By Chet Yarbrough
Narration by: Rob Shapiro
Tail wags dog is a possible headline for Max Tegmark’s highly entertaining book, Our Mathematical Universe. Tegmark is a Professor of Physics at MIT. Tegmark offers a theory of cosmology that posits the insignificance of human beings and the advance of cybernetics (automatic controls of the nervous systems and brains).
Tegmark explains that when traveling alone and meeting a stranger that asks what he does, he says he is either a physicist or astronomer. If Tegmark desires conversation, he says he is an astronomer; if he does not, he says he is a physicist—a somewhat funny observation but inadvertently demeaning and condescending. Today’s fellow traveler is just as likely to ask a physicist questions as an astronomer. Judging the substance of Our Mathematical Universe, a fellow traveler’s questions and Tegmark’s answers would be equally interesting.
Our Mathematical Universe begins with a series of questions that would be interesting to most human beings; e.g. is the universe infinite, is there more than one universe, are we alone, did the big bang explode at a speed faster than the speed of light, is time relative, are we made of stardust, is the big bang a singular event that created the universe, what triggered the big bang, what was there before the big bang, will the world end with a bang or a whimper; etc.
Tegmark offers interesting answers to all questions asked at the beginning of the book. The answers are clearly explained but often border on misanthropy, if not lunacy. Many people are willing to acknowledge humans are not the center of the universe but Tegmark concludes humans are mathematical equations derived from particles held together by dark matter and energy. Tegmark suggests that human’ senses–sight, hearing, touch and smell–are an illusion; i.e. a movie with a beginning and end, signifying nothing but an agglomeration of atomic particles defined by mathematics. A logical extension of that conclusion is that there is no difference between a human being and a programmable machine.
Tegmark’s conclusion reinforces Ray Kurzweil’s suggestion that the future of human genetics is a meld of computer capability and human’ DNA. However, rather than Kurzweil’s belief that humans and computers are different, Tegmark suggests DNA is merely a more complicated mathematical construct than a computer’s software. Tegmark infers human’ existence is already, in essence, a conglomeration of ones and zeroes.
Tegmark discusses parallel worlds, the theory of cosmic inflation, the big bang, and the history of cosmology with admirable clarity. Einstein’s theory of relativity, Planck’s quantum theory, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Schrodinger’s wave equation theory, and string theory are clearly explained before Tegmark’s conclusions about a mathematical universe. Tegmark answers the questions noted earlier–he argues that the universe is infinite; there is a multi-verse (many worlds in other dimensions);
the big bang did exceed the speed of light but does not negate the truth of Einstein’s dictum that nothing exceeds the speed of light;
time is relative with a belief that one can go forward and backward in time; humans are made of star-dust but star-dust is just another mathematical reality; big bangs are not singular events but are like bursts of limb’ growth on an infinite tree with new universes created with each new limb or “bang”; big bangs are triggered by high-compression and temperatures that explode into cosmic clouds that clump together based on dark matter and dark energy to create new universes,
and finally, earth will end in a whimper with human recognition of the mathematical essence of life.
This is a fascinating book, lauded by many, and panned by some. (See Peter Woit criticism http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=6551)
For a perspective on physics and cosmology, The Mathematical Universe, is a TOUR DE FORCE. For entertainment, The Mathematical Universe is as good as it gets.