An image of an event in CERN’s CMS detector during the search for the Higgs boson – which Gleiser does not feel unifies things for us mortals.

I will admit that I was attracted to this book on my library’s shelf by the cover and title: A Tear at the Edge of Creation by Marcelo Gleiser.  It sounds poetic, though I could see it was no poetry book.  The book’s subtitle (it seems that all non-fiction books require them these days) is also appealing  A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe. That almost sounds like a self-help, new age book – but it’s not either of those things.

Gleiser is a physics and philosophy professor. His major argument is that all things exist because of random imperfections. We are talking here about primordial asymmetries and just plain old outright accidents,

On the philosophical side, the search for universal truth is very old and it has not lost its appeal. On the science side, everyone has probably heard of a similar quest for the underlying “oneness” that connects all things. Albert Einstein became quite obsessed at the end of his life in finding the one theory that would tie it all up neatly.

That kind of obsession gets its claws into modern philosophers and regular folks the same way it hooked alchemists and prophets in ancient times.  Physicists and string theorists are headed in that direction too.

A description of the book on Amazon.com says that: “We would cross a bridge from Occam’s razor to quantum theory on a path of symmetry and elegance toward a grand, unifying Theory of Everything place, just over the horizon, where the physical laws governing very large bodies (Einstein’s theory of relativity) and those governing tiny ones (quantum mechanics) unite in a single, orderly framework.”

Gleiser’s advice would be to stop looking for some elegant equation or theory that explains it all, because the universe is much messier. A popular Einstein quote is: “God does not play dice with the universe.”  Albert was not an immediate fan of quantum theories that promoted randomness and improbability.

Albert probably wouldn’t enjoy reading A Tear at the Edge of Creation or the idea that the idea of a Unified Field Theory is probably fundamentally misguided. The elements in the mix are more likely imbalance, asymmetry, and imperfection.

You also need to be pull the “God” word out of Einstein’s quote. (Of course, Albert did not mean God in any religious sense anyway.) But this book does not ignore the science. In fact, it was really some basic and also some on-the-edge science that led to Gleiser’s turn to doubting the existence of a unifying theory.

In a recent article, Gleiser looks at what has happened in the three years since he published the book (now newly released in paperback) One thing that happened was the discovery of the Higgs boson. But he doesn’t see that discovery or its claims of unification as complete.

In a Q&A on his publisher’s web-site, he was asked “How did you come to write Tear at the Edge of Creation?” and his reply may sound rather depressing for any seekers reading this: “After years searching for a “final” answer, as a scientist and as a person, I realized that none exists. The force of this revelation was so intense and life transforming that I felt compelled to share it with others. It completely changed the way I think about Nature and our place in it.”

There is no answer.

Then again, all is not lost. The title of that article he wrote is “Imperfection Makes The Universe Beautiful.” We live in an imperfect universe.  It is a rip – a tear – at the edge of the universe, not a tear of sadness.  Enjoy it.

Advertisements