear to me that students are natural Aristotleans, not Newtonites. The typical student has to struggle just to master Newton's point of view, and even then most of them don't realy believe it.


Good point. I wonder how many of them ever really comprehend relativity or QM.

And I disagree with the idea that quantum mechanics--or even relativity, for that matter, but especially QM--yielding a more connected universe. Einstein and many other objected to QM on the philosophical grounds that it made the universe a set of stuttering, random acts.


The sense of disconnection that I was referring to is a psychological one - not a physical one. The Newtonian view as it has been digested by western culture, is of a clockwork stable universe in which we were just little cogs. Deism and later existentialism were derived in ways from the Enlightenment perspective. We now know that there is no great stable clock, and that clocks themselves are not even terribly helpful in describing the universe at a super galactic scale.

The idea of being a tiny, emotional, irrational cog thrown into a vast eternal machine is a cold one to me and I think to many others. Nietzsche comes to mind as an example of the sort of psychosis it can bring about if fully embraced. On the other hand, seeing the universe as an unfolding process from which we have emerged as a rare and amazing product is both a better description of what we now understand has happened, and to my view is a much warmer/connected perspective. This understanding of cosmology has become possible through relativity and QM.

(Incidentally, The Tao of Physics is utter and complex codswalllop. Quantum entanglement is a delicate thing and does not make us all connected.) I can write more on length later, but I have some paper pushing to do.


Never read it, so I can't comment. I try to avoid all books that have "The Tao of" in the title. Having studied some Taoist martial arts and practices, I've a slightly less naive view of Taoism than most westerners. The old master in "Kill Bill" is a more likely Taoist than Winnie the Pooh. I can imagine him keeping a stable of nubile young women to extract Chi from through tantric practice (by his belief, vampirically taking their life force to extend his life) while sipping cow-brain tea for increased eyesight and better liver function. Maybe I should write "The Tao of Kicking People's A**es and being a Selfish Bastard"? I think it could be done from period sources completely - could be kinda funny...

SC
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Postby Windwalker » Thu Apr 12, 2007 11:37 am

I think that neither Newton's nor Einstein's version of the universe is warm and fuzzy. Newtonian physics, as you say, are totally deterministic. QM introduces not purpose, but randomness -- which cannot in any way be interpreted as free will. The fact that we arose from a process is undeniable. The point where we mainly differ is whether this process has a purpose (which is different from having a direction dictated by its initial conditions). There is a crucial difference between uniqueness arising from random events and uniqueness arising from "special" circumstances.

Take life on earth as an example. As Stephen Jay Gould often pointed out, the fate of all species (and individuals) depends on climate, terrain, other species, random mutations, random geological events... If earth's clock were reset and rerun, it is absolutely certain that human beings would not arise. But this does not mean that we arose because we are special. It means that the dice fell this way, this time.

I think that the universe is neither benevolent nor malevolent, but completely indifferent to us. That leaves us not cogs, but free agents to do as we choose (and even good and evil are to some extent determined by context). But it also leaves us alone, except for each other's company -- and perhaps, at some point, the company of other intelligent life.

On a lighter vein, I think your Tao book sounds like an excellent idea!
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Postby sanscardinality » Thu Apr 12, 2007 1:30 pm

Windwalker wrote:I think that neither Newton's nor Einstein's version of the universe is warm and fuzzy. Newtonian physics, as you say, are totally deterministic. QM introduces not purpose, but randomness -- which cannot in any way be interpreted as free will. The fact that we arose from a process is undeniable. The point where we mainly differ is whether this process has a purpose (which is different from having a direction dictated by its initial conditions). There is a crucial difference between uniqueness arising from random events and uniqueness arising from "special" circumstances.


We don't disagree except semantically. When I say "special" I don't mean intentional. When I say special, I mean rare and unusual - not imbued with purpose or meaning in a metaphysical sense. As to purpose and direction, I don't have a dog in that fight. I think the direction part is clear enough, but what is unclear is how that direction got going in the way it did. The fact that it did is astounding and special. Whether a mind with a purpose (or minds) were behind it is another matter - I don't think anyone knows that, and I wouldn't be too surprised either way due to the bizarre and ridiculously unlikely direction.

Take life on earth as an example. As Stephen Jay Gould often pointed out, the fate of all species (and individuals) depends on climate, terrain, other species, random mutations, random geological events... If earth's clock were reset and rerun, it is absolutely certain that human beings would not arise. But this does not mean that we arose because we are special. It means that the dice fell this way, this time.


I think the dice falling this way, this time is pretty special. I'm not at all satisfied with any of the current theories about how lucky our rolls have been, but I don't have one of my own (though I do speculate about it.) The lottery is random, but the winning ticket is still special.

I think that the universe is neither benevolent nor malevolent, but completely indifferent to us. That leaves us not cogs, but free agents to do as we choose (and even good and evil are to some extent determined by context). But it also leaves us alone, except for each other's company -- and perhaps, at some point, the company of other intelligent life.


Agree 100%

SC

PS> The only thing meaner than a Taoist MA master (Bague, Xingyi, old-skool Taiji) is a Buddhist MA master. Go figure!
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Introduction

Postby caliban » Fri Apr 13, 2007 1:44 am

It's late, my algorithm is coughing up blood, but I am not sleepy, so I read the introduction from the web page. I'm neutral. Primack, by the way, is a well-known cosmologist, especially as relates to dark matter, so he is competent. Whether this book is well written (as Brian Green's books are, supposedly) or not (Lisa Randall's Warped Passages, supposed) (the supposedlys are Athena's so they are really stronger than "supposedly"), is hard to tell. It seems like they want to be poetic, although the writing is a bit stodgy.
I can appreciate the desire to find appropriate metaphors. Above I have made raspberries towards The Tao of Physics, but I rank a similar book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters much higher, because the author makes it clear that although he is drawing metaphors from Eastern philosophies, they are metaphors, and not to be understood as endorsements of said philosophies. In other words, just because he takes imagery from Buddhism to explain some of the weirdness of quantum mechanics, he is not using this to say that QM proves Buddhism is true. (And yes, I know that a Buddhist would look askance at the idea of true/false for Buddhism anyway, no time to go into details here, mea culpa etc.)
So it would appear that Primack & Co. want to reclaim or create new metaphors for understanding the universe. Fine and well, if they do it well. There is a whiff of the anthropic principle, which might show up later, but that is not exactly a cardinal sin.
On the other hand, I don't feel particularly drawn to the book after that introduction. The table of contents looks interesting, but since the intro is a bit leaden I am not overly enthused.
Well, that's my two-cents worth. I'm glad SC is enjoying it, and will not think too badly of it when I see it in other contexts.
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My book idea

Postby caliban » Fri Apr 13, 2007 1:50 am

Actually, I have dozens of book ideas, but here is one that I have that would be similar to View from the Center, only a much more personal and poetic touch. All I've written is the outline. Which has gaps. Enjoy.

My Life Among the Quarks:
A Memoir of the Subatomic World


Prologue: The Assassin Neutrino

Part I: Atoms
breaking that which cannot be broken

1. The surface world
2. Rutherford’s artillery and other historical reveries
3. Descent into the deep
4. The infinitesimal realm
Arguments with poets


Part II: Protons and Neutrons
and friends and relatives

1. Growing up nuclear, or how I abandoned paleontology for physics
2.
3. Enormous microscopes
4. A subatomic bestiary
Arguments with crackpots


Part III: Quarks and Leptons
the bottommost foundations (as far as we know)

1. A day in the life of a physicist
2. Physics gets giddy and goofy, the name game
3. Monstrous machines
4.
Arguments with postmodernists

Part IV: Beyond
1. Is this all?
2. Math beyond calculus, way way beyond calculus
3. The infinitesimal and the infinite, or how cosmology teaches us about the very small
4. Nightmares of an unfinished theory
Arguments with physicists

Epilogue:
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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Re: My book idea

Postby Windwalker » Sat Apr 14, 2007 2:35 pm

caliban wrote:Actually, I have dozens of book ideas, but here is one that I have that would be similar to View from the Center, only a much more personal and poetic touch. All I've written is the outline. Which has gaps. Enjoy.

My Life Among the Quarks:
A Memoir of the Subatomic World

This sounds tremendous! The moment you're tenured, drop departmental paperwork and write this book.

Regarding the special position of humans, my review of what we know so far has led me to ascribe to an evolved version of the mediocrity principle (Rare Earth). However, our knowledge is far from complete.
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Re: My book idea

Postby caliban » Sun Apr 15, 2007 11:26 am

Windwalker wrote:This sounds tremendous! The moment you're tenured, drop departmental paperwork and write this book.


You're being too kind. Really. It's making me nervous, :wink:

Alas, it's not very serious. I wrote up that outline as a sort of love chlid between your Biology of Star Trek (I loved the chapter headings) and a book by another friend of mine, The Island of Naked People, by Madhusree Mukherjee, an ethnographic/personal account of the people of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. (Madhusree, whom I knew when we were both postdocs at Caltech, is another victim of the savage winnowing in academia. For a while she wrote for Scientific American and is now a freelance writer.)

But this is of an example why I'm asked to write up our Departmental plans. I'm pretty good at taking flimsy ideas and making them sound great. It's a talent--not one I am particularly proud of--but it helps to explain why, against all reason, I continue to get grants.
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Re: My book idea

Postby Windwalker » Sun Apr 15, 2007 1:21 pm

I must admit, I had an almost indecent amount of fun making up those chapter headings! Peter and I batted variants back and forth until we hit just the right note.

Your point about grants is very valid. Reviewers are invariably pressed for time and only occasionally experts in the topics of the grants they are assigned. This means they get easily irritated and have short attention spans. So a grant written in good narrative style has a distinct advantage.

Freelance writers... the likely fate of a whole generation of scientists (mine). Could be worse.
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