Magazine article The Spectator

Fumbling for the Key of the Cosmic Mechanism

Magazine article The Spectator

Fumbling for the Key of the Cosmic Mechanism

Article excerpt

Hugh Lawson-Tancred


by John D. Barrow

OUP, L18.99, pp. 288

What importantly happened in the 20th century? The universe grew up. Newton's prim translation into cosmology of the architecture of Wren has become the incomprehensible monster of Hubble and his successors, while Dalton's neat atomic peas in their molecular pods have turned into Heisenberg's nebulous entities flitting in crespuscular indeterminacy from one notional existence to another.

But the permanent revolution in fundamental physics which has kept us all on the edge of our seats since about 1905 is now hitting - guess what - budgetary constraints. Grasping the fundamental structure of matter/universe requires the generation, even if only at infinitesimal points, of concentrations of energy comparable to those obtaining at the 'moment' of creation. Achieving anything like this would require an expenditure roughly equivalent to crashing one stealth bomber a week for an indefinite period. Surely the money could be better spent.

It seems likely, then, that the next half-- century or so will see a change of emphasis from discovery to interpretation. The census of plausible theoretical options looks at least as stable as it has done for a generation, and felicitous popular advocacy has ensured that they are better recognised by the laity than their proponents might feel entitled to expect. The question, of course, is whether anyone, specialist or lay, understands what they mean. Can we make sense of the claim that the universe has perhaps as many as 21 dimensions, with time being a continuation of space by other means, or of the Many Worlds Hypothesis, which conjectures that the universe is constantly branching into an infinity of new, complete but mutually exclusive realisations?

You could argue that the present spate of popularisation is premature. Nobody yet has a clear enough grasp of the kerygma to act as an apostle for it. On the other hand, responsible propagation of the ineffable does much to restrain the irresponsible sort. This is certainly the view of John Barrow, whose explanations of the constraints imposed on the initial conditions of our universe by the fact that we inhabit it and of the possible limitations of any general 'unified' theory of the underlying constitutive symmetries of nature have established themselves as classics. In Between Inner Space and Outer Space, he serves up some intellectual tapas from the same kitchen, in which the central concerns of his earlier work reappear as spicy and salted morsels that are perhaps a touch indigestible if taken in large doses. …

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