Bob Nichols's Reviews > The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe Report

The Whole Shebang by Timothy Ferris
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Aug 08, 10

Read in August, 2010

This book is less engaging than Ferris' "Coming of Age in the Milky Way." There's less of a story here and more of a status report on the state of the science lying at the frontiers of cosmology (as of 1997). If there is one underlying theme to this book it is that we live in a quantum universe, but we have evolved in a world that is best understood in terms of classical physics. This helps explain why the discussion of cosmology is so challenging for the general reader. We try our best to grasp what we can.

Ferris has a few nuggets that stand out. All spaces that exist today were originally in the same place he says. The Big Bang (which Ferris notes is challenged by another theory that our Big Bang is one of many Big Bangs) created space and time. Space is stretching, and the universe is not expanding into pre-existing space. What lies beyond ever-stretching space is not clear in Ferris. "Nothing" is not a satisfying answer. Ferris says that Einstein's theory of gravity does away with gravitational force and that all forces are consequences of geometry. That nugget, while tantalizing, is not clear. The universe begins, Ferris comments, in a high-energy state that forms matter as energy cools. Structure in the universe, from atoms to galaxies, are "cathedrals of cavernous space" with infinitely vast areas of emptiness interspersed with higher density matter. That is nicely descriptive. Ferris says that galaxies and local groups of galaxies that form supercluster galaxies are only part of the story for there are also supercluster complexes, billions of light years across. This puts a finer point on the scales that are involved.

This is all great stuff. Ferris' review of cosmological science indicates the universe has a history and is evolving, and this stands in contrast with Plato and other philosophers and Hindu cosmology that view the cosmos in terms of "stasis" and "eternal return." There's a relevance here for philosophies that anchor their thought in views about ultimate reality. One physicist says we study physics so that philosophy is not non-sense. Less kind is a quote from Niels Bohr who comments that "It is hopeless to have any kind of understanding between scientists and philosophers directly....All that philosophers have ever written is purely drivel." That said, and as to what nevertheless might be a central observation drawn from Ferris' summary of all of this high-altitude cosmology, if our Big Bang began as a high energy state, and if at the basic quantum level matter and energy (particle and wave) are interchangeable, and if one understands energy as motion, not stasis, this would lend itself to the conclusion that the only permanent reality is change itself.

As for the physicists' description of their own work, Ferris has a good summary of eminent scientists who urge that their work be simplified and "communicated in the common human language." Ferris refers to one who says that "If the basic idea is too complicated to fit on a T-shirt, it's probably wrong." This I suppose explains E=MC squared.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Jon (new)

Jon Stout What I don't understand is: If space is curved, why doesn't the universe return upon itself? Is this the basis for the Many Big Bangs theory?

message 2: by Bob (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bob Nichols Three predominant theories. One, expansion will end and contract (return upon itself); two, expansion will continue forever (not contract); three, expansion will continue to a balance point (between expansion outward and contraction inward) and then stay that way forever. As I understand it, the first theory might be "expanded" into a Many Big Bangs theory (I think it was a physicist named Lunde who talks about that). Your question about curved space is a good one, however and I had not thought about these three theories precisely in terms of that question. On those three theories, the sun is perhaps at least a partial analogy (for now in balance between the forces of expansion and contraction).

message 3: by Dpdwyer (new)

Dpdwyer I'll put the book on my list. Thanks.

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