Before The Beginning: Our Universe and Others
by Martin Rees
Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley/Helix Books, 1997
IBSN 0-201-15142-1 ix+291 pp., Hardcover $25 US/ 33.95 CAN

Beginning with a short forward by his world-renowned Cambridge colleague, Stephen Hawking, this book by Great Britain's official "astronomer royal", Martin Rees, takes us through a surprisingly readable romp through the whole field of contemporary cosmology. Ranging from basic astrophysics to speculations about other universes, Rees manages to introduce us to many of the key figures in this most controversial of sciences as part of this grand tour.

And controversy still largely remains the name of the game. Do "black holes" really exist? No question about it, as far as modern astronomers are concerned. But what about the idea that such "black holes" -- super-dense bodies in space that are so gravitationally compacted that they cannot allow any light to escape from them -- may also function as cosmic "wormholes" linking different parts of the universe through time-loops or serving as thresholds into "other universes"? Such concepts as these, along with discussions of "cosmic strings", (not to be confused like subatomic "superstrings" with ten dimensions which are also discussed), as well as magnetic "monopoles", "twistors" and other such as exotic species seems to belie Hawking's assertion that Rees is less theoretical than himself.

This is not to say that some of these controversies are not more "down to earth", if we may so speak. Several in particular seem to come up time and time again through-out the book -- which is probably a tip-off as to what really are the crucial questions in cosmology today and several of which are closely linked (as also explained in the DIALOGOS #9 essay, Part I).

The foremost of these questions is whether the universe is "open" or "closed". Rees is refreshingly honest when he openly admits that he is among those who like to bet that the universe is in fact "closed" but who do so with full knowledge that finding enough "dark matter" to assure that would happen seems to be a losing proposition. In fact, so honest is he about the problems of reconciling the apparent Hubble Constant (the rate of expansion of the universe) with the lack of enough dark matter to reverse the process, that he seems to have almost unwittingly anticipated a controversial observation (and an even more controversial explanation for it) that has come to light in the year following this book's publication -- that is, not only is the expansion rate not slowing down as much as expected, but that it may actually be speeding up. And if so, the existence of Einstein's famous, but long-repudiated (even by Einstein) anti-gravitational "cosmological constant" may be the only explanation for this phenomenon. In fact, this surprising supposition turns up in at least three places in the book for one reason or another quite independent of last February's announcements.

If this be so, then the whole theory of the "inflationary" Big Bang may have to be drastically revised. Not that this theory has not served us well. It is just that this inflationary effect, as originally proposed by Guth and his colleagues, may now have to be extended far beyond its originally proposed time-scale -- so much so that predictions about the ultimate knowableness of the universe become depressingly pessimistic. While the Hubble radius (i.e., the extent of the observable universe) at least theoretically might catch up with the extent of the actual universe over time, provided the expansion rate be gradually slowing down, should that expansion rate be actually speeding up, then we find ourselves in the position of the small town cop whose old patrol car is hopelessly outclassed by a speeding city slicker with his late model sports car. In other words, at this point we would run into a real cosmological conundrum. While we could continue to speculate about the extent of the universe or even predict the time of its expected demise, there would be no way that we'd ever be around to verify our predictions, even if we made drastic preparations to try to prolong human or other intelligent life elsewhere in the universe long after conditions became uninhabitable here on planet earth.

Which leads more or less directly back to the more theoretical or speculative questions raised by the book, that concerning "anthropic reasoning" -- a term which Rees prefers to "anthropic principle", partly because use of the "principle" implies the invocation of a theoretical supposition rather than an observed phenomenon. Rees believes that the observed phenomena do lead us to conclude that indeed the universe does seem "fine-tuned" to produce life. If so, then how explain this?

One possibility, which would be valid within the confines of our observed universe, is that the discovery or formulation of a "theory of everything" particularly one which would effectively bring together all (and not just three) of the four fundamental forces in the universe would also explain just why it is that the particular constants necessary to support life are in fact the case -- and have to necessarily be so. If this were achieved, then lot of the mystery as to why things are the way that they are, might be solved.

But would that solve everything? Apparently not -- and this is where the whole idea of other universes, or more exactly a "multiverse" -- with each universe, each self-contained in its own space-time continuum, comes into the picture. If such a multiplicity of universes were possible, or more expansively, a virtual infinity of such universes each with its own set of constants, were possible, then there would be no great mystery as to why at least one of them (ours) just happened to have the right combinations to produce life. It is simply a case, much as the Canadian philosopher John Leslie has described in his book "Universes" (London, New York, Routledge, 1982) -- although Rees prefers Leslie's firing-squad analogy -- of something like a thousand monkeys pounding away at a thousand typewriters or on a thousand pianos. Given enough time, eventually one of them just might reproduce one of Shakespeare's plays or a Beethoven symphony.

Only in this case Rees thinks he sees more than just a theoretical possibility, instead he speaks of an "intimation" of other universes in the growing recognition that "black holes" probably do exist in great numbers in our universe, coupled with what seems to be a biological analogy proposed by Lee Smolin -- that these black holes are the seeds of baby universes, with our universe, having so many of them, apparently being better equipped to reproduce itself than other possible universes. This in turn seems to imply that our universe's off-spring will be somehow be more conducive to begetting intelligent life as well. Just why such black holes should be thought of as "seeds" from which other universes are spawned is not very clear, but apparently it has something to do with the conviction that a "closed universe" or universal "big crunch" might have eventually led to a new big bang. That scenario having become more and more untenable, we are now being asked to substitute an infinity of little crunches.

All of which brings us, at least from a theologian's perspective, back to a rather wry remark that Hawking makes about Rees even after assuring us as to how Rees, shying from the strictly theoretical, "has always worked closely with the observations and what they tell us about the universe." Thus, according to Hawking (indulging in a bit of tongue-in-cheek word-play) Rees avoids using "the word God" ... For it is, after all a theoretical concept."

Theoretical indeed! Perhaps it is the scientific theorist's job to give us theory without theos. But as Rees explains, Occam's razor demands "entities not be multiplied" beyond necessity, and that the simplest explanation must be preferred. Thus in this inversion of logic it is deemed simpler to imagine a thousand or more universes that don't work to explain the chance occurrence of one that does, rather than creating what seems to the skeptical to be a deus ex machina that might, in one fell swoop, explain the obvious. This is not to say that Hawking's "God", if we might term it such, meets the criteria of what believers have long worshipped. But it certainly would seem to come a lot closer to a "grand unified theory" in the deepest sense of those words, than thousand of universes with thousands of different sets of constants ever can.

That being said, however, there are times when a highly speculative book like this one, like imagining a thousand monkeys, might prove more entertaining -- when the mood moves so moves us -- than a long session spent probing the subtleties of Shakespeare or contemplating the harmonies of Beethoven.

R.W.Kropf 11/10/98

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