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Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Time Event
6:09a
Doom and gloom ...
I don't know if I've mentioned it in the context of a review as yet, but once again this winter I took advantage of the after-after-holiday sale at Barnes & Noble, and got in a slug of books. I have, in the past, done this at the local store (where I happen to be writing this), but this year the sale came to my attention via the computer, so I sallied forth to the B&N web page to see what could be found … of the $1.99 special books. I ended up getting 13 assorted titles, which (of course) put my order into that delightful free shipping zone, which was a good thing because the shipping would have been pushing twenty bucks on the order! Why do I detail this? Well (aside from adding some color and personal narrative, of course), there is a significant difference between books I bought because they were $1.99 and books I've ordered because I was interested in obtaining that particular book. Obviously, I'm not likely to order (even at under two bucks) a book in which I have no interest in reading, but frequently these books are not the most compelling (to me, at least) reads. On the plus side, it does lead me to pick up titles which are somewhat “outside the box” from my typical studies.

The current book, Paul Davies' The Last Three Minutes is not particularly in this category, as I have another ten books by him in my library … but it is something that I would likely have not gone in specific search of. The title is a play on Steven Weinberg's book The First Three Minutes (which deals with the Big Bang and the very early development of the universe), this being a look at the end of the universe, although only a couple of scenarios have anywhere near the focus of a given three minute period!

As regular readers of this space know, I read a fair amount of “popular” (as opposed to academic) books on physics. One of my issues with Davies is that he frequently seems to be over-simplifying his coverage of subjects, providing a (this is purely my bias speaking, I suspect) a grade school version as opposed to an “non technical” college-level rendition of the subject. Being that Prof. Davies is a university instructor, perhaps he knows better what will succeed in getting through to people in general, but I have read much in the general subject area, and nearly all of that was based on far more detailed analysis.

One notable thing here, however, is his focus on how humanity will be effected by these various doomsday events. Given that nearly all of the occurrences play out over many billions of years, most sensible people would sort of shrug their shoulders and say “what are the odds of us making it that long?”. However, Davies (I just discovered) is a Templeton Prize recipient, which puts much of his orientation into that “with a grain of salt” zone, as this prize is given (in Richard Dawkins' phraseology) "usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion" … which would also go a long way to explain the tone of his Are We Alone?, which puzzled (and irritated) me at the time I was reading it!

Anyway, the book primarily deals with the “big two” universal death scenarios, endlessly expanding into a cold, empty void, thinly spread with the burned-out ashes of stars, galaxies, and possibly evaporating black holes, or reaching an ultimate expanse at which point gravity begins to win at everything starts coalescing back towards a fiery conflagration and an eventual massive singularity. There are also assorted other theories mentioned, including one that I'd not really encountered previously which asks something along the line of “what if this isn't the stasis state” and that assorted key parameters of the universe were simply in temporary states that might suddenly “tunnel through” to a more stable configuration which would involve phase shifting into states where, for instance, matter as we know it couldn't exist. Ooops.

Again, his focus is very much on how our descendants might deal with these various existential threats, which seems to be to be almost bizarrely anthropomorphic. There have been substantially better discussions of this in other books which posit “some galactic civilization” of some sort that had been around for billions of years attempting to address these challenges. Here one gets the sense that Davies is imagining Biblically-created human beings and not some functionally unimaginable product of environmental (or bio-engineering … although he does address that possibility) evolution over remarkably vast stretches of time.

A U.S. paperback edition of The Last Three Minutes is still in print (the copy I got from B&N was, oddly enough, a U.K. paperback), so you could perhaps find this at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, but I'd recommend going through Amazon's new/used guys, who have “very good” copies for as little as two cents (plus shipping). Unless you were looking for a very “introductory” introduction to these concepts, you could do better book-wise, so why spend the money on the “Templeton-tainted” watered-down version?


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