18 July 2007

The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?

By
Non-Fiction
Something looks fishy about the way our universe is "uncannily fit for life". There seems to be nothing self-contradictory about the idea that its physical constants and other fundamental features — such as the amount of dark matter — could have been different.
The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?
The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?
By Paul Davies
Allen Lane
350 pages
ISBN 0-713-99883-0
0547053584
A$55

Something looks fishy about the way our universe is “uncannily fit for life”. There seems to be nothing self-contradictory about the idea that its physical constants and other fundamental features — such as the amount of dark matter — could have been different. Yet relatively miniscule differences in any of these values would have produced a physical reality incompatible with the complex chemical processes that sustain life. In The Goldilocks Enigma, Paul Davies embarks on a comprehensive examination of current theories as to why the universe is so finely tuned, so astonishingly “just right”.

To prepare us, he starts with a lively account of recent developments in cosmological theory and fundamental physics. The first few chapters get us up to speed with such concepts as the flatness of space, the inflation (as opposed to mere expansion) of the universe, string theory, M-theory, and the possible effects of quantum events on the cosmological macrostructure of clustered galaxies. Nice.

One important concept is the possibility that universes such as ours — really only “pocket universes” — are being formed continually and eternally, creating an incomprehensibly vast, multiple landscape of wildly varying universes. (This grand multiverse is a quite different concept from the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory, which Davies also discusses.)

Davies considers a raft of answers to the book’s central question, but concludes that none is truly satisfying. He states that he is resigned to criticism from religious thinkers for his unwillingness to interpret the data as evidence of intelligent design. Though such interpretations have psychological appeal, he believes that they offer no explanatory advance. At the same time, he expects hard-headed physicists to deplore his sympathy for such mystical-sounding theories as that the Universe’s development is shaped by a fundamental life-creating principle, or that it somehow causes itself in a closed, self-consistent loop from future to past and back again (see ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’, Cosmos Issue 14, p46).

Given this multitude of brain-wrangling theories and conjectures, Davies tells the whole story in a clear, well-paced manner that rivets the attention while boggling the mind.

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