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‘The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way’

March 26, 2020
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At first glance, the disciplines of science and philosophy would seem to be mostly distinct. To put it simply, science is about considering how the world works, while philosophy is about considering why the world works the way it does. Again, an oversimplified explanation, but close enough.

What the two share, however, is that deep-seated desire to unpack the secrets of the universe. And in some cases, the line of demarcation can become considerably more difficult to find.

In “The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way” (Doubleday, $26.95), author David Lindley posits that in the bleeding edge world of theoretical physics, that line is all but erased. He walks the reader through a quick-hit history of science and how our conception of what “science” even is has evolved from the philosophical beginnings of the Greeks, growing into something observationally and experimentally based over the centuries, only to relatively recently push so far into the theoretical realm as to circle back round to its thought-driven underpinnings.

That might sound a bit heavy, but Lindley has a real gift for narrative; it’s rare for science writing – even pop science aimed at a broad audience – to be this readable and engaging. Lindley pushes us through the history of science via a handful of touchstone figures, giving us a crash course of sorts. From the early work of Galileo up through the pure-math musings of today’s physics giants, we’re along for the ride.

Basically, up until Galileo came along in the seventeenth century, there really wasn’t anything in the intellectual world that resembled “science” as we understand the term. Essentially, any understanding of the workings of the world was still directly connected to the Platonic and Aristotelian mindsets from centuries prior. All scientific knowledge – such as it was – was essentially rote, pulled from the conclusions of the ancient Greeks. Galileo changed all that with a notion that, while seemingly common sense today, was revolutionary for the time: to base our concept of the universe on what we ourselves can observe, rather than pure thought.

And thus, science was born.

A number of intellectual titans followed the path first pointed out by Galileo. Kepler. Newton. Maxwell. Faraday. And of course, Albert Einstein. All of these men built their own groundbreaking ideas upon the foundations left by those who preceded them. Even as the concepts that they pursued moved more and more into the realm of the theoretical, their work was still based in that notion of observation and experimentation.

But then comes quantum theory, which in many ways utterly upends the study of physics as we know it. The ideas generated in quantum physics steered the discipline into the hard curve toward pure thought. Concepts such as string theory are driven by complex, esoteric mathematics; they are built on the elegance of numbers rather than observed phenomenon.

And so, at the highest levels, physics has become an ouroboros of sorts, devouring its own tail; rather than a line with philosophy at one end and physics at the other, the journey is a circle that ends at its own beginning.

“The Dream Universe” offers a compelling walk through physics history, curated and narrated by a true rarity – a gifted writer who is also a qualified scientist. Lindley’s dual qualifications make him the perfect person to put forward a book like this. Tackling material like this is one thing; doing it while also making it accessible to the layperson is quite another. Yet this book reads easily, even when it occasionally delves into the more esoteric aspects of its subject matter.

We as humans have always been curious about the fundamental operations of the world around us. Over the centuries, that curiosity has led us toward more and more accurate pictures of those operations. But as we gain understanding of the observable, the unobserved becomes even more important. And to contemplate the unseeable, we must redefine what it means to observe.

Ultimately, no matter how deeply we drill down, the universe will always be some variation of Plato’s Cave, a place where we can only strive to learn about the shadows in hopes of one day comprehending that which casts them. That’s the takeaway from Lindley and “The Dream Universe,” this idea that no matter how much we discover, there’s more to uncover – and a multitude of tools with which to dig.

Last modified on Thursday, 26 March 2020 10:55

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