Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What a Strange Universe it Seems to Be

Questions from sleepless nights as a young boy:
I remember thinking long and hard as a kid about the question "what was there before this world existed?"  Even if I accepted the answer available to me (and almost everyone else) that "God created the world from a "void," this still seemed to leave a mystery . . . what was this "void?"  What really was "nothing?"  I just couldn't imagine what is the absence of everything.
The other question that plagued my wandering young mind was what do you find at the end of space, at the edge of the universe?  A wall? A shimmering  boundary with nothing on the other side?  Again the given answer was that it went on forever, an infinite distance, God has no boundaries.  Again I had a hard time getting my 10 year old mind around that concept.
Now a half-century later, I finally have been given some answers that I can accept, even if I struggle to fully understand the math and physics (Quantum math/physics was never my strong point.)
First Question Answer:  Nothing = the absence of space and time, no matter, no energy.  Just Nothing, but it doesn't last long.
Second Question Answer:  If, searching for the edge of the universe, you look sufficiently far into the distant universe with mathematical binoculars, you will see . . . the back of your head!

Both of these books are well worth reading, but even though they were written for the lay public, the concepts might be challenging if you were a liberal arts college major and have had no mathematics, physics, or science since high school.  Hawking's book is shorter, but has better (and full color) illustrations. while Krauss' book gets further into the margins of cosmology, and offers alternative theories (for example he talks about string theory, but admits he personally doubts it is the answer, or even valid.  
I would suggest starting with Hawking and after letting that digest for a while, then pick up Krauss.  Neither of these books worked well for late night reading nor with a glass of wine; a clear daytime mind and a cup of coffee helped me.

So what is the bottom line?  
- Something can come from nothing; in fact nothing is an unstable state, and something will always come from nothing.
- Micro-universes appear all the time, but only when an "expansion" occurs is a universe like ours created.
- Multiple universes likely exist, and they may or may not have the same laws of physics as our universe
- In the presence of almost infinite variety of possible events, as long as an event is not impossible then that event will occur.
- "We" are the consequence of these almost infinite possibilities, though we are pretty insignificant considering the scope of the universe in size (~500 billion known galaxies and ~100 billion suns in each galaxy,) and time (13.72 billion years old now and a life-expectancy of at least trillions of years.)
- This does not mean "God" did not create our world, but on the other hand "God" is not necessary for our universe to exist, unless it is the God of Einstein and Spinoza.

Monday, March 5, 2012

An Escape from the Escape Fiction -


Just read "A Book Forged in Hell" about Baruch Spinoza and his seminal Theological-Political Treatise, written by William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  It is part biography, part a critique of his treatise, and part a discussion of the early days of the Enlightenment.
A number of years ago, I initially became interested in Spinoza because of a comment Einstein made when challenged by the Jewish rabbinical powers as to if he, in fact, "believed in God."  He answered "I believe in the God of Spinoza."  I could not fail to followup this discovery with some reading on Spinoza.  I have read two books on Spinoza previously, but this looked to have a greater potential to dig deeper into his philosophy rather than the story of his life.  It did.
I was concerned that this might be another "philosophy light" as so many books on historic thinkers seem to be these days.  This was indeed reasonably readable, but it was a pretty intense, dissection of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise, with discussions of its relation to the writings of Hume, Descartes and others..  The term "forged in Hell" was actually used by 17th century critics twice.  This work was Spinoza's great hope; he thought it would so irrefutably convince others that any extreme of philosophical thought was proper, and should pose no threat to the religious/political order.  He was severely mistaken, and he was harassed as an heretic, and charged with blasphemy.  This should not have been surprising, seeing the inquisition put Galileo under lifelong house arrest, an act that silenced Descartes, who decided not to publish a very similar treatise on the movement of the celestial bodies.  Blasphemy was still a capital offense through most of Europe . . . Spinoza was just at the dawning of the enlightenment. 
"To the extent that we are committed to the ideal of a secular society free of ecclesiastic influence and governed by toleration, liberty, and a conception of civic virtue; and insofar as we think of true religious piety as consisting in treating other human beings with dignity and respect, and regard the Bible simply as a profound work of human literature with a universal moral message, we are the heirs of Spinoza's scandalous treatise."