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If one were to plot out the milestones of scientific thought and discovery over the course of human history, what would develop would be a graph end-loaded with points in relatively recent times. Mesopotamian clay tablets inscribed some 3000 years ago listed dozens of constellations, but it wasn't until a few hundred years ago that Nicolaus Copernicus proffered a mathematical model of a solar system rotating about the sun. Almost all of the information truly relevant to our understanding of the universe has come in the past 100 years with the specialization of various astronomical sciences based on the electromagnetic spectrum, as well as the refinement of more complex quantitative studies such as celestial and quantum mechanics, and the rapid accelleration of theoretical physics. In the space of just a few generations the common-knowledge application of science has gone from making schoolhouse paper-mâché solar system mobiles to following online reports communications from the Voyager 1 satellite as it leaves our solar system and enters interstellar space. In terms of our understanding of the physical realm in which we live, the basic principles of a spherical planet and a helocentric system are such outliers on such a graph as to be rendered comically obvious and almost irrelevant to thought; after all, one need not recognize the premise that water is wet to study the ocean.
The crazy thing about science, however, is that the more we learn the more clear it is how little we know. Through the advent of technology and scientific specializaiton, rather than being cleared up our understanding of physical space has become cloudier. Literally, a hundred years ago spectroscopic analysis led to the first actual detection of gas clouds in space. In short order our concepts of the universe has gone from chaos to cosmos and back again. Those shifting positions of understanding (or lack thereof, as it may be) are where astrophysicist and popular science writer John Gribbin launches his latest book, In Search of the Multiverse, a layman's guide to approaching the latest developments in physics and their implications for our understanding of not just physical space but reality itself.
In scientific circles, the highest levels of discovery have increasingly been shifting from the laboratory to the mind (and of course the computer) as physical observation and data analysis have failed to keep pace with the refinement of high-level physics. As computer processing and the extrapolation of mathematical modeling have outstripped the means available to test and observe, the pursuit of understanding has moved from the quantifiable to the theoretical. For a time it seemed that the advent of technology had yeilded discoveries that were documented long before they were understood; as the very stuff around us has been revelealed as increasingly complex, science worked from the back end to explain what was discovered. Today the momentum of centuries of thought has pushed the pendulum in the other direction, and more and more scientific experiments are being designed to actually find what is being predicted. Whereas we once found it and then explained it, now we are in search of the unseen that has already been explained.
The brilliance of our current situation is that if you can think it, it might be true. This is how we necessarily ended up building the Large Hadron Collider, the huge particle accellerator designed to quantitatively "find" the Higgs Boson, an elusive particle that was theorized in 1964 and is yet to be observed. Science fiction is increasingly becoming experimental physics, if not accepted fact--when Steven Soderbergh remade the film adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel Solaris, he inserted a reference to the Higgs Boson; today scientists are working hundreds of feet underground to try and catch one.
Of course the downside to our current situation is that the more we know, the less we feel we know about the complexity of the Universe, and what exactly a term like 'Universe'even means. When there are so many questions, and often times contradictions, within the very tenets of scientific research itself, where does one begin? Gribbin does a fine job of methodically breaking down not only the science but the philosophy behind the prevailing 'facts' of existence. Or, again, lack thereof. Right off Gribbin plays the ace in the deck: light. From the time of Isaac Newton's prism to today's at-home hair removal lasers, no one really knows what light is. The speed of it is an expression in Albert Einstien's famous equation, yet the so-called "wave-particle duality" (that light is both and neither a particle and/or a wave) has led to more questions that Einstein answered, which is how we arrived at quantum mechanics.
What Gribbin understands, and does well to spell out, is that such concepts are often hard to grasp because, well, they're hard to grasp. For every discovery scientists make, there seems to be an exponential number of question marks for each period at the end of a definitive statement. Taking the long view, those question marks have revealed themselves to often times be more important than the periods, because no matter how long and hard scientists search they can come to no conclusions within the context of what is known. The reason is both simple and confounding: just as you can't fit a basketball into a piece of paper, you can't completely understand a Universe when it is actually a Multiverse.
When one speaks only French, it would be confounding to examine under a microscope the text of a Chinese book written in braille. Even if you spent a year learning braille in French, the text would still be in Chinese. To put it another way: if one can only frame information in the process of reading left-to-right, there is little chance of understanding Arabic texts which are read right-to-left. The Many Worlds Interpretation ('world' is interchangeable with 'universe') provides the appropriate language, or frame of reference, for attempting to decode the mysteries of space and time and reality that cannot be answered within the logic of a Universe. And if there is one thing Gribbin uses extensively, it is analogies, and he does so with far less ridiculous and much more on-topic examples than mine.
Though sometimes in a necessarily cursory nature, In Search of the Multiverse lays out layer upon layer of questions that either relate directly or provide a background perspective of reference for approaching the idea of a Multiverse. The book addresses the size and dimensions of a universe, time and space, black holes, dark matter, mass gravity, infinity and the where/when conundrums of all of it as it partains to us and our relation to multiple universes. It isn't as strenuous as an internship with Stephen Hawking, but the book hits the high points--from the basics of Schrödinger's Cat to the very real possibility that we exist in a Matrix-like level of "reality" within a "consciousness" infinitely superior to ours--with plenty of sound science and historical reference to fill in the lows without resorting to filler.
Sure, all of this seems really out-there, and in every sense of the term it truly is. But thanks to Gribbin, the general premises of the Many Worlds Interpretation and all of the facets of Multiverse thinking are approachable. As a choice quote from MIT physicist Max Tegmark puts it at the book's very beginning: "If we dismiss theories because they seem weird, we risk missing true breakthroughs." Tegmark's quote is exceptionally poignant in the discussion of Multiverses, not only in the larger sense but also in the most specific details of its origin. It was half a century ago that the physicist Hugh Everett, Gribbin's hero, first proposed the Many Worlds Interpretation, only to have not only his concepts but he himself be summarily dismissed as "undescribably stupid" by the preiminent minds of quantum mechanics. Ignorance and skepticism cost the scientific a good two decades of research into the possibility of limitless worlds, a premise now widely accepted as true amongst scientists.
Granted, the book is dense with facts and dates and names, but such is the result of condensing cutting-edge science at the extremes of conceptual understanding into a 200-page book. Though concepts can often blur together (such is the nature of highly inter-dependent sciences), the everyday prose in which Gribbin unfolds the science is detailed with plenty of clarifying footnotes and augmented with a glossary of terms and a suggested bibliography for additional reading (which is in turn broken down into texts that Gribbin finds particularly relevant). For anyone with a curiosity as to what anything and everything truly means (philosophies of things like morality are infinitely more complex when presented in the very real and sometimes horrifying light that we don't know what or where we even are), In Search of the Multiverse will be a rewarding read. Gribbin's style and bullet-pointed presentation ensure that both the scientific novice and the versed academic can be kept at attention. SEE ALSO: www.johngribbin.co.uk
SEE ALSO: www.penguin.co.uk
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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