The Last Three Minutes by Paul Davies (1994)

The telescope is also a timescope. (p.127)

Davies (b.1946) is an English physicist, writer and broadcaster. He’s written some 25 books, and hosted radio and TV series popularising science, especially in the areas of cosmology and particle physics, with a particular interest in the links between modern scientific theory and religion – hence his books God and the New Physics and The Mind of God.

The Last Three Minutes was his sixteenth book and part of the Science Masters series, short, clear primers written by experts across all areas of science. The advantage of The Last Three Minutes is that it is a clear explication of all the theories in this area; the drawback is that it is now precisely 25 years out of date, a long time in a fast-moving field like cosmology.

On the plus side, although the book might not capture the very latest discoveries and thinking, many of its basic facts remain unchanged, and many of those facts are enough to make the layman gawp in wonder before Davies even begins describing the wild and diverse cosmological theories.

1. Doomsday

The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.24 light years – twenty-four trillion years – away. Our galaxy is named the Milky Way. Until the 1920s astronomers thought all the stars in the universe were in the Milky Way. The observations of Edwin Hubble proved that the Milky Way is only one among billions of galaxies in the universe. The Milky Way is estimated to be somewhere around 200 light-years across. It might contain anything between 100 and 400 billion stars.

Our solar system is located about 26,000 light-years from the Galactic Centre on the inner edge of the Orion Arm, one of the spiral-shaped concentrations of gas and dust. The Milky Way is rotating. The sun and its retinue of planets take about 200 million years to rotate around the Galactic Centre.

The Earth could be destroyed by impact with any of the following:

  • asteroids, which are usually confined to a belt between Mars and Jupiter, but can be toppled out by passage of Jupiter’s mass
  • comets, believed to originate in an invisible cloud about a light year from the sun
  • giant clouds of gas won’t affect us directly but might affect the heat flow from the sun, with disastrous consequences
  • the Death Star some astronomers believe our sun may be part of a double-star system, with a remote twin star which may never be visible from Earth, but perturb elements in the system, such as our own orbit, or asteroids or comets

2. The Dying Universe

In 1856 the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz proposed that the universe is dying because the heat in it will eventually become so evenly distributed that no heat passes from one area to another, no chemical reactions are possible, the universe reaches ‘thermodynamic equilibrium’ and is dead. In English this became known as the ‘heat death’ theory. In 1865 physicist Rudolf Clausius coined the term ‘entropy’ meaning ‘the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system’. The heat death idea became widely accepted.

Davies points out that it’s odd that so many brainy people didn’t draw the obvious conclusion from the heat death idea, for if a) the universe is winding down towards a heat death and b) it has existed forever, then c) it would have died already. The fact that the universe is still full of wildly uneven distributions of energy and heat shows that it must have had a beginning.

Moreover, calculation of the mass of the universe should have indicated that a static universe would collapse in upon itself, clumps of matter slowly attracting each other, becoming larger and heavier, until all the matter in the universe is in one enormous ball.

The fact that the universe still has huge variations in heat indicates that it has not been around forever, i.e. it had a beginning. And the fact that it hasn’t collapsed suggests that a force equal or greater to gravity is working to drive the matter apart.

He explains Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle according to which ‘quantum particles do not possess sharply defined values for all their attributes’, and one of the odder consequences of  this, which is the existence of ‘quantum vacuums’ which are in fact full of incredibly short-lived ‘virtual’ particles popping in and out of existence.

3. The First Three Minutes

Davies recapitulates the familiar story that Edwin Hubble in the 1920s detected the red-shift in light which indicated that distant galaxies are moving away from us, and the further way they are, the faster they’re moving – overthrowing millenia of dogma by showing that the universe is moving, dynamic, changing.

Presumably, if it is moving outwards and expanding, it once had an origin. In 1965 astronomers detected the uniform background radiation which clinched the theory that there had, at some point in the distant past, been an explosion of inconceivable violence and intensity. The so-called cosmic microwave background (MCB) radiation is the remnant.

Further observation showed that it is uniform in every direction – isotropic – as theory predicts. But how did the universe get so lumpy? Astrophysicists speculated this must be because in initial conditions the explosion was not in fact uniform, but contained minute differentials.

This speculation was confirmed in 1992 when the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite detected ripples or unevenness in the MCB.

Complicated calculations predicted the likely ratios of key elements in the universe and these, also have been proved to be correct.

Taken together the expansion of the universe, the cosmic background radiation, and the relative abundance of the chemical elements strongly support the theory of a big bang.

Davies then explains modern theories of ‘inflation’ i.e. that the bang didn’t lead to a steady (if fast) rate of expansion of the early universe but, within milliseconds, experienced a short inconceivable process of ‘inflation’, in which anti-gravity pushed the exploding singularity into hyper-expansion.

The theory of inflation is called for because it solves problems about the existence and relative abundance of certain sub-atomic particles (magnetic monopoles), and also helps explain the unevenness of the resultant universe.

4. Stardoom

In February 1987 Canadian scientists based at an observatory in Chile noticed a supernova. This chapter explains how stars work (the fusion of hydrogen into helium releasing enormous amounts of energy) but that this outwards radiation of energy is always fighting off the force of gravity created by its dense core and that, sooner or later, all stars die, becoming supernovas, red dwarfs, red giants, white dwarfs, and so on, with colourful descriptions of each process.

Our sun is about half way through its expected life of 10 billion years. No need to panic yet.

He explains gravitational-wave emission.

5. Nightfall

Beginning with the commonplace observation that, eventually, every star in every galaxy will die, this chapter then goes on to describe some abstruse aspects of black holes, how they’re made, and unexpected and freakish aspects of their condition as stars which have collapsed under the weight of their own gravity.

John Wheeler coined the term ‘black hole’.

6. Weighing the Universe

If we all accept that the universe began in a cataclysmic Big Bang, the question is: Will it carry on expanding forever? Or will the gravity exerted by its mass eventually counteract the explosive force, slow the expansion to a halt, and then cause the universe to slowly but surely contract, retreating back towards a Big Crunch

Davies tells us more about neutrinos (one hundred billion billion of which are penetrating your body every second), as well as Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or WIMPs.

The basic problem is that all the suns and other objects in the observable universe get nowhere near the mass required to explain the relatively slow expansion of the universe. There must be a huge amount of matter which we can’t see: either because it is sub-atomic, or hidden in black holes, or for some other reason.

Hence the talk over the last thirty years of more of the search for ‘dark matter’ which astrophysicists estimate must outweigh the visible matter in the universe by anything from ten to one to a hundred to one. Anyway,

Given our present state of knowledge, we cannot say whether the universe will expand forever or not. (p.79)

7. Forever Is A Long Time

Consideration of the nature of infinity turns into a description of the Hawking effect, Stephen Hawking’s theory that black holes might not trap everything, but might in fact emit a low level of radiation due to the presence of virtual vacuums in which quantum particles pop into existence in pairs on the event horizon of the hole, one particle getting sucked inside and producing a little flash of energy, the other escaping, and using that burst of energy to convert from being a temporary virtual particle into a real, lasting one.

This is one aspect of the likely fate of black holes which is to collapse evermore on themselves until they expire in a burst of radiation. Maybe.

He moves on to consider the periodicity of proton decay, the experiment set up in a tank of water deep underground in Cleveland Ohio which failed to measure a single proton decay. Why?

If protons do decay after an immense duration, the consequences for the far future of the universe are profound. All matter would be unstable, and would eventually disappear. (p.96)

He paints a picture of the universe in an inconceivably distant future, vast beyond imagining and full of ‘an inconceivably dilute soup of photons, neutrinos, and a dwindling number of electrons and positrons, all slowly moving farther and farther apart’ (p.98).

8. Life In the Slow Lane

Davies undermines his credibility by speculating on the chances of humanity’s survival in a universe winding down. Maybe we can colonise the galaxy one star system at a time. If we can build spaceships which travel at only 1% the speed of light, it would only take a few centuries to travel to the nearest star. The ships could be self-contained mini-worlds. Or people could be put into hibernation. Better still a few engineers would take along hundreds of thousands of fertilised embryos to be grown on arrival. Or we could genetically engineer ourselves to survive different atmospheres and gravities. Or we could create entities which are half organic matter, half silicon-based intelligence.

He writes as if his book needs to address what he takes to be a widespread fear or anxiety that mankind will eventually – eventually – go extinct. Doesn’t bother me.

Davies describes the work done by some physicists (Don Page and Randall McKee) to calculate the rate at which the black holes which are predicted to become steadily more common – this is tens of billions of years in the future – a) decay and b) coalesce. It is predicted that black holes might fall into each other. Since they give off a certain amount of Hawking radiation, the bigger the black hole, the cooler at the surface and the more Hawking radiation it will give off and, Davies assures us, some technologically advanced descendant of humanity may, tens of billions of years in the future, just may be able to tap this radiation as an energy source to keep on surviving and thinking.

Apparently John Barrow and Frank Tipler have speculated on how we could send nuclear warheads to perturbate the orbits of asteroids, sending them to detonate in the sun, which would fractionally alter its course. Given enough it could be steered towards other stars. In time new constellations of stars – maybe entire galaxies – could be manipulated in order to suit our purposes, to create new effects of gravity or heat which we could use.

Meanwhile, back in reality, we can’t even leave the EU let alone the solar system.

9. Life In the Fast Lane

The preceding discussions have been based on the notion of infinite expansion of a universe which degenerates to complete heat death. But what if it reaches an utmost expansion and… starts to contract. In, say, a hundred billion years’ time.

There follows a vivid science fiction-ish account of the at-first slowly contracting universe, which then shrinks faster and faster as the temperature of the background radiation relentlessly rises until it is hundreds of degrees Kelvin, stripping away planetary atmospheres, cooking all life forms, galaxies crushing into each other, black holes coalescing, the sky turning red, then yellow, then fierce white. Smaller and hotter till is it millions of degrees Kelvin and the nuclei of atoms fry and explode into a plasma of sub-atomic particles.

Davies speculates that an advanced superbeing may have created communications networks the breadth of the universe which allow for an extraordinary amount of information processing. If it is true that the subjective experience of time is related to the amount of information we process, then a superbeing which process an almost infinite amount of information, would slow down subjective time. In fact it might cheat death altogether by processing so much information / thought, that it slows time down almost to a standstill, and lives on in the creation of vast virtual universes.

10. Sudden Death – and rebirth

If the preceding chapter seems full of absurdly fanciful speculation, recall that Davies is being paid to work through all possible versions of the Last Three Minutes. The book is sub-titled conjectures about the ultimate fate of the universe.

So far he has described:

  1. eternal expansion and the cooling of the universe into a soup of sub-atomic particles: in which case there is no last three minutes
  2. the preceding chapter discusses what a Big Crunch would be like, the physical processes which would degrade the universe and he has clearly taken as part of his brief trying to speculate about how any sentient life forms would cope

In this chapter he discusses a genuinely unnerving scenario proposed by physicists Sidney Coleman and Frank de Luccia in 1980. Davies has already explained what a virtual vacuum is, a vacuum seething with quantum particles popping in and out of existence. We know therefore that there are different levels of ‘vacuum’, and we know that all thermodynamic systems seek the lowest sustainable level of energy.

What if our entire universe is in an artificially raised, false vacuum? What if a lower, truer form of genuinely empty vacuum spontaneously erupts somewhere and then spreads like a plague at the speed of light across the universe? It would create a bow wave in which matter would be stripped down to sub-atomic particles i.e. everything would be destroyed, and a new value of gravity which would crunch everything together instantaneously. The Big Crunch would come instantaneously with no warning.

Astronomer Royal Martin Rees spooked the cosmology community by pointing out that the experiments in sub-atomic particles currently being carried out by physicists might trigger just such a cataclysm.

Conversely, Japanese physicists in 1981 floated the possibility of creating a new universe by creating a small bubble of false vacuum. The prediction was that the bubble of false vacuum would expand very quickly but – here’s the bit that’s hard to visualise – without affecting our universe. Alan Guth, the man who developed the inflation theory of the early universe, worked on it with colleagues and predicted that, although an entirely new universe might appear and hugely expand in milliseconds, it would do so into a new space, creating a new universe, and have little or no impact on our one.

Maybe that’s how our universe began, as a baby budding off from an existing universe. Maybe there is an endless proliferation of universes going on all the time, everywhere. Maybe they can be created. Maybe our universe was created by intelligent beings in its parent universe, and deliberately endowed with the laws of chemistry and physics which encourage the development of intelligent life. Or maybe there is a Darwinian process at work, and each baby universe carries the best traits of its parents onwards and upwards.

For me, the flaw of all this type of thinking is that it all starts from the axiom that human intelligence is somehow paramount, exceptional, correct, privileged and of immense transcendent importance.

In my opinion it isn’t. Human beings and human intelligence are obviously an accident which came into being to deal with certain conditions and will pass away when conditions change. Humanity is a transient accident, made up of billions of transient entities.

11. Worlds Without End?

A trot through alternative versions of The End. As early as the 1930s, Richard Tolman speculated that after each big crunch the universe is born again in another big bang, creating a sequence or rebirths. Unfortunately, a number of factors militate against complete regularity; the contraction period would create unique problems to do with the conversion of mass into radiation which would mean the starting point of the next singularity would be different – more degraded, less energy – than the one before.

In 1983 the Russian physicist Andre Linde speculated that the quantum state of the early universe might have varied from region to region, and so different regions might have experienced Alan Guth’s hyper-inflationary growth at different rates.

There might be millions of bubble universes all expanding at different rates, maybe with different fundamental qualities. A kind of bubble bath of multiple universes. We find ourselves in one of them but way off, beyond the limit of our vision, there may be an infinity of alternatives.

There is no end to the manufacture of these baby universe, and maybe no beginning.

Lastly, Davies re-examines the ‘steady state’ version of the universe propounded by Hermann Bondi and and Thomas Gold in the 1950s. They conceded the universe is expanding but said it always has. They invented ‘the creation field’ which produced a steady stream of new matter to ensure the expanding universe was always filled with the same amount of matter, and therefore gravity, to keep it stable. Their theory is another way of dispensing of an ‘end’ of the universe, as of a ‘beginning’, but it suffers from logical problems and, for most cosmologists, was disproved by the discovery of the microwave background radiation in 1965.


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The Triumph of Time by James Blish (1959)

The final instalment of James Blish’s Cities in Flight tetralogy opens with yet another prologue reminding us of the key dates in its ‘future history’ (pp.477-79):

Cities in Flight chronology

2018 discovery of the first anti-agathic drugs
2019 discovery of the gravitron polarity generator
2105 establishment of the Bureaucratic State
2289 first contact with the Vegan Tyranny
2394 IMT sack Thor V
2310 Battle of Altair with Vegans
2413 struggle with Vegans ends with scorching of Vega
2464 Battle of BD 40º 4048′ between Earth and Hruntans
2522 collapse of the Bureaucratic State
3089 Admiral Hrunta is poisoned / John Amalfi becomes mayor of New York
3111 Arpa Hrunta installed as ‘Emperor of Space’ / New York takes flight
3600 New York lands on Utopia
3602 ‘reduction of the Duchy of Gort’ / Dr Schloss boards New York
3900 collapse of the germanium standard for currency
3905 Battle of the Jungle in the Acolyte Cluster
3944 New York lands on the Blasted Heath
3948 Battle of the Blasted Heath in which New York defeats the IMT
3975 Battle of Earth attacked by Okie cities
3976 passage of anti-Okie law on earth
3978 New York leaves the galaxy for the Magellanic Cloud
3998 New York lands on planet in the Magellanic Cloud
3999 New York christens this planet New Earth
4104 ‘totally universal physical cataclysm’

In the series of events preceding this book and described in Earthman, Come Home, John Amalfi had steered the space-flying Okie city of New York through umpteen perils and finally out of the galaxy altogether to land, once and for all, on a planet in the Magellanic Cloud.

‘Once and for all’ because a) after the Battle of Earth, Okie cities had been outlawed b) at least two of the city’s spindizzy engines were fatally malfunctioning.

After defeating the incumbent inhabitants of this planet – the Intergalactic Master Traders who were the bad guys who had annihilated Thor V centuries earlier – the inhabitants of New York named the planet New Earth and settled down to make it home.

(NB some of the dates don’t match up. For example, in the prologue Blish says New York landed on this final planet in 3998 (p.479) but in the text he says they fought the Battle of the Blasted Heath by which they won control of the planet in 3948 (p.483) – fifty years earlier. They can’t both be right. Similarly, he says the Okies christened the planet New Earth in 3999 (p.479), and yet the novel opens with Amalfi sick and bored of life on New Earth, in ‘this year of 3995’, four years earlier (p.497). Either I’m misunderstanding something, or this was poor proofreading by Blish and/or his editors.)

So it is 3995 and legendary Okie city mayor John Amalfi, blessed or cursed with a very long life, is bored of his peaceful existence on New Earth, of fancy fashions and outlandish pets, and misses the old space-flying days. He goes poking around the now-abandoned city of New York, chatting to the city’s former chief astronomer, Jake Freeman, about maybe salvaging part of it and going roaming again… when he’s told a huge object is heading their way.

This turns out to be the planet He, which we last met in Earthman, Come Home, the planet with a primitive civilisation which was cursed with an oppressively tropical jungle climate. Amalfi had made a contract to change and improve it by fitting spindizzies to the planet’s cardinal points. He had intended to alter its spin a little to give it a milder climate but ended up miscalculating and sending the planet careering not only out of the orbit of its sun, but flying faster than the speed of light right out of the galaxy itself.

Now, by some miracle, He’s people have mastered the technique of steering their planet (!) and are heading straight for New Earth. Radio communication is made and it turns out the entire planet is now led by our old friend Miramon, who had been Amalfi’s lead contact in the original story. Miramon explains that they made it all the way to the next galaxy in the universe, Andromeda, but on the way discovered something: All of space and time is coming to an end!

The reason is something to do with anti-matter. The rest of the book is now dominated by page after page of detailed, would-be highly scientific discussion of the relationship between matter and anti-matter, with reference to all kinds of theories and explanations invoking Einstein, quantum physics, and so on. It’s all very impressive and features a number of mathematical equations, but remains incomprehensible to me, and could all be bluff as far as I know. Basically, the cleverest scientists on he and on New Earth discuss whether a) the universe really is running down heading towards an apocalyptic end b) what this end will look like c) if there is any possible way to escape it.

When Amalfi takes New Earth’s top scientists to He to discuss the situation, he takes along Dee, wife of his deputy Mark Hazleton, with whom he is himself deeply in love, and Mark and Dee’s grandson Webster Hazleton, along with his ‘friend’ Estelle Freeman (daughter of Jake the astronomer). Against the backdrop of the end of the universe is played out the growing puppy love between these two young teenagers. For example, there is a long and completely unnecessary scene where the two New Earth kids are shown complicated games with the kids their own age from He, both sides translating the complex rules of the games into pidgen English for the readers’ benefit.

In a sub-sub-plot Dee’s presence and contribution to the learned discussions vexes some of the scientists from He. Blish has to explain that this is because it was only within living memory that He’s womenfolk were raised from the status of naked animals, a feminist liberation largely carried out by Dee. Now here mere presence irritates them and so, reluctantly, Amalfi orders Dee, Webster and Estelle in a spaceship back to New Earth.

But while the physicists are discussing how and why the universe is about to end and the kids are playing truth or dare, good old power politics erupts when the leader of a religious cult – the Warriors of God led by Jorn the Apostle – rises up and storms New Earth, seizing Mark Hazelton. Not only that but we learn they seized the spaceship carrying Dee and the kids.

Amalfi uses one of Carrel’s little ‘proxies’ or remote control rocket ships to fly back to New Earth, landing in the now abandoned and empty Central Park and reactivating the old City Father’s namely the city’s ancient supercomputers. Using these he makes contact via a Dirac communication machine, with Jorn the Apostle. This man, wizened and canny, turns out to be more than a match for John Amalfi. Amalfi tries to bluff Jorn – in the way he has manipulated and bluffed so many antagonists in the earlier stories. This time he tells the leader of the fundamentalist army that New Earth is packed with believers in a lay philosophy named Stochasticism. Jorn doesn’t really believe him and, while Blish spends several pages mapping out Amalfi’s tortuous plan to outbluff the Apostle, the kind of convoluted semi-cunning plans we’ve got used to Amalfi spinning – when Jorn calls off his men and releases Dee and the kids.

Now time passes. Years pass. The New Earth scientists have all agreed the end is being precipitated by the winding down of the current universe and its interception or crash with a parallel universe of anti-matter. They have named the intersection of the two universes No Man’s Land. It was a casual suggestion of the child Estelle that they fire a bullet across No Man’s Land that set the scientists wondering whether they could make an anti-matter probe in this universe which could travel into the anti-matter universe.

Meanwhile Blish goes for pathos and human interest by glossing over the following few years during which Web and Estelle – the last human children to grow up – blossom and mature.

Our team send an anti-matter probe – very colourfully and cinematically described as a luminous sphere about six feet wide of neutrinos containing one grain of anti-matter – over to the other side. It reappears in the ancient control room of the city – which has been turned into a physics lab – with a burst of radiation which burns everyone, makes their hair fall out and gives mild radiation sickness – which they are advanced enough to be able to cure. The experiment shows that:

  1. someone else has sent a probe through and is conducting similar experiments
  2. it may be possible to survive the catastrophe but not in human form, maybe not with human consciousness
  3. the date of The End is precisely three years away, 2 June 4104

The main characters hold a valedictory meal at which Amalfi announces that he is going to travel on planet He as it heads towards the metagalactic centre, to which Mark announces that he wants to say on New Earth to put its affairs in order, Dee says she’ll stay with Mark, Jake the astronomer will also stay, but Estelle, Jake’s daughter, and Web, Mark and Dee’s grandson, announce that they want to accompany Amalfi on He.

The book contains complex emotional relationship elements which I struggled to give a damn about. Earlier we had learned that Mark and Dee’s marriage is hollow: he is too busy working and ignores her. She has taken a succession of waif and stray women into the household, I didn’t quite understand whether these were supposed to have been lesbian affairs. When they went to He together Amalfi declared her love for Dee and she told him all this, but refused to leave Mark. Now on this final evening on New Earth, Amalfi takes Dee for a walk and they have a lover’s quarrel, not least because Dee spots that Amalfi is in love with Estelle, who must be nearly a thousand years younger than him!

They agree to meet up in New York’s old control tower and ask the City Fathers. The City Fathers advices Mark and Dee, and Web and Estelle, and Amalfi to all go on with He to the metagalactic centre. But surprise the humans by saying that they, the City Fathers, should be taken too.

Somehow, not very logically but by narrative sleight of hand, Blish persuades us that it is vital that He get to the Metagalactic centre before the ‘opposition’, the rivals who had also sent a probe through into the anti-matter universe… do something, or win something, though that something is left vague. These rivals are named the Web of Hercules, although what that means is also left very vague.

The metagalaxy is described as the centre of the original Big Bang which brought the universe into being. Now planet He is hurtling towards it. The physicists speculate that, by being there at a place of stasis within a dynamic universe there might, just might, be some equivalent in the anti-universe, and might be some possibility of outliving the coming destruction.

The situation as we see it is this: Anything that survives the Ginnangu-Gap [the name they’ve given the annihilation of the universe] at the metagalactic centre, by as much as five micro-seconds, carries an energy potential into the future which will have a considerable influence on the re-formation of the two universes. If the surviving object is only a stone – or a planet, like He – then the two universes will re-form exactly as they did after the explosion of the monobloc, and their histories will repeat themselves very closely. If, on the other hand, the surviving object has volition and a little manoeuvrability – such as a man – it has available to it any of the infinitely many different sets of dimensions of Hilbert space. Each one of us that makes that crossing may in a few micro-seconds start a universe of his own, with a fate wholly unpredictable from history.’ (p.591)

First of all planet He arrives at the dead centre of the universe as indicated by the cessation of all external signals and information. All the controls in the control room on the peak of He’s highest planet go into overdrive and are cut off. Amalfi is consulting the City Fathers on what to do next, when the entire planet comes under attack from the Web of Hercules. So far as I understood it, they use tendrils of anti-matter to deliver fatal doses of radiation sent from control machines as much as a light year away.

In a twist, Miramon, leader of He, announces a physics-chemistry weapon they possess but hadn’t mentioned which eats away at these rays. They unleash it and watch the corrosive poison creep back up along the rays, eliminating them, presumably as far back as the control rooms, presumably eliminating the Web of Hercules.

It is is difficult to follow the hard science explanations but I think the Web of Hercules appeared, and was dealt with, in just a couple of pages. Hazleton announces that all the main characters have received fatal doses of radiation and have only a few weeks to live, but he and Amalfi bitterly joke that it’s alright – the universe itself is set to expire in ten days, and counting…

The final chapter is just four pages long and describes the end of the universe which is very simple. They go through the instructions one last time and climb into spacesuits. When the moment of annihilation of the present universe comes, the spindizzies will operate at peak performance for a few micro-seconds during which the half dozen of them, here at the core, the centre of the annihilating universe – Mark, Dee, Estelle, Web, Miramon and Amalfi – will have a split second to create new universes. The clock ticks down. The City Fathers say goodbye. The end comes instantly and completely. Amalfi is aware of the others and their human emotions. But he has lived long enough, seen the universe of human suffering, he wants to try something else.

What would happen if he just touches the detonator button on his spacesuit, blows himself up, and lets all the elements of which he and the suit are composed flash into the plasma which will form the basis of a new universe?

He touched the button over his heart.
Creation began. (p.610)

Quite a mind-blowing end.


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1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The Perfect Theory by Pedro G. Ferreira (2014)

On page three of this book, astrophysicist Pedro G. Ferreira explains that part of what enthralled him as a student studying the theory of relativity was the personalities and people behind the ideas.

I felt that I had entered a completely new universe of ideas populated by the most fascinating characters. (p.xiii)

This is the approach he takes in the 14 chapters and 250 pages of this book which skip lightly over the technicalities of the theory in order to give us an account of the drama behind the discovery of the theory. Ferreira describes relativity’s slow acceptance and spread among the community of theoretical physicists, many of whom went on to unravel unexpected consequences from his equations which Einstein hadn’t anticipated (and often fiercely opposed). He shows how the theory was eclipsed in the middle years of the century by the more fashionable theory of quantum physics, then underwent a resurgence from the 1960s onwards, until Ferreira brings the story right up to date with predictions that we are trembling on the brink of major new, relativity-inspired, discoveries.

This book isn’t about the theory of relativity so much as the story of how it was devised, received, tested, studied and expanded, and by whom. It is ‘the biography of general relativity’ (p.xv).

Thus the narrative eschews maths and scientific formulae to focus on a narrative with plenty of human colour and characters. For example, early explanations of the theory are dovetailed with accounts of Einstein’s opposition to the Great War and the political attitudes of Sir Arthur Eddington, his chief promoter in Britain, who was a Quaker. A typically vivid and grabby opening sentence of a new section reads:

While Einstein was working on his theory of general relativity, Alexander Friedmann was bombing Austria. (p.31)

Some reviews I’ve read say that – following Stephen Hawking’s example in his A Brief History of Time (1988) – there isn’t a single equation in the book, but that isn’t quite true; there’s one on page 72:

2 + 2 = 4

is the only equation in the book – which I suspect is a joke. For the most part the ideas are explained through the kind of fairly simple-to-describe thought experiments (Gedankenexperimenten) which led Einstein to his insights in the first place – simple except that they are taking place against an impossibly sophisticated background of astrophysical knowledge, maths theories, weird geometry and complex equations.

Timeline

In 1905 Albert Einstein wrote a number of short papers based on thought experiments he had been carrying out in his free time at his undemanding day job working in the Berne Patent Office. The key ones aimed to integrate Newtonian mechanics with James Clerk Maxwell’s force of electromagnetism. His breakthrough was ‘seeing’ that space and time are not fixed entities but can, under certain circumstances, bend and curve. (It is fascinating to learn that Einstein’s insights came through thought experiments, thinking through certain, fairly simple, scenarios and working through the consequences – only then trying to find the mathematical formulas which would express essentially mental concepts. Only years later was any of it subjected to experimental proof.)

The book gives a powerful sense of the rivalry and jostling between different specialisms. It’s interesting to learn that pure mathematicians often looked down on physicists; they thought physicists too ready to bodge together solutions, whereas mathematicians always strive for elegance and beauty in the equations. Physicists, for their part, suspect the mathematicians of coming up with evermore exotic and sometimes bizarre formulas, which bear little or no relation to the ‘reality’ which physicists have to work with.

So the short or ‘special’ theory of relativity – focusing on mechanics and electromagnetism – was complete by around 1907. But Einstein was acutely aware that it didn’t integrate gravity into his model of the universe. It would take Einstein another ten years to integrate gravity into his theory which, as a result, is known as the general theory of relativity.

Ferreira explains how he was helped by his friend, the mathematician Marcel Grossman, who introduced him to the realm of non-Euclidean mathematics devised by Bernhard Riemann. This is typical of how the book proceeds: by showing us the importance of personal contacts, exchanges, dialogue between scientists in different specialities.

For example, Ferreira explains that the ‘Hilbert program’ was the attempt by David Hilbert to give an unshakable theoretical foundation to all mathematics. Einstein visited Hilbert at the university of Göttingen in 1915, because his general theory still lacked complete mathematical provenance. He had intuited a way to integrate gravity into his special theory – but didn’t have the maths to prove it. Eventually, by the end of 1915, in a process Ferreira describes as Einstein dropping some of his ‘intuitions’ in order to ‘follow the maths’, Einstein completed his general theory of relativity, expressed as a set of equations which became known as the ‘Einstein field equations’.

In fact the field equations were ‘a mess’. A set of ten equations of ten functions of the geometry of space and time, all nonlinearly tangled and intertwined, so that solving any one function by itself was impossible. The theory argued that what we perceive as gravity is nothing more than objects moving in the geometry of spacetime. Massive objects affect the geometry, curving space and time.

Almost before he had published the theory (in an elegantly compact three-page paper) other physicists, mathematicians, astronomers and scientists had begun to take the equations and work through their implications, sometimes with results which Einstein himself strongly disapproved of. One of the most interesting themes in the book is the way that Einstein himself resisted the implications of his own theory.

For example, Einstein assumed, on the classical model, that matter was spread evenly through the universe; but mathematicians pointed out that, if so, Einstein’s equations suggested that at some point the universe would start to evolve i.e. large clumps of matter would be attracted to each other; nothing would stay still; potentially, the entire universe could end up collapsing in on itself. Einstein bent over backwards to exclude this ‘evolving universe’ scenario from his theory by introducing a ‘cosmological constant’ into it, a notional force which pushed back against gravity’s tendency to collapse everything: between the attraction of gravity and the repellent force of the ‘cosmological constant’, the universe is held in stasis. Or so he claimed.

Ferreira explains how the Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter was sympathetic to Einstein’s (gratuitous) cosmological constant and worked through the equations, initially to support Einstein’s theory, but in so doing discovered that the universe could be supported by the constant alone – but it would contain very little matter, very little of the stars and planets which we seem to see. Einstein admired the maths but abhorred the resulting picture of a relatively empty universe.

In fact this was just the beginning of Einstein’s theory running away from him. The Russian astronomer and mathematician Alexander Friedmann worked through the field equations to prove that the perfectly static universe Einstein wanted to preserve – and had introduced his ‘cosmological constant’ to save – was in fact only one out of many possible scenarios suggested by the field equations – in all the others, the universe had to evolve.

Friedmann explained his findings in his 1922 paper, ‘On the Curvature of Space’, which effectively did away with the need for a cosmological constant. His work and that of the Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, working separately, strongly suggested that the universe was in fact evolving and changing. They provided the theoretical underpinning for what astronomers had observed and named the ‘de Sitter effect’, namely the observation, made with growing frequency in the 1920s, that the furthest stars and nebulae from earth were undergoing the deepest ‘red shift’ i.e. the light emanating from them was shifted down the spectrum towards red, because they were moving away from us. Even though Einstein himself disapproved of the idea, his theory and the observations it inspired both showed us that the universe is expanding.

If so – does that mean that the universe must have had a definite beginning? When? How? And could the theory shed light on what were just beginning to be known as ‘dwarf stars’? What about the bizarre new concept of ‘black holes’ (originally developed by the German astronomer Karl Schwarzchild, who sent his results to Einstein in 1916, but died later that year)?

What Einstein called ‘the relativity circus’ was well underway – and the rest of the book continues to introduce us to the leading figures of 20th century physics, astrophysics, cosmology and mathematics, giving pen portraits of their personalities and motivations and describing the meetings, discussions, conferences, seminars, experiments, arguments and debates in which the full implications of Einstein’s theory were worked out, argued over, rejected, revived and generally played with for the past 100 years.

We are introduced:

  • To Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar who proposed a sophisticated solution to the problem of white dwarfs and how stars die – which was rejected out of hand by Eddington and Einstein.
  • To the Soviet physicist Lev Davidovich Landau who proposed that stars shine and burn as a result of the radioactive fission of tremendously dense neutrons at their core (before he was arrested for anti-Stalin activities in 1938).
  • To J. Robert Oppenheimer who read Landau’s paper and used its insights to prove Schwarzchild’s wartime idea that stars collapse into such a dense mass that gravity itself cannot escape, and therefore a bizarre barrier is created around the star from which light, energy, radiation or gravity can emerge – the ‘event horizon’ of a ‘black hole’.

These are the main lines of research and investigation which Ferreira outlines in the first quarter or so of the book up to the start of World War Two. At this point, of course, many leading physicists and mathematicians of all nationalities were roped into the massive research projects run in America and Germany into designing a bomb which could harness the energy of nuclear fusion. This had been thoroughly investigated in theory and in observations of distant galactic phenomena – but never created on earth. Not until August 1945, that is, when the two atom bombs dropped on Japan killed about 200,000 people.

Learnings

Some of the several fascinating things to learn from this mesmerising account are:

  • How often Einstein was wrong and wrong-headed, obstinately refusing to believe the universe evolved and changed, refusing to believe (therefore) that it had an origin in some ‘big bang’, and his refusal to accept the calculations which proved the possibility of black holes.
  • That although a great genius may devise a profound theory, in the world of science he doesn’t ‘own’ it – there is literally no limit to the number of other scientists who can probe and poke and work through and analyse and falsify it – and that the strangeness and weirdness of general relativity made it more liable than most theories to produce unexpected and counter-intuitive results, in the hands of its many epigones.
  • That after early successes, namely:
    • predicting the movement of the planets more accurately than Newton’s classical mechanical theory
    • showing that light really is bent by gravity when this phenomenon was observed and measured during a solar eclipse in 1919
    • inspiring the discovery that the universe is expanding
  • the theory of relativity was increasingly thought of as a generator of bizarre mathematical exotica which had little or no relevance to the real world. We learn that ambitious physicists from the 1930s onwards preferred to choose careers in the other great theoretical breakthrough of the 20th century, quantum physics. Quantum could be tested, experimented with and promised many more practical breakthroughs.

Almost everyone’s attention was elsewhere now, enthralled by the triumph of quantum physics. Most of the talented young physicists were focusing their efforts on pushing the quantum theory further, looking for more spectacular discoveries and applications. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, with all its odd predictions and exotic results, had been elbowed out of the way and sentenced to a trek in the wilderness. (p.65)

  • And so that Einstein, now safely ensconced in the rarefied atmosphere of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, dedicated the last thirty years of his life (he died in 1955) to an ultimately fruitless quest for a ‘Grand Unified Theory’ which would combine all aspects of physics into one set of equations. He was, in the 1940s and 50s, an increasingly marginal figure – yesterday’s man – while the world hurried on without him. He died before the great revival of his theory in the 1960s which the second part of Ferreira’s book chronicles.

Visualisation

Again and again Ferreira shows how the researchers proceeded – or summarises the differences between their approaches and results – in terms of how they visualised the problem. Thus Schwarzchild’s vision of a relativistic universe described a spacetime that was perfectly symmetric about one point; whereas 40 years later, in 1963, New Zealander Roy Kerr modeled a solution for a spacetime that was symmetric about a line (p.121). A different way of visualising and conceiving the problem, which led to a completely different set of equations, and completely different consequences.

Other scientists take an insight like this, a new vision with accompanying new mathematics, and themselves subject it to further experimental modeling. The Soviet physicists Isaak Khalatnikov and Evgeny Lifshitz took Oppenheimer and Snyder’s 1930s model of a star collapsing – which assumed the shape of the star to be a perfect sphere – and modeled what happened if the star-matter was rough and unequal, like the surface of the earth. In this model, different bits collapsed at different rates, creating a churning of space time and never achieving the perfect collapse into a singularity modeled by Schwarzchild 60 years earlier or by Kerr more recently. This Soviet model was itself disproved by Roger Penrose, who had spent years devising his own diagrams and maths to model spacetime, and submitted a paper in 1965 which proved that ‘the issue of the final state’ always ended in singularities (pp.123-125).

And that is how the field progresses, via new ways of seeing and modeling. One revealing anecdote is how, at a conference in the 1990s on the newly hot topic of ‘dark matter’, one presenter put up a slide listing over one hundred different models for how dark matter exists, is created and works (p.192), all theoretical, derived from different sets of equations or observations, all awaiting proof.

It is not only the complexity of the subject matter which makes this such a daunting field of knowledge – it is the sheer number and variety of theories, ancient and modern, which its practitioners are called on to understand and sift and evaluate and which – as the first half makes plain – even the giants in the field, Einstein and Eddington, could get completely wrong.

The 1960s and since

In Ferreira’s account the 1960s saw a great revival of the theory of general relativity to explain the host of new astronomical phenomena which were being discovered and named – joining black holes and dwarf stars were pulsars, quasars and so on – as well as new theoretical micro-particles, like the Higgs boson. Kip Thorne called the 60s and 70s the Golden Age of Relativity, when the theory provided elegant solutions to problems about black holes, dark energy and dark matter, singularities and the Big Bang.

Over the past forty years or so new theories have arisen which take and transcend general relativity, including string theory (which rose to prominence in the 1980s but has since fallen into unpopularity) and supersymmetry (which invokes up to six extra dimensions in its quest for a total theory), loop quantum theory (where reality is comprised of minute loops of quantum gravity which bind together like chainmail), spin networks (frameworks like a children’s climbing frame, devised by Roger Penrose), Modified Newtonian Dynamics (or MOND) or a new theory to rival Einstein’s named the Tensor-Vector-Scalar theory of gravity (TeVeS).

When Ferreira and colleagues undertook a review of theories of quantum mechanics they discovered there are scores of them, ‘a rich bestiary of gravitational theories’ (p.221).

The great ambition is to incorporate quantum gravity into general relativity in order to produce a grand unified theory of everything. Although clever people bet this would happen before the end of the 20th century, it didn’t. 17 years later, we seem as far away as ever.

Thirty years after Stephen Hawking predicted the end of physics and then unleashed his black hole information paradox on an unsuspecting world, there isn’t an agreed-upon theory of quantum gravity, let alone a complete unified theory of all the fundamental forces. (p.205)

Ferreira draws together various developments in theory at the sub-atomic level to conclude that we may be on the brink of moving beyond Einstein’s vision of a curving spacetime: the real stuff of the universe is, depending on various theories, a bubbling foam of intertwining strings or structures or membranes or loops – but certainly not continuous. Newtonian mechanics still work fine at the gross level of our senses; it is only at extremes that Einstein’s theories need to be evoked. Now Ferreira wonders if it’s time to do the same to Einstein’s theories; to go beyond them at the new extremes of physical reality which are being discovered.

Notes

The deliberate non-technicality of the text is compensated by 18 pages of excellent notes, which give a chatty overview of each of the chapter topics before recommending up-to-the-minute websites for further reading, including the websites and even Facebook groups for specific projects and experiments. And there is also a detailed bibliography of books and articles.

All in all this is an immensely useful overview of the ideas and debates in this field.


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