Lost in the Cosmos and Seven Brief Lesson in Physics – Review

Walker Percy. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Farrar, 1983. Print.

Carlo Rovelli. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. Trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre. New York: Penguin, 2016. Print.

I read a Walker Percy novel years ago, got a little kick out of it, but never ready anything else by him until a friend gave me Lost in the Cosmos. It is actually listed as nonfiction, and I suppose it is, but there are so many entertaining hypothetical questions in the “questionnaire” portion of the “self-help” material, that it borders on fiction. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Percy wisely and cleverly deals with the contemporary Western identity crisis which, if anything, has gotten more pronounced since he wrote in 1983.

I am mostly going to let Percy speak for himself. He notes that the human being “is the only alien creature, as far as we know, in the entire Cosmos.” (2) Percy uses that word rather than universe or creation because he has fun at the expense of Carl Sagan who used that word in his television show and his books.

He notes many funny things about human behavior as he asks twenty “self-help” questions—many based on complicated scenarios, such as imagining you have just returned to earth after a 400-year near light-speed space voyage—in 260 pages. Like many others, he is aware that people want to learn about things, yet it seems that they feel like they do not belong anywhere. He notes that it appears people wonder “why the autonomous self feels so alone in the cosmos” and “want to believe that chimps and dolphins and whales can speak.” The feeling is, of course, if we could figure out how to converse with other animals (not that it truly is possible), then we would not feel so alone. We make great technical achievements, but also make great messes of the world and of our lives.

Because man is a lonely and troubled species, who does not know who he is or what to do with himself, feeling himself somehow different from other creatures, both superior and inferior—superior because, after all, he studies other animals and writes scientific articles about them, and other animals don’t study him; inferior because he is not a very good animal, is often stupid, irrational, and self-destructive—and solitary in the Cosmos, like Robinson Crusoe marooned on an island populated by goats. Therefore, he would like to discover his place in the Cosmos, discover a man Friday, or, failing that, at least teach goats to talk. (169)

He really points out how foolish materialistic thinking is, yet how so much of the so-called elite like politicians, scientists, and doctors of all kinds take it for granted.

The following incident occurred at Harvard University, presumably a citadel of objective knowledge. I quote from an article by Charles Krauthammer (The New Republic, July 25, 1981): “Several years ago the great Australian neurobiologist, Sir John Eccles, ended a Harvard lecture on brain organization by admitting that although evolution could account for the brain, it could not, in his view, account for the mind, with its mysterious capacity for consciousness and thought: only something transcendent could account for that. The audience began hissing.”

The anomaly lies in the fact that Harvard audiences presumably endowed with mind, consciousness, and thought, and presumably with more intellectual curiosity than most, might have been expected to welcome the views of a famous neurobiologist on the subject—particularly in view of the failure of academic psychology to even address itself to these matters. (166)

A few of notes on this. First, of course, it does illustrate the desire for a merely material explanation for all existence especially among the elite. Why? No accountability. Second, it has been standard practice at Harvard, except among the real radicals who act ugly, to hiss when they dislike or disagree with a lecturer. Third, I can easily imagine Dr. Eben Alexander back in the late seventies or early eighties in such an audience and roundly hissing himself. However, now he knows there is more. He had all kinds of experiences with vivid consciousness for a week when his brain had flatlined.

Four, while there are some Harvard students who are interested in objective inquiry, it is remarkable how many want to use whatever education they acquire to confirm or justify what they already do or believe. As a Harvard graduate myself, I acknowledge the truth in the saying, “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.” (Originally attributed to a president of Yale, who else?)

While Percy apparently got more out of Carl Sagan than I did, he has a very cogent critique of his approach to life in the real world. Much of Lost in the Cosmos is a humorous send-off to materialistic philosophies (he uses the word scientism).

Sagan’s book [Cosmos] gave me much pleasure, a pleasure which was not diminished, (perhaps even increased) by Sagan’s unmalicious, even innocent scientism, the likes of which I have not encountered since the standard bull sessions of high school and college—up to but not past the sophomore year. (201n.)

I had to laugh at that. I think the last time I actually heard someone assert to me that our minds were merely electrical impulses and mere physical response to stimuli—no different from, say, a cue ball breaking up a rack of balls on a pool table—was in such a college bull session. There is no will, free or otherwise. I do not recall whether I was a freshman or sophomore, but it was no older than that. Percy nailed it.

Of course I have read such stuff from time to time since then like I. A. Richards’ interpretation of art or Dr. Alexander’s beliefs before his near death experience. Tom Stoppard has a lot of fun with this in his Arcadia when, among other things, one character asks, “Is God a Newtonian,” and another character goes mad trying to come up with the mathematical formula that will predict the future. Richard Feynman is reported to have said, “You can predict anything if you have enough facts.” But perhaps Samuel Johnson has the last word: “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.”

Percy continues:

So much for the likes of Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Grosseteste. So much for the science historian A. C. Crombie who wrote: “The natural philosophers of Latin Christendom in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries created the experimental science characteristic of modern times.”

So much, indeed, for the relationship between Christianity and science and that fact that, as Whitehead pointed out, it is no coincidence that science sprang not from Ionian metaphysics, not from the Brahmin-Buddhist-Taoist East, but from the heart of the Christian West, that although Galileo fell out with the Church, he would hardly have taken so much trouble studying Jupiter and dropping objects from towers if reality and value and order of things had not first been conferred by belief in the incarnation.

Yet one is not offended by Sagan. There is too little malice and too much ignorance. (201,202n.)

Percy notes that once priests were the spokesmen for understanding life, then it was the artists, now it is the scientists. Still, he would say that we need all three. Scientists understand things, artists understand people, and true priests understand God.

Amazingly, the very next book I read, Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, actually believes that sophomore bull session stuff! Is this a coincidence or what? Will Rovelli have a TV show on PBS?

First of all, while I really did appreciate what Rovelli was trying to do, in all honesty the book is not seven lessons on physics. There are five lessons on physics, one metaphysical speculation, and one sophomore bull session.

Lesson 1 summarizes relativity, especially as it relates to gravity. Like electromagnetic forces, gravity is a field, and its field is space. “Planets circle around the sun and things fall because space curves.” (8) Gravitational waves exist. Space bends around large objects like stars. The more gravity, the slower time passes. The closer to the speed of light, the slower time passes. A very nice summary for a poor layman like me.

Lesson 2 summarizes quantum theory, first by defining a quanta as “packets or lumps of energy.” Quanta like electrons can only take on certain values. When an electron jumps to another orbital (a “quantum leap”) it either releases or absorbs a photon.

Quantum theory also posits the idea that electrons and other quantum particles only exist when interacting with something else. “An electron is a set of jumps from one interaction to another.” (17) Measuring quanta, then, is an exercise in probability. “It is not possible to predict where an electron will reappear but only to calculate that it will pop up here or there.” (18)

Rovelli says that Einstein accepted this concept for what it was but really did not like it. He wanted to believe “that there was an objective reality independent of whoever reacts with whatever.” (19) Rovelli notes that quantum theory says Einstein was wrong about that, yet, ironically, that is precisely what Rovelli asserts in his last “lesson.” Percy says that Sagan says science is self-correcting. Which Rovelli self should we accept?

Lesson 3 The big bang. The universe is made up of millions of galaxies each made up of millions of stars, and most stars have planets. Since the universe appears to be expanding in nearly all directions, Rovelli tells us “The universe began as a small ball and then expanded to its present cosmic dimensions.” (30) This, of course, is theory—and frankly different from what Sagan believed. Though it does present some nice pictures from the Hubble telescope, this is not so much a lesson as a metaphysical speculation. Rovelli gets even more speculative when he hypothesizes that the universe could have contracted like a black hole and then expanded again over and over. I am not sure how that jibes with entropy.

However, if we put lesson one and the less speculative part of lesson three together, we get the hypothesis presented in Starlight and Time. That is, the outer limits of the universe where there is little gravity may be millions of years old, but near the center where the gravity was intense, it may have only been a few days because of time’s relativity with respect to both gravity and light. Interesting.

And it seems that the believers in scientism want it both ways: relative time when it suits their theories but absolute time when they mock Genesis.

Lesson 4 is about quarks. These are even tinier particles that make up neutrons and protons which are held together by gluons. He notes that about 10 such particles make up all of our known reality, both matter and energy. The particles are not so much like small pebbles but quanta of corresponding fields or motion. They are “Miniscule moving wavelets” that “disappear and reappear” and are a “jump from one interaction to another.” (32,33)

Even in empty space with no matter, there is “a minute swarming of these particles.” (33) The mathematical model that appears to work using certain constants and symmetries require “nonsensical predictions where each calculated quantity turns out to be infinitely large.” (34) He does not mention it, but I suspect that is where the 11 dimensional mathematics first comes in.

Lesson 5 is about string theory, what the translators here call loop theory. Relativity and quantum mechanics both work but “the two theories cannot be right… because they contradict each other.” (40) Relativity tells us “the world is a curved space where everything is continuous” while quantum theory tells us “it is a flat space where quanta of energy leap.” I seem to recall Brian Greene calling these flat slices of space membranes, or branes for short.(40)

Scientists have searched for a theoretical set of equations that works for both. Einstein did this in relativity by resolving the apparent differences between electromagnetism and mechanics. Now they hope loop or string theory will do this for quantum and gravitational mechanics.

Loop theory states that space is not continuous, not infinitely divisible, but is a collection of minute grains of space “ a billion billion times smaller than the smallest atomic nuclei.” (41) They form the “texture of space.” They technically are nowhere because “they are themselves space.” (43)

It is interesting to note that equations describing space no longer contain a variable for time. The quantum relationships appear to be “the source of time.” (44)

Hypothetically, a star becomes a black hole but when it gets to a certain small size, it begins to expand again.

Lesson 6 notes that heat is motion. Heat moves from hot to cold and time is involved. In all but the most frictionless movements, the motion can only go one way. We actually determine time by loss of energy. This is not absolute, but based on probability like quantum mechanics. It is like predicting the weather (weather itself, I suppose, is heat exchange on a continental scale) or predicting the exact path of a blown up balloon that has been released to allow the air to escape quickly. We cannot predict what will happen exactly, but we can get an “optimum probability.”

Einstein wrote: “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction made between past, present, and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion.” (60)

This gets us back to entropy. That ultimately means, of course that the cosmos had a beginning and will have an end. Even if the universe came from a black hole-big bang cycle, it could not do that indefinitely. Rovelli comes close to the same trap that Percy caught Sagan in: If the cosmos is all there is and all there ever was, how did it begin? Since it is constantly losing heat, it must have had a beginning.

What happened before the beginning? How did it start? To Percy—and to many of the greatest minds in history—this sounds an awful lot like a Prime Mover.

This also get me thinking about time. If time is really a way of describing entropy, the running down of the universe, then what is eternity? Eternity is timeless (and presumably perfect) because there is no heat loss. Indeed one can look at Einstein’s famous E=mc2 for support. The letter c in the equation stands for the speed of light. Speed is distance over time (in this case miles or kilometers per second). Eternity is timeless, so we can say that any rate in eternity is distance divided by zero, i.e. no time. Dividing by zero means two things: (1) nonsense or (2) infinity. So either eternity is nonsense, or eternity has infinite energy, hence, the power to create and without entropy.

Why did Percy put an emphasis on the Incarnation above? The eternal God became man. He entered time, but also proved the existence of eternity by reversing entropy through his miracles and demonstrating life after death by rising from the dead.

Alas, Rovelli suggests something very different and, ultimately, quite bleak. In Percy’s words, making us feel like the only aliens in the cosmos.

If Lesson 3 is just barely a physics lesson, then Lesson 7 is not a physics lesson at all. There is nothing about physics here. Indeed, it is exactly like the college sophomore bull session that Percy wrote about. I could not believe I read these two books in the same week!

The author, in spite of claiming to have gone beyond Newtonian physics, looks at the brain as a mere machine. He clearly has not contemplated Lost in the Cosmos, read testimony like Proof of Heaven, or ever listened to Sir John Eccles. No, he claims, “an individual is a process: complex, tightly integrated.” (73) When we say human behavior is unpredictable, it is only because our neural networks “are too complex to be predicted.” (74)

I guess it is like chaos theory predicting tornadoes. We are pretty good at predicting the weather in general, but tornadoes are still too complicated, though we are getting better at it. It is not even a matter of free will. Just like that guy in the college bull session, Rovelli suggests there is no such thing as will at all.

There is nothing new under the sun with this. Roger Chillingworth, the evil scientist in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, believed in God in his younger days, but now just saw the world and even human beings as mere machines. Hawthorne says of such scientists:

In their researches into the human frame, it may be that the higher and more subtile faculties of such men were materialised, and that they lost the spiritual view of existence amid the intricacies of that wondrous mechanism, which seemed to involve art enough to comprise all of life within itself. (Hawthorne ch. 9)

Like Roger Chillingworth, materialists such as Sagan and Rovelli appreciate the art or artistry of the universe, but fail to see how it points to eternity, and ultimately, to an artist.

Percy says we are “lost in the cosmos.” We know we belong somewhere else or someplace better. We know we have messed up. He believes the God of Judaism and Protestant and Catholic Christianity has the answer. To him Catholicism is the best interpretation of the answer. Ecclesiastes says that God “has put eternity into the hearts of men.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) There has got to be something more.

Rovelli notes that while we may have a desire for life, there is no afterlife. We are not lost. “We are home.” (79) It is his variation of Sagan’s “The Cosmos is all there is and all there ever was.” If he were not personally so interested in discoveries about physics, it would be very depressing. If you skip lesson seven, you miss very little unless you like those college bull sessions.

The cosmos is a lovely home in many ways, but most of us would agree with Percy that we have made a mess of it. But these wonders that Rovelli describes so well in the five true physics lessons point to something more.

Newton wrote in his Principia:

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being…This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of His dominion he is wont to be called Lord God pantokrator, Universal Ruler… And from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being; and, from his other perfections, that he is supreme, or most perfect. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done. He is not eternity or infinity, but eternal and infinite; he is not duration or space, but he endures and is present. He endures for ever, and is every where present; and by existing always and every where, he constitutes duration and space. (Newton III.504,505)

Like Percy, Gerard M. Hopkins would note that man now ignores God in creation to his own sense of alienation. Why?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
     And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil;

Like the primal curse, man has busily made things unnatural. Nevertheless, Hopkins goes on:

     There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
     O, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
     World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
                    (“Pied Beauty” cf. Psalm 68:13 NIV)

P.S. One possible quibble that some people would have with Rovelli is that he assumes dark matter exists. I am skeptical. Dark matter was first hypothesized to explain the anomaly with Mercury’s orbit. The other hypothesis, of course, was that there was another planet that always had its dark side towards earth and never transited the sun. The hypothetical planet was named Vulcan, most notable today for its use in Star Trek as the birthplace of Mr. Spock.

Einstein proved that neither hypothesis was necessary. He first proved it mathematically by assuming a fourth dimension, and then his theory of relativity was proven experientially when there was a solar eclipse. Rovelli discusses this confirmation of relativity briefly without mentioning dark matter in this context.

A better name for dark matter would be invisible matter. It supposedly makes up ninety percent of the mass of galaxies, yet it undetectable. At least the hypothesized amount of dark matter near the sun was no more than the mass of a small planet. Perhaps physicists should take a hint from mathematics. When mathematicians acknowledged that square roots of negative numbers do not exist but hypothesized their existence anyhow, they called them imaginary numbers. They should call it imaginary matter.

To me, it looks like we are simply waiting for another Einstein, and likely another dimension to solve the problem. Indeed, Israeli physicist Mordehai Milgrom has an alternative model that explains galactic rotation without any invisible dark matter. His hypothesis includes a fifth dimension and may be impossible to prove one way or the other with current technology, but the math works without any hypothetical (imaginary?) extra mass.

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