Thursday, September 8, 2011

THE BOOK OF UNIVERSES and David Eagleman's SUM

"What is the universe? Where did it come from? Where is it heading? These questions sound simple but they are amongst the most far-reaching that have ever been posed. Depending upon how much you know, there are many answers to the question of what we mean by ‘universe’. Is it just everything you can see out in space – perhaps with the space in between thrown in for good measure? Or is it everything that physically exists? When you draw up the list of all those things to include in ‘everything’ you start to wonder about those ‘things’ that the physicists call the ‘laws of Nature’ and other intangibles like space and time.'

"Although you can’t touch or see them, you can feel their effects, they seem pretty important and they seem to exist – a bit like the rules of football – and we had better throw them in as well. And what about the future and the past? Just focusing on what exists now seems a bit exclusive. And if we include everything that has ever existed as part of the universe, why not include the future as well? This seems to leave us with the definition that the universe is everything that has existed, does exist and will ever exist."

That's the eminently qualified scientist John D. Barrow in The Book of Universes (2011), a history and summation of the various universes as put forward by many of the leaders of that branch of science.  A smattering few of them:  Schrodinger's universe, Godel's spinning universe, Einstein and Rosen's undulating universe, the static universe, the chaotic universe, the inflationary universe, the eternal universe, the random universe, the probable universe, the wrap-around universe, the quantum universe, the self-creating universe, and many, many, more.

He neglects to mention the theories of some other scientists, also eminently qualified, such as those who have advocated the theory that the universe is based upon consciousness--for instance Roger Penrose's  Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe and Robert Lanza's Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.

I can understand why Barrow doesn't go into the many universes drawn in religion, myth, and fable--in Frazer's The Golden Bough (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin), say--nor into those imagined by the authors of science fiction, though he allows that such imagined universes are prettier than the one we have, the one we scientifically observe but about which we still have the same persistent questions.

Which brings me to David Eagleman's little known gem,  Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (2009), forty different cosmological explanations of the universe.  Some feature God or gods in some aspect while others feature different explanations, but all are playfully astute and fun to read.

I've a fondness for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and long ago I compiled a list of related works at Amazon, at this link.  So while I enjoyed all of Eagleman's various explanations, my favorite has to be this one, entitled "Mary":

When you arrive in the afterlife, you find that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley sits on a throne.  She is cared for and protected by a covey of angels.

After some questioning, you discover that God's favorite book is Shelley's Frankenstein.  He sits up at night with a worn copy of the book clutched in His mighty hands, alternately reading the book and staring reflectively into the night sky.

Like Victor Frankenstein, God considers himself a medical doctor, a biologist without parallel, and He has a deep, painful relationship with any story about the creation of life.  He has much to say about bringing animation to the inanimate.  Very few of his creatures had thought deeply about the challenges of creation, and it relieved Him of the loneliness of His position when Mary wrote her book.

The first time He read Frankenstein, He criticised it the whole way through for its oversimplification of the processes involved.  But when He reached the end he was won over.  For the first time, someone understood Him.  That's when He called for her and put her on a throne.

...Unlike the other animals, who experienced each day like the one before, Man cared, sought, yearned, erred, coveted, and ached--much like God Himself.  He marveled as Man picked through the ground and formed tools.  The invention of musical instruments reached God's ears like a symphony...He felt His joy turn to trepidation as they began to scrap and brawl...He quickly discovered He had less control than He thought.

The bright colors of His ground were darkening with Man's blood, and there was precious little He could do about it...the voices of Man reached Him with pleas for help, entreaties for aid against one another.  He plugged His ears and howled against the cries of pillaged villages, the prayers of exsanguinating soldiers, the supplications from Auschwitz.

This is why He now locks Himself in His room, and at night sneaks out onto the roof with Frankenstein, reading again and again how Dr. Victor Frankenstein is taunted by his merciless monster across the Arctic ice.  And God consoles Himself with the thought that all creation necessarily ends in this:  Creators, powerless, fleeing from the things they have wrought.

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