A Look at the Many Theories of the Universe
The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe(s) Report
By Timothy Ferris
Simon & Schuster
393 pp,. $25
These are dark times for cosmology. Only a few years ago physical science seemed to be on the verge of a "final theory" - the ultimate laws of nature, to use Steven Weinberg's phrase - in the union of the very large and the very small. Quantum relativity, "theories of everything," supersymmetry, and grand unified theories (GUTS) were quite literally in the air. Steven Hawking's "Brief History of Time" ruled the book lists, despite being perhaps the most unread bestseller of its time. Berkeley astronomer George Smoot told the San Francisco Chronicle that discoveries about the cosmic microwave radiation were "like looking at the face of God."
Now it all seems to be unraveling. The "standard model" of cosmology, which tries to find clues to the origin and nature of the universe in the laws of particle physics, seems unable to explain more than a portion of evidence. None of the theories can meet the basic requirements of the scientific method.
Either the hypothesis makes no predictions that can be tested, or such inferences as can be drawn are not supported by astronomical observations.
Timothy Ferris is perhaps the best popular science writer in the English language today. He has followed this story as a close observer for the last two decades. His 1977 book "The Red Limit" helped to introduce a generation of readers to the astonishing discoveries of modern astronomy. In "Coming of Age in the Milky Way" (1988), he traces humankind's changing vision of our place in the universe, from the world-centered cosmology of Ptolemy to the current view, which puts us near the edge of an insignificant galaxy, in an out-of-the-way corner of a not-very-distinguished local cluster of galaxies.
"The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe(s) Report" is his eagerly awaited summary of the latest discoveries and theories about, as the subtitle says, the state of the universe.
But he may be too close to the question to be objective. Ferris explains, with his usual clarity and gift for metaphor, the leading contenders for the "theory of everything." Science has set itself no smaller job than explaining the origin and destiny of the universe. It is hardly surprising that the task has turned out to be harder than expected.
The candidate theories are complex and ingenious, but finally unsatisfying. The most recent setback to the quest was the demise of the multibillion dollar Superconducting Supercollider. Opposition in Congress scuttled a plan to dig a tunnel 50 miles in circumference beneath the Texas prairies.
Ferris is quite explicit about the separation between the methods of physical science and the theological issues inherent in such a quest. He appends a "Contrarian Theological Afterword" to his account, in which he raises the question of "what cosmology, now that it is a science, can tell us about God. Sadly, but in all earnestness, I must report that the answer as I see it is: Nothing.... This does not mean that God does not exist, or that he did not create the universe, or universes. It means that cosmology offers no resolution to such questions."
This is a daring statement, and sure to raise controversy on both sides of the issue. As modern science defines cosmology, however, Ferris is absolutely correct. His account is about our need to understand the patterns of creation. That, finally, the effort must be incomplete does not diminish the grandeur or the meaning of the undertaking.
* Frederick Pratter is a freelance writer living in Hull, Mass.