It was a dream first dreamt in our collective childhood. It was a dream of unity. It was a dream that behind the messy diversity of appearances lay a deeper perfection in which the One would embrace the All.
The Hellenistic Greeks, those great dreamers, were the first to imagine this vision of the world in the colors of mathematics. Pythagoras told us all was number. Plato asked his fellow philosophers to save night sky's appearances by finding the ideal geometric forms that lay behind them.
History changed and the dream changed with it. Centuries later, European scholars living in a Christian universe would find God to be the Whole at the center of the Many. Their philosophical, astronomical and mathematical investigations were heroic attempts to read just a little of the Creators perfect thoughts in the invisible structure of His perfect creation. The wheel of history continued to turn but somehow the dream remained: the Age of Reason; the Enlightenment and onward. Now with mile-long particle accelerators and telescopes perched at the air's edge, we physicists build models of pure math always searching for the single force, the unifying field, the One behind the All.
Through it all no one asks — why?
It's hard to question the foundations of your cherished endeavor. It's hard to even see the biases that guide, bind and hide the metaphysics supporting your basic beliefs. This can be just as true for scientists as for anyone else. If questioning those assumptions is going to take you someplace meaningful you have to have the stomach and the insight for it. Marcelo Gleiser, my fellow blogger here at 13.7, has both. Marcelo's new book A Tear at the Edge of Creation is coming out this week and at the risk of being overly enthusiastic about someone whose work I am clearly enthusiastic about, I wanted to lay out the reasons for my substantial enthusiasm.
A Tear at the Edge of Creation carries the subtitle A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe. The adjective "radical" is well deserved because what Marcelo is arguing for is a profound reassessment of the purpose of science. From classrooms to magazine articles to Nova specials we learn that truth is beauty and beauty in science is to be found in higher and higher levels of mathematical unity. This unity, we are told, will be embodied by ever more abstract symmetries and the equations describing them (which ultimately will neatly fit on a T-shirt).
Marcelo like many of us began his career as a true believer. He beautifully recounts his own journey, his own heart felt desire to read the "mind of God" through physics (though like many of us he is an atheist). But after years of working at the frontier of these ideas Marcelo found his faith shaken. As he writes,
During the past 50 years discoveries in experimental physics have shown time and time again that our expectations of higher symmetry are more expectations than reality
Abandoned the search for symmetries as the ultimate meaning in physics Marcelo turns in the other direction. Using examples from the study of time, space, matter and life he argues that asymmetry and imperfection are just as often the real guiding principle behind what we see. In this way there is lots of good science in Marcelo's book to sink your teeth into.
But A Tear at the Edge of Creation is not your usual popular science book. It does not track through glorious past ages of discovery and show how it all inevitably led to the glory of our present, perched as we are at the edge of momentous discovery.
Instead it takes a critical look at the development of science itself and asks: How have we been blinding ourselves? One of its most important arguments to see the quest for unification for what it is — an impulse with deep roots in the western religious tradition. The aspiration towards a vision of Unity in unifying mathematical physics is nothing less than the mirror image of an aspiration to know the mind of God in all the other ways human beings have explored. This is the unspoken urgency behind the quest for string theories, unified fields and those Theories of Everything.
In writing this book Marcelo is making brave step, asking us imagine a different response to the question — what is science about? Instead of seeking a perfect God's-eye vision of creation, Marcelo returns us to the importance of our own imperfect but cherished perspective — the only one we truly have. What kind of science, what kind of culture and what sense of sacredness in both would that lead us too?