From Eternity to Here – Sean Carroll

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From Eternity to Here is a “popular” science book with a “witty” literary allusion in its title, clearly an attempt to intrigue, and to broaden the readership.

I have to admit an interest in these sort of popular scientific books – there are some others reviewed on this blog.  I don’t always understand all of them, and its often pretty frustrating to follow a complex argument only to find that, sometimes, an arcane piece of mathematics puts the whole idea out of reach.  At other times writers can explain the most complex ideas very well, but make assumptions about some of the simpler points that still leave me with unanswered questions. Then I’d really like the writer to be there with me!

From Eternity to Here is pretty good at leaving out the maths, but less so on the other issue.  In very brief summary it’s an attempt to explain the direction of the arrow of time – from past to present – by referring to the current state of scientific and philosophical thinking.  Carroll looks at Einstein and Newton, at cosmology and quantum mechanics, at black holes and the big bang, and summarises Hawking and others.  It seems pretty comprehensive and whilst I’d read much the same in other books such as Simon Singh’s Big Bang and Manjit Kumar’s Quantum, this one did offer new insights and explain some things in ways that helped me to understand.  The explanation of quantum mechanics and the way that uncertainty plays a part as scientists attempt to describe the universe was especially helpful, as was the explanation of string theory, if only I could still remember what it was!

The main way in which From Eternity to Here offers a new (to me) approach is that the primary focus is on entropy – the tendency of energy to become dissipated, to move from order to chaos.  This gives Carroll lots of scope for analogy – often to do with breaking eggs or stirring milk into cups of tea.  Once broken they don’t re-form: the arrow of time moves consistently on, with energy moving from a low entropy state – the singularity at the big bang – to a high entropy state – chaos and disorder.  But the question is how did we get to have the low entropy state in the first place?

Now most of us know that there’s an answer to this in the Bible, though many choose to be sceptical:

Genesis Book 1 – see below

I suppose the question is, in the end, does Carroll offer a solution that’s any better, or if not, can he hope to?

I’ve always felt that the explanation of the creation in Genesis is the most convincing in the ancient world.  There are no strange gods with anvils, no animals giving birth to the world. It begins: there was darkness, God created light, he saw that it was good, and separated the dark from the light.  The Big Bang fits quite neatly with this idea of a moment of creation.  Next come water and dry land, then plants, next sea creatures, then land creatures, and then man. Actually, the heavenly bodies were created after the plants, but I don’t think that defeats the argument.  This order of things is pretty much in line with what evolution and the Big Bang theory would propose – at least I don’t see Genesis as excluding evolution unless you are a complete literalist.  Life came from the sea, we are told:

Where did life originate?

How did the writers of the Bible get the order so right?  And can Carroll offer any better, or any hope for improvement?

Well his ideas focus on the existence of multi-verses.  The idea that we may be part of one small universe in an infinity of universes.  This is a common idea in modern science and apparently some of the maths points that way.  But where does this idea take us?  How scientific is it?  How much can we rely on it?

Firstly, read Carroll in his own words:

This is the scenario suggested by Jennifer Chan and me in 2004.  We started by assuming the universe is eternal – the Big Bang is not the beginning of time. That means we can start with any state we like.  (p412 ONEWORLD Edition)

This hypothesis is about as far as it goes.  Carroll comes up with quite a nice idea about how we could be inhabiting just one universe among many in a way that explains away the riddle of entropy.  But that’s just what it is – a nice idea.  He even admits that at the moment there doesn’t seem any possibility that we could find a scientific proof of his hypothesis: after all science is based on testing different hypotheses by close observation and measurement – but how can we possibly observe other universes that, if they exist, are separated from us by the very laws of physics.  Carroll admits this seems impossible but says that developments in science may bring the feat within our reach.

In the end it seems to me we have two alternatives, and both involve belief, or faith.  We can believe in science and its ability to solve all questions with logic and measurement, or we can believe in the Bible and what it says about creation, and indeed about life.

When I was a boy I imagined the vastness of the universe and asked the question – what happens when you get to the end?  I imagined a metal wall – like the inside of a tank or a submarine.  And then I wondered what was outside the tank.  I asked my parents – but they couldn’t answer this question, and neither can Carroll.

The Bible gives an answer that seems suffused with scientific wisdom and understanding going way beyond what we might expect from such a primitive, unscientific age.  It far exceeds any other ancient creation myth in its simple clarity, in its lack of circularity and its apparent scientific accuracy.  I’m not a young man anymore, and for me this element of wisdom and insight is just one example of the way the Bible offers wise solutions to life’s problems.  My experience tells me that the Bible contains infinite wisdom, and that following it leads to health and prosperity.

We should all read it more and take notice – it’s God reaching out his loving hand to the world he created.

The Preposterous Universe – Sean Carroll’s Website

Goodreads Review

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