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Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

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11:47p
Space ...
A while back I wrote a rather frustrated review of one of Paul Davies' books (a collection of lectures for a seminar) saying that nothing quite got where it needed to be going. Well, Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life is the flip side of that coin, taking one of those themes and giving it a full examination.

Now, I have to admit that I had a trace of trepidation when picking up this book, as you never know where fundie insanity might raise its insufferable head, and one could certainly get the impression from the title/subtitle of this that it was nudging into "design" territory. Fortunately, this is not the case!

Of course, it can be argued that our particular Universe is mighty fine-tuned (at this particular point in time, in our particular point in space) to allow for the sort of observing creatures as humanity (as well as the other sentient biota of Earth), and Davies takes a good hard look at the number for many of the component parts of that.

As regular perusers of these reviews know, I've read a lot of books in this general genre, and so I'm always pleasantly surprised when I run across something new and this book did not disappoint with that. Among these was the remarkable assertion that the Universe has "zero mass", deriving from the argument that gravity is negative energy (in that one must apply work to counter gravity), and that if one totals up all the gravitational attraction, the number comes out very similar to the estimation of all the mass in the Universe! Cool, huh?

Davies looks at dark matter/energy, hidden dimensions, universal topography, the history of the Big Bang, and various theories, old and new. One point that Davies and I diverge on is the concept of the "Multiverse" ... he seems to be in the camp that feels that it is a philosophical slight-of-hand, where I still hold that it's the most plausible theory (that our Universe is only one among an infinity of other Universes, and the reason we're here to SEE this particular Universe is that it's one that happened to have "the settings" set for our particular type of creature, sort of a modified weak anthropic stance). He does take the "Multiverse" theory and spin off of it, however ... with one fascinating proposal ... in an "ultimate reality" of that sort, there should be "fake" Universes:

... if our universe is part of a multiverse, the balance of probability shifts dramatically in favor of simulation. It's a matter of basic statistics. ... the multiverse allows all possible variations on a theme, including [universes with a supercivilization with immense computational power] able to simulate fake realities. Unless there is some law that forbids emergence of such civilizations ... it is inevitable that some universes like ours will give rise to universe-simulating supercivilizations. These universes will then spawn a vast number of fakes, so that in the total mix of real and fake universes, fake ones will overwhelmingly predominate. Therefore our universe is very, very likely to be a fake.
Speaking as somebody who has spent much of the past couple of years working in Virtual Worlds, this does not seem too extreme a stretch ... because if we're able to produce immersive environments with our present technology, what could a people with many orders of magnitude more computing power than ours create?

Anyway, if you're interested in a solid, but not too technical, dip into the current state of cosmological theories ... you could do a lot worse than Cosmic Jackpot. Davies covers most of the recent thought in the field with enough depth to give you familiarity, but not so much that you're spending all your time trying to wrap your head around the Calabi–Yau manifold (a 6-dimension string topography)! This is still in print, so you should be able to find it at your larger local brick-and-mortar book vendors, however Amazon has it for 34% off of cover, and their new/used guys have "new" copies for as little as $1.41 ($5.40 with shipping). This is hardly a "for all and sundry" book, but if you'd be open to learning a lot about cosmology, I'd heartily endorse this.


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