California Literary Review

Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes – by Alex Vilenkin

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April 22nd, 2007 at 9:17 am

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Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes
by Alex Vilenkin
Hill and Wang, 235 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Lacking Wonder

For as long as I can remember, astronomy and aviation have both been a preoccupation of mine. As an adult, I simply call these hobbies. But as a small boy I was introduced to astronomy by Chesley Bonestell’s The Solar System. The book came with a phonograph record narrated by Walter Cronkite who takes the reader on a guided tour of the planets and other heavenly bodies. I was thrilled. Playing the record and following along after I returned from school, the book opened up the night sky to my imagination.

I also recall coupling my fascination with space with a profound respect for the sense of wonder that my incessant gazing at the stars elicited. As childhood gave way to adulthood, I came to the realization that my greatest attraction to astronomy was cosmology. However, our sense and intuition for the sublime does not have to end with our trek through the years.

Curiously, my initial impression of Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes reminded me of this maiden sense of wonder. But first impressions can often be misleading. The book is divided into four parts, comprising a total of nineteen chapters. Beginning with the question of the origin of the universe, the reader is introduced to the story of the big bang – that is – what the author calls the “science of creation.” From there the reader is next introduced to Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Gravity, the distribution of matter in the universe, and the speed of light quickly follow – all key elements of the book. These topics are addressed clearly, often aided by pictures, graphs and diagrams. The book covers the major theories that address the origin of the universe. It does a fine job of explaining big bang, steady state, string theory and wormholes, to name just a few theories.

But this sterile, one-dimensional treatment of man in the cosmos is precisely why my sense of wonder began to fade as I progressed through Many Worlds in One. Unfortunately most physics and astronomy books are the result of an exaggerated physicalism that asserts that only matter and its derivative properties exist. Their authors are often like ostriches that, keeping their head in a hole, their vision anything but panoramic, give way to theories that are often coerced in the laboratory. So too goes our grounding in the sublime.

Many Worlds in One is a good example of an astro-physics book. It is a fine rendition of this “genre,” as this serves the physics-minded, take-no-prisoners materialist. But have no grander illusions. After reading, sampling and studying numerous books on astronomy and astrophysics, few, with the notable exception of Sir Arthur Eddington, and more recently Paul Davies manage to surpass the debilitating arrogance that asserts something akin to: “I am a physicist, I have a PhD. and thus the universe ostensibly behaves as I say it does – and, this, all of the time.”

As we read on we realize what dead end, over-specialized, academic, and make-work theories can lead to: intellectual sterility. A sharp example of this arrogance takes place in a chapter titled “The Modern Story of Genesis” where the author asserts: “It is truly remarkable that we can observe the universe as it was 14 billion years ago and accurately describe the events that took place a fraction of a second after the big bang.” A fraction of a second, no less! This seems like a great candidate for hyperbole. This conclusion would seem laughable, if it weren’t so self-centered, regardless of what our readings of background radiation may suggest. We can hardly solve crimes, predict hurricanes or make a soufflé with the degree of “accuracy” and within a “fraction” of certainty that the author asserts, imagine then claiming this of the origins of the universe. It seems that all solid science begins with respect for the sublime, and dare I say, the mysterious. How we have progressed to the vacuous arrogance of assuming omnipotence hardly seems a viable staple of good – if not sincere science. The latter being more a reflection of individual scientists than the laws of physics in many instances.

A simple embrace of humility can easily have us assert that in many cases – “we simply do not know.”

As a book of theoretical physics, that is, how physicists construe the universe today, Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes remains a competent, professional and very worthy work. Of this there can be very little doubt. But depending on our demands of upholding our current thinkers to attempt a well-rounded, holistic view of the cosmos, this work will seem like just another example of unimaginative and crass philosophical materialism at work. It simply lacks inspiration and wonder.

  • Victor de Botton

    How true!
    Sterile is the word.
    Furthermore pretentious and disconnected to humanity.
    Who allows them to use mathematics, a human created discipline, to describe the universe, much older than any human?
    If their “theories” cannot make the link then they are sterile and dead ended.
    The important thing I did when developing the “Theorem of movement” was to close the loop at the end of the theorem and deduce from the theorem that human thinking is of the same universe as movement exactly as stars and planets and atoms and photons.
    Victor de Botton | Email | Homepage | 09.19.06 – 2:18 am | #

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