A Big Bang in a Little Room

There’s a review in today’s Wall Street Journal by me of Zeeya Merali’s A Big Bang in a Little Room. If their version is behind a paywall you might find also find it elsewhere (for instance here). I’ll reproduce parts of the review below with some comments more appropriate for the blog venue. As always, the editors at the WSJ did an excellent job of improving the first draft I sent them.

Merali has a website about the book here, and last week Nature published this review by Andreas Albrecht. Albrecht criticizes the book for “sloppy interplay between science and religion”, but I think he misses the important point that the most serious problem here is the sloppiness about what is science and what isn’t. When physics journals decide to publish articles like this one, it’s not surprising that science writers make the mistake of taking them seriously and writing about them (Merali’s first chapter is about this paper).

Here are some extracts from the review, with some comments:

What happened at the Big Bang—or before—is an irresistible question but one that, for now, as science, lies in the realm of the purely speculative.

In “A Big Bang in a Little Room,” science writer Zeeya Merali turns the question around, asking instead whether physicists can create a “baby universe,” born in its own Big Bang. Indeed, one prominent theorist she interviews has suggested that our own universe might be a baby universe created by a “physicist hacker,” with the complex pattern of fundamental particle masses intended as some sort of message to us. thereby learning more about the beginnings of the “old” one.

The reference here is to Andrei Linde and this 1991 paper.

[Merali] explains that her interest in this topic is tied up with her religious beliefs: If we ourselves could play God and create a new universe, wouldn’t that creation amount to a theological discovery, showing the likelihood that some higher intelligence was responsible for the Big Bang? She structures her narrative around interviews with prominent theoretical physicists; they mostly discuss science, but religious questions sometimes play a role, with often fascinating results. While some refuse to engage, she gets others to discuss such topics as the relation of the laws of physics to God’s happiness, the possibility of a physical “consciousness field,” and what the quantum mechanics of the Big Bang might indicate about the possibility of life after death and resurrection.

Don Page is the one interested in God’s happiness, Abhay Ashtekar in the “consciousness field”, and Andrei Linde in resurrection.

Mr. Linde is the central figure in this story, and Ms. Merali describes him as “a showman: bombastic, passionate, and fueled by the certain belief that inflation theory, which he helped to invent, is correct.” While Ms. Merali takes all of this seriously, there are very good reasons why most physicists don’t. Readers of “A Big Bang in a Little Room” would be well-advised to enjoy the ride but stay skeptical. Inflationary models can to some degree be confronted with observation and tested (a topic covered in other books but not this one).

About the string theory landscape:

Ms. Merali gives a disturbing version of this, contemplating the possibility that “string theory and inflation may be conspiring against us in such a way that we may never find evidence for them, and just have to trust in them as an act of faith.”

This comes after an explanation of the anthropic multiverse point of view from HEP experimentalist Greg Landsberg, where he adds the twist of anthropics explaining why the string scale is at such high energy, and thus unobservable. The full paragraph in the book is

In other words, the physics of string theory and inflation may be conspiring against us in such a way that we may never find evidence for them, and just have to trust in them as an act of faith. The multiverse truly works in mysterious ways!

If that paragraph doesn’t make a scientist’s blood run cold and see the danger physics is facing, I don’t know what will. I end the review with

In an era where “post-truth” was the word of the year, scientists and science writers need to make clear that science is not a species of theological or philosophical speculation and not about belief or entertainment value. Legitimate scientific claims are those that can be backed up with evidence, and unfortunately the wonderful and exciting story told well here contains none at all.

My concern about the topic of the book is that it’s Fake Physics, not that religion is motivating the author (and likely motivating the Templeton Foundation to fund this project). A book about the religious views of physicists would be an interesting one that I’d certainly read, and the material in this book on that topic is quite interesting. One of the odder twists here is that the two blurbs from physicists promoting the book are from Sean Carroll and Martin Rees, with Carroll writing

So you want to make your own universe. Zeeya Merali’s new book won’t quite give you an instruction kit—but it’s the closest thing we have at the moment. A fun and mind-expanding ride through modern ideas of how universes come to be.

I don’t see how you can be devoted to fighting for science against religiously-driven pseudoscience, and think that this book is one you’d like to see be the public face of what “modern ideas” about cosmology are.

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21 Responses to A Big Bang in a Little Room

  1. Jeff M says:

    So how good a journal is Modern Physics Letters A? I was thinking I could write a math paper, “Letters from the creator in mathematical objects.” Have to know what journal to send it to though.

  2. tulpoeid says:

    “If that paragraph doesn’t make a scientist’s blood run cold and see the danger physics is facing, I don’t know what will.”

    Totally. Even more so if you consider that Landsberg was the physics coordinator of the CMS experiment during the Higgs discovery.

  3. Dave Miller says:

    Well, Peter, I’m on your side when you say, “If that paragraph doesn’t make a scientist’s blood run cold and see the danger physics is facing, I don’t know what will.”

    But, I have a sinking feeling our side is going to lose.

    On the other hand, the younger generation always makes a name for itself by revolting against its elders, so, perhaps, in a couple decades, the hottest thing in physics will be angry young physicists revolting against the “anthropic principle” etc.

    By the way, I haven’t seen you comment yet on the article in the current Scientific American claiming that inflationary cosmology is in a lot of trouble.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  4. a1 says:

    Few people seem to realize that pronouncing something to be random is just saying we won’t be discussing further hypotheses. So, asserting that a physical quantity is just the value of some random variable across the multiverse is not different from asserting that a god willed it to have this value in our universe. Both ways, this is an ultimate explanation without any further ‘why’.

  5. Gus Bici says:

    “You are of this world; I am not of this world.” says Jesus.

    “NOTW” (i.e. Not Of This World) is a popular Christian bumper sticker. May need to print up some more for the Physics community. Amen.

  6. Mitchell Porter says:

    Thirty years ago, there was a fad for “third quantization” as a way to model “baby universes”. Did it ever predict anything (whether right or wrong)? Did it get write-ups in the science press? And, is any of that work, an essential precursor to today’s inflationary multiverse? Or was it a fundamentally separate theoretical excursion whose life and death unfolded in relative isolation?

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Dave Miller,
    I should write about that, it’s an excellent discussion of the problems of inflation, and of the more general problems I often write about here.

    Mitchell Porter,

    I guess you’re referring to this sort of thing:
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/38273
    I don’t think that led anywhere, it’s a generalization of the idea of string field theory, from a circle (string theory) to arbitrary 3-manifolds. No one has managed to really successfully do this for the circle, and it’s not at all clear to me there is any viable idea about how to even get started if you generalize to 3-manfolds, so not surprising this never went anywhere.

    This has nothing to do that I can see with the eternal inflation story and the recent multiverse mania.

  8. srp says:

    For anyone interested in the idea of creating universes in an accelerator, astrophysicist Gregory Benford’s 1999 novel Cosm is pretty entertaining, though not close to his best stuff. He had the setting as the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider at Brookhaven.

    https://www.amazon.com/Cosm-Gregory-Benford/dp/0380790521

  9. Shantanu says:

    Dave: Can you point me to the sciAm article?

  10. Nick M. says:

    Hi Shantanu,

    I think Dave may be referring to this article:

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/cosmic-inflation-theory-faces-challenges/

    But, unfortunately, it’s paywalled. I guess I’ll have to newsstand a copy of the February 2017 Scientific American.

    -Nick

  11. phil fogle says:

    Great review! So good to see a critic who isn’t afraid to step on toes. But the war against science is ancient, and vigilance will always be called for.

    At least this stuff isn’t lethal, like Andrew Wakefield’s pseudoscience…

  12. Dave Miller says:

    Shantanu,

    Believe it or not, I actually read the article in a hard-copy at our local public library! (The Sacramento public library system is actually very good.)

    Dave

  13. Nick M. says:

    Shantanu, Dave:

    I think I stumbled onto a downloadable PDF copy of the article from professor Aviv Loeb’s “Center for Astrophysics” webpage on the Harvard-Smithsonian website (see here).

    Alternatively, go to the Harvard web address

    https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~loeb/

    and scroll down to the “In The News” section, and look for the article titled “Pop Goes the Universe”.

    (God I hope I don’t get into trouble. 😉 )

  14. I can already see how your review will appear in the promotional material:

    “Wonderful and exciting story” – Peter Woit

  15. Pingback: Multiverse explains why progress in fundamental physics is slow? | Uncommon Descent

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  17. Alan says:

    Wondered if you’ve come across Dr. Luke Barnes’ work A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos which seems relevant.
    https://afortunateuniverse.wordpress.com/2017/01/10/talk-in-sydney-the-universe-for-beginners/
    The video in there goes through 4 options, 1. physics will explain the constants (no multiverse) 2. a multiverse 3. a creator or something-like behind everything 4. we’re living in a simulation.
    So I guess the “physicist hacker” above could fit in 3 or 4?

    As to universe creation above, what I remember (but not understand) of what Lenny Susskind says was that the config. of a Calibi-Yau space determines what universe will get created (like a “DNA”) and since (my view) you can’t get to that energy or specificity of configuration when you attempt to create one in a lab., it’s a hopeless task to try – if the multiverse idea is correct. But even if it isn’t aren’t the energies out of reach?

  18. Bernhard says:

    @Jeff M,

    I can give you my own take on what I think of MPLA from an experience a few years ago..

    I was asked to be reviewer of a paper from a very good journal. On reading the article, I realized it was very bad, to the point I was not sure one could consider it really an article. It was not difficult to convince the editor that he should not publish an article of that quality, something that would hurt the journal’s reputation.

    A few months later, I checked the arXiv entrance for the article and saw it has been published in MPLA.

    Make your own conclusion.

  19. Jeff M says:

    @Bernhard

    Yes, there are math journals like that too 🙂

  20. Slawomir Piotr Wojcik says:

    I believe, I didn’t read a different book, but, certainly, I have a somehow misaligned impression. It is a long time since I finished school, so I find it hard to judge what is a common scientific knowledge, but it seems to be much lower than it used to be. This chimes with what level of knowledge and curiosity the book (the author, by a sample of a book, if you let me) assumes in the reader.
    On page 193, line 6 of my copy Zeeya Merali writes about Don Page commenting on why infinity of multiverses might be simpler to understand than the Universe itself: “To illustrate his point, he tells me to think of the set of whole numbers-1,2,3…” I hope, I vaguely imagine the same what a phd in cosmology would in such a case, namely something like decision problems in sets of natural numbers ( https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ed71/ebe0eee4f88f095247c8b62ba1d3b217a68d.pdf )
    The problem with this bit of text (and most of “dry remnant on a sieve” of the rest of the book – which doesn’t amount to much) is that narrative and assumed (target) readers knowledge and curiosity seem to be intended to produce (and it would be a nice paper in psychology of perception if this book’s an plethora of others’ of the sort impact on knowledge and outlook of a reader were analyzed) a rather big collection of people who missed the hint and were left no wiser.
    When read in this way (parallel way – what the author and her interlocutors know, what my knowledge allows me to decipher from the book about their intentions and what the bulk of the readers are going to make out of it) the book seems to be bursting in its seams with innuendo of a very special kind.
    The real problem, which the book comes close to expose but never even tries to do so explicitly is that: Our theories are systems of conservation of information. Hence they are good to describe a Universe that itself is such a system (in usual words “deterministic theories describe deterministic world”, but even this simple equivalence seems to be a leap too far for many and Merali doesn’t appear as keen on making leaps of this sort any easier) What if the rule of preservation of information (determinism) is of limited application? What are the limits of our knowledge and what are the implications for every individual in this entropy governed Universe?
    Convoluted, as it is, the book skips on the questions, the whole body of relevant research, but, by virtue of this innuendo (a false perception of mine?) works as a portent of things to come.

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