Wednesday, May 16, 2012

My Library: The Constants of Nature

The Constants of Nature: From Alpha to Omega -- The Numbers that Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe by John D Barrow.

Boy, with a title like that, how could the book go wrong?



This is one of the books I picked up on that class trip to DC a few years back. It didn't enthuse me then and I hadn't picked it up since. It was a bitch and a half getting through the thing because it's a pile of mystical numerological bullcrap from end to end, all wrapped up in the flawed thinking of someone who's a die-hard devotee of the strong anthropic principle. I might not have known that if I hadn't worked my way through the archives of the Rationally Speaking podcast. They were discussing the anthropic principle and some of its forms when they mentioned a book by Barrow and Frank Tipler which argues for the strong anthropic principle.

The Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) says that we shouldn't ascribe too much importance to the fact that we're able to observe the universe. Only in a universe where intelligent life is able to arise will their be intelligent life capable of wondering at the fact of its own existence. Proponents of the Strong Anthropic Principle [SAP] (among them Barrow and Tipler) argue that the universe can only be such that intelligent life will arise. Barrow and Tipler then go further to espouse the Full Anthropic Principle (FAP)*, namely that the existence of intelligent life is why the universe exists. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Tipler went on to write The Physics of Christianity, wherein he purported to demonstrate that physics proves that all of Christianity is absolutely true. So, yeah, that tells you where he was coming from with his anthropic argument.

Leave it to that luminary of British thought, Douglas Adams, to come up with the perfect counter-argument. Barrow and Tipler are like a puddle of water marveling at the hole in which it exists, "How remarkable that this hole is so perfectly formed that my shape fits in it exactly with no excess or lack anywhere!" Clearly, any universe in which life exists will only exist in such a form as allowed by that universe.

Barrow only infrequently mentions the anthropic principle here, but his mystical wooshit informs this book throughout. He ascribes a very deep meaning to dimensionless numbers of various kinds, and to the search for a Theory of Everything that will be able to calculate those constants without the need for experimental observation.

What are dimensionless numbers? If you were to divide the speed of a falling brick by the speed of a train heading to Chicago, their units (distance per unit time) would cancel out, leaving you with a number (in this case a ration) without units, also known as dimensions. Now, those two speeds are rather arbitrary, but other numbers are not. The fine structure constant (approximately 137) is e^2/hc. Unfortunately, there's no quick way to put that well, because that shouldn't be 'h', but 'hbar', which is h/2pi. e is the charge of an electron, h the relationship between energy and wavelength in light, and c the speed of light. There are a few other constants in there that, with the appropriate units, multiply out to be equal to one, but which are important for getting rid of dimensions. Because all that stuff is based on fundamental constants, rather than arbitrary ones, the fine structure constant has the same absolute value regardless of your units. There are others, such as the ratio between the mass of a proton and the mass of an electron (approximately 1837).

What importance do these have? Could be none, could be all. Physicists occasionally like to tinker with formulae and see if they can't produce these constants (it helps that they have a graspable value, unlike, say, the number of protons in the observable universe, 10^40). They also like to ponder whether constants are truly constant, or if they change over time (which truly does have importance, and it appears to be that they are and they don't).

The problem is that Barrow then dives right off the deep end and starts swimming around in anthropic horsecrap. If the fine structure constant were a little bigger, there'd be no stars. If it were a little smaller, stars couldn't form carbon. The universe exists so that we can be hearelkaglaplgaph!

I agree that it's an interesting question whether the constants can be changing in this our universe. Whether they're actually constant is an important physical fact to identify. I agree that it's an interesting question whether the constants could be other than they are; could the universe have formed differently or are the constants bound to one another in certain ratios? As Einstein put it, did God have a choice in making the universe?** I agree that it's an interesting question whether physicists will ever be able to derive fundamental constants from first principles rather than having to derive them from experiment (I doubt it).

I strongly disagree with Barrow's metaphysics. Astronomers have observationally verified that we are not merely small. We are not merely insignificant. We're pollution. We're an accident. The universe is almost entirely composed of nothing. Dark matter and dark energy compose 99% of everything, and all the stars and all the planets and you and me are cosmic lint. His anthropic crap is beyond crap. It's the crap that crap craps. Like I said, we have no notion what the significance of various numbers might be (beyond communicating with alien intelligences, probably none), but until we find some, it's okay to search for that significance, it's not okay to assume there is any.

I struggled to get through this book, and gave up when I'd finally had enough of the awful science, terrible statistics, and miserable shit assumptions behind the anthropic principle (he suggested that the dinosaurs were killed by a meteor because they'd reached an evolutionary dead end wherein they'd been selected for size rather than intelligence. I wish I were making that up.), and I strongly doubt I'll ever pick it back up.

Next up: Slavery by Another Name, by Douglas A Blackmon


* A very large part of me takes unrestrained joy in the fact that that acronym is the same as Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a guy makes when masturbating. Thanks be to the internet for spreading otaku culture across the Pacific! The Full Anthropic Principle is so much mental masturbation.

** Einstein was not a theist. He was a believer in "Spinoza's god", a sort of pantheist. His question there does not imply that he actually believes in a creative deity that tinkers with the universe, but is a musing on whether the universe could be other than it is.
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