Vacuum Land

The Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe
By Dennis Overbye,
HarperCollins, 438 pp.

A Voyage Through Science to Solve Time’s Greatest Mystery
By Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield,
Ballantine, 378 pp.

First, a little quiz to separate the many from the boffins. In the following cascade of polysyllables, spot the odd-phrase-out:

Chandrasekhar limit … stochastic chaos … cosmic string … anthropic principle … chromodynamic quark … ergodic system … failed apophthegm … supercooled Higgs field.

The disciples of the hard sciences – researchers, teachers, students, the subscription list of Scientific American – will have noticed it immediately. All these phrases, save one, describe current concepts in the overlapping fields of cosmology and particle physics, or in the substratum of mathematics that unites them. To the scientifically literate, only “apophthegm” – a long word meaning a terse maxim – can possibly stand out as unintelligible.

To everyone else, however, the mere sight of such a paragraph is enough to make one’s eyeballs ratchet around like the fruit cylinders of a one-armed bandit. Unintelligible isn’t the half of it; downright intimidating is more like it.

Thus, the two camps of the techno-20th century: those who are familiar, comfortable and enthused about High Science (and exasperated at the ignorance of those who are not) and those to whom the entire enterprise has become gobbledegook – who know nothing about it, know they know nothing, and know they should feel guilty as a result.

After all, what good are the big answers to the big questions if they’re comprehensible only to the people who devised them? And what does it mean to be “educated” if, presented with the secrets of the cosmos, one can only smile and nod like a happy idiot?

Enter the science popularizer, the medium through whom the message would be heard. Both Dennis Overbye and the team of Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield aim to bring the laity up to speed on how the high priests are doing in the quest for the Theory of Absolutely Everything. The two books, both noble efforts, are as different as they are complementary. The fact that they ultimately founder on the same shoals says as much about the complexity of what they’re trying to simplify as about the simplicity of most folks’ grasp of nature’s complexity.

Overbye, in Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, tackles the grand queries — what is the universe, and where did it come from? – by sifting through the latest thinking on space. Coveney and Highfield, in The Arrow of Time, handle the equally baffling dimension of time. Overbye is an American, educated at MIT. Coveney and Highfield are British, the former a Cambridge physicist, the other (who also holds a Ph.D.) the science editor of The Daily Telegraph. Where Overbye is exuberant, Coveney and Highfield are deadpan, committed to the careful explication of increasingly abstruse ideas.

Neither of these books is lazy reading for the summer hammock. Unless one is already versed in High Science – in which case, why bother with popular accounts? – they are both work, because the realm of the theorists is a hairy, counter-intuitive place where, as the Firesign Theatre used to say, Everything You Know Is Wrong. It’s a place where the universe can be born ex nihilo out of quantum fluctuations in a false vacuum; where the beat of a butterfly’s wings in Miami can “cause” typhoons in China; where gravity and velocity warp time, where there is order in chaos, and where even verbal descriptions of the math involved are enough to induce migraines. This is a field, remember, in which Niels Bohr was able to tell Wolfgang Pauli that one of the Swiss’s ideas was “crazy, but not crazy enough.”

The chase is spurred by the fact that the two most elegant and successful 20th-century contributions to physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – are fundamentally at odds. The former describes physics on the macro scale of stars and galaxies, while the latter accounts for the behavior of matter on the most minute, subatomic level. But the thinkers who inquire into the origin of the universe are compelled to contemplate an instant when what are now stars and galaxies was an impossibly hot, unimaginably dense pinprick of exploding existence. What is required, in order to prevent their calculations from collapsing under the weight of their own gibberish, is a grand new theory.

The problem, from the point of view of the struggling lay reader, is that the state of established theory is as chaotic as the universe it describes. As Overbye makes clear, the astronomers do not trust the cosmologists, who in turn are wary of the particle physicists, who half the time don’t even speak the same language as the astronomers. The community of scholars would appear to be an angry mass of egomaniacs vociferously denouncing one another’s work. As one wag puts it in Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, “There are a handful of people in the world who understand this stuff, and they all hate one another.”

To make matters worse, Coveney and Highfield insist that they’re all wrong, because the equations with which they work are time-symmetrical (run time backwards or forwards and the numbers come out the same). But the universe, they point out, is marked indelibly by the fact that time flows in only one direction. Any new theory that fails to account for this, they argue, is just another elaborate fiction.

Which is perhaps what all this theorizing is in any case. For all their arrays of radio telescopes, their supercomputer simulations and their imaginary mathematics, the observational data are so meager and the physics, in the end, so metaphysical, that there’s virtually no way to tell at this stage whether anyone’s correct. As the old saw puts it: there’s speculation, pure speculation, and cosmology.

Even the careful explanatory efforts of the popularizers ultimately disintegrate, because the secrets of the universe are coded in the arcana of math, and if one cannot grasp the math one cannot “understand” the theory. Particularly in their later chapters, Overbye, Coveney and Highfield might as well be describing lost elfin magic.

As Allan Sandage, the grand old man of American astronomy, asks Overbye: “Why do you believe (this stuff) is true anymore than the existence of God, which is also a beautiful theory and also explains a great deal?”

Good question. Beats

  • Montreal Gazette July 27, 1991