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Embracing Nature’s Imperfections

Lee Smolin

A TEAR AT THE EDGE OF CREATION: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe. Marcelo Gleiser. xviii + 283 pp. Free Press, 2010. $25.

We live in an era of the personal: Fiction is often structured as a character’s journey of discovery, memoirs are hugely popular, and in the wake of the “new journalism” of Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Truman Capote and others, it is not unusual for the author of a work of nonfiction to include himself or herself as a character. In some of the best recent writing by scientists, such as Janna Levin’s A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines and João Magueijo’s A Brilliant Darkness, the disembodied voice of authority has been abandoned for a more novelistic style in which the author’s search for knowledge is part of the story. A very good addition to this literature is Marcelo Gleiser’s A Tear at the Edge of Creation, which uses a personal story—a dialogue between the author and his younger self—to structure an important and provocative argument about the direction of current science.

Gleiser is an accomplished theoretical physicist who holds a distinguished chair at Dartmouth College. His book tells the story of his change of mind about what real science is. Like many people who go into theoretical physics, he began his studies with a fantasy of discovering hidden truths that, when expressed in beautiful mathematical equations, would speak to him of unification and symmetry. He found he was good at this kind of work, and he experienced scientific and professional success. Nonetheless, he came to wonder whether the search for hidden unities in nature is driven more by metaphysical fantasy than by the actual results.

Indeed, the results of the search for unification over the past several decades have been disappointing. In the early 1970s theoretical physicists invented what is known as the Standard Model of particle physics, which unifies some, but not all, of the forces in nature and balances nature’s highly symmetric features with its strangely asymmetric ones. In 1975 it was widely believed that this model was just a temporary consolidation of recent discoveries that would soon by superseded by a more unified and symmetric “Grand Unified Theory.”

Remarkably, this didn’t happen. The first such theories to be proposed made predictions that were quickly falsified, and later ones made no predictions that anyone knows how to test. What we thought was a narrow ledge offering a place to camp for the night, on the way to a summit of much greater beauty, has turned out to be our ramshackle home theoretically, and we have been stuck there for more than 35 years.

It is possible that this is only a frustratingly long but still temporary setback and that proposals for further unification will turn out to be correct. Certainly most theoretical particle theorists think so. We expect to learn a lot from experiments that have just gotten under way at the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva and at various deep underground laboratories with dark-matter detectors. But it is also possible that the search for further symmetry and unification has been mistaken, and that the right lessons to draw from the Standard Model reside in its asymmetries and unrealized unities. This is what Gleiser has come to think, and he includes in the book a fascinating report of his exploration of the asymmetries of nature.

Whether one agrees with Gleiser’s central argument or not, it is a pleasure to follow his reasoning because the book is so beautifully written. The prose is elegant and his touch is light. It is a cliché of mediocre popular science writing to open and close with a personal story that has obviously been tacked on at the last minute at an editor’s insistence—“Last week I took a walk and was struck by the beauty of nature and that reminded me of two years ago when an idea suddenly came to me as I listened to a talk at a conference.” But Gleiser’s personal story is integral to his book, although it never intrudes on his argument. It is the story of a child who grew up in Brazil, became a scientist and then was blessed with children who taught him to see the world again through the eyes of his younger self. It helps the argument along because it is the real story of the evolution of the thinking of an intelligent and reflective scientist.

The impression of the author that comes through is that of a kind person who cares deeply for science and also for humanity. His wish is that we scientists jettison our dysfunctional arrogance, which is grounded in certainty that we are on the right track, and replace it with a modesty that is based on a respect for nature and for the challenge of making real progress. Beauty is as important for Gleiser today as it was for his younger self, but now he looks for it differently. His ideal is no longer a pristine mathematical beauty that is hidden behind appearances and must be captured in equations that only experts can appreciate; instead, he is moved by the manifest beauty of nature that is present to the senses—acacia branches forming “a makeshift roof of bright yellow flowers,” the sea heaving “like a giant living being.”

The focus on the real is important for Gleiser because he worries that the belief that the beauty of the world is hidden leads us to dangerously undervalue nature and to fail to appreciate the fragility of the world we live in. He connects our insufficient response to the dangers that face us, such as climate change, to the spirit of scientific arrogance that has led us to continue to search for hidden unities in spite of the experience of the last decades. He hopes that if we become more in touch with the natural world around us, we will care more for it.

Some of Gleiser’s argument is based on pointing out instances in which our reasoning has been subverted by metaphysical hopes and fantasies. He argues that the belief that the universe is governed by beautiful equations is a residue of monotheism. He also suspects that the widespread belief among scientists that the universe is teeming with life is a projection of our hope that we are not alone in a vast, cold cosmos. For him, life in the universe and real insight into nature are both rare, and each is that much more precious for its rarity.

Gleiser’s is an important voice, and readers who care about the future of fundamental science should listen to it and respond. Here is how he summarizes his case:

It became clear to me that scientists and seekers of perfection from all walks of life have been courting the wrong muse. It is not symmetry and perfection that should be our guiding principle, as it has been for millennia. . . . The science we create is just that, our creation. Wonderful as it is, it is always limited, it is always constrained by what we know of the world. . . . We may search for unified descriptions of natural phenomena, and we may find some partial unifications along the way. But we must remember that a final unification is forever beyond our reach. . . . The human understanding of the world is forever a work in progress. That we have learned so much, speaks well of our creativity. That we want to know more, speaks well of our drive. That we think we can know all, speaks only of our folly.

Whether you resonate with this perspective or think it is dangerously mistaken, I recommend reading the case Gleiser makes for it.

What comes next? Even if one gives up on the search for unification via the largest possible symmetry, there are still perhaps other kinds of perfection we can search for. Leibniz argued that perfection lies in maximizing the variety rather than the symmetry of nature. Perhaps the physical world has more in common with Darwin’s ever-evolving tangled bank than with Plato’s timeless forms.

Even if Gleiser is ultimately mistaken about what science can accomplish, I suspect he is less wrong than those who carry blindly into the 21st century a philosophy of science that has not yielded dramatic results since before today’s young scientists were born. Perhaps the Large Hadron Collider will give evidence of a further unification. But what if the results increase our puzzlement? A commonsense adage advises that it is foolish to keep doing the same thing and expect the results to suddenly one day be different. If a scientific methodology was once useful but has ceased to yield progress, of course we should experiment with different methodologies. And we must question the philosophical preconceptions that gave us confidence in the old methodology. At the very least, as a place from which to start the search for a new approach, there is a lot to recommend Gleiser’s modest appreciation of the beauty of nature as it manifests itself to us directly.

Reading A Tear at the Edge of Creation, I am reminded of the words of the Somali-Canadian singer K’naan: “Any man who knows a thing knows / He knows not a damn, damn thing at all.” Gleiser and the artist draw from their ruefully gained modesty the same lesson: “Generosity is the key.”

Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist on the faculty of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (of which he is a founding member) in Waterloo, Canada. He is the author of The Life of the Cosmos (Oxford University Press, 1977), Three Roads to Quantum Gravity (Basic Books, 2001), and The Trouble with Physics (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

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