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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