The Cosmic Web by J. Richard Gott

The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe by J. Richard Gott (Princeton, 2016) 255 pages

TCW Gott

After a sex book last time (Full Service), I don’t feel bad in plucking a physics (ok, astrophysics) book off the pile this time. I love books like this, and I just bought one that will make a good comparison to Gott’s ideas in a few weeks….so stay tuned. You can compare this book to Frank Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question as well, but considering the smallest things in the world instead of the largest.

Not too long ago, astronomers knew as much about the structure of the universe as anyone can tell from looking up at the sky. The Earth seems to be suspended in the middle of a big sphere of stars, with a few wandering things that turned out to be planets (Copernicus put them circling the sun instead of everything orbiting the earth). There was this big cloudy lane called the Milky Way through the sky, really thick in Sagittarius, and a few smaller cloudy blobs scattered here and there, again with a lot toward the south.

Once telescopes came along, Da Vinci saw that the Milky Way consisted of myriads of small stars, presumably dim because they were so very far away. So the universe grew a lot bigger a couple of hundred years ago. And it’s been growing ever since, as the initial chapters of Gott’s book points out.

Remember those cloudy blobs? Those are other “island universes” like the Milky Way. And it turned out that the sun wasn’t even in the center of the Milky Way, it’s sort of way out toward the rim, as determined by some of those blobs, which turned out to be globular clusters that formed a kind of halo around the center of our galaxy.

Why does any of this really matter? Well, in a sense it really doesn’t, except that the fact that humans can figure it out is very, very cool. But in the big scheme of things, sometimes I think only the geeks and nerds really care. It reminds me of an old joke I heard in college: the professor says “yes, science has determined that the sun will burn out in 4 billion years, ending all life on earth…” and a sleepy student in back goes “What! That’s horrible!” And the professor says “well, but 4 billion is a lot of years…” and the student says “Oh, that’s ok then…I thought you said 4 million years.” Now, why anyone would really worry about anything happening that far in the future when we don’t usually worry about what will happen in 10 years (Global warming? What global warming?) is of course the joke.

But I think that our knowledge of the structure of the universe at the largest scales, like our understanding of the universe at the smallest atomic scale, can help us to figure out how humans fit in. It’s an odd fact that we happen to be suspended about halfway between the smallest and largest things we know about. Maybe it’s our job, in some sense, to figure it all out. Or not.

Anyway, this book costs about thirty bucks (but you can find it cheaper), but it well worth it just to look at the 16 color plates that Gott has assembled to illustrate our knowledge of the universe as it stands today.

In a real sense, the purpose of Gott’s text is to get you to understand what you are looking at when you examine the incredible beauty of Plate 5, a yellow and bright gold group of filaments that shows how galaxies flow in the “Laniakea Supercluster.”  And there we are, a little red dot, not to represent our planet or even our galaxy, but our whole group of galaxies. It’s a big universe out there. (Laniakea means “immeasurable heaven” in Hawaiian: we live in a place as beautiful as a tropical paradise.)

Gott was one of the first people to figure this large-scale structure out. The universe is a sponge it seems, with big bubbles or voids or more or less empty space and thin veils of galaxies forming the material of the sponge to keep it all from falling apart (kidding: it can’t really fall apart, andeverything is pretty isolated anyway.

Much of the central text describes the infighting between US scientists, who favored a model where the galaxies form walls and clusters in space, and the Russians, who favored a model where the galaxies form a honeycomb and the voids are the “clusters” in some sense.  If this bores you, and it was tough going in places, just look at the pictures and read that pages that reference the color plates. Our home is a beautiful place.

The blurb on the jacket promises that Gott’s work on distant galaxies and surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey will supply “vital clues” on both the origin of the universe and “the next trillion years” that stretch out ahead. So don’t worry about the universe going away anytime soon. Now, the sun, on the other hand…we’re doomed!

Addendum: Let me add a few words about the numbers million-billion-trillion because astronomers and politicians tend to throw those numbers around without any real appreciation of what it all means.

OK, I used to say when I taught this stuff, everyone wants to win a million dollars in the lottery. What if you could win a million dollars in a lottery every day of your life? How long would it take to win a billion dolloars? Well, a billion is a thousand million (and a million is a thousand thousand, of course). There are 365 days in a year, so it will take about 3 years to win a billion dollars (there’s no winner on Sunday if you want to make the numbers fit a bit better).  Three years at a million dollars a day. How long for a trillion? Well, a thousand billion is a trillion, and at a million dollars a day it will take 3,000 years to win a trillion (the national debt of the USA is about 19 trillion dollars, by the way).

When I used to teach this, given Bill Gates of Microsoft’s age and net worth at the time, it turned out he was making a million dollars a day since the day he was born.

So the next time you see anyone use the terms million-billion-trillion as if they were somehow the same type of thing as a dollar bill and a ten and a hundred, take a minute to make sure they understand just how much that is, and how big the universe is.


A Beautiful Question by Frank Wilczek

A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design by Frank Wilczek (Penguin Press, 2015) 430 pages.

ABQ Wilczek

I read this book because I read Wilczek’s previous book from 2008 called The Lightness of Being. Unlike 90% of the books I read, this 2008 book stays on the shelf right beside me, mainly because of Plate 6, which shows a color representation of the collision of quark and anti-quark, two constituents of elementary particles such as protons. These appear not as little balls as we often imagine atoms to be, but two smudges of barely visible gray. As they collide, they flow into green and red clouds and knots of condensed energy (Einstein showed that mass is a form of “frozen energy”), finally ending up as a thing known as a “pi meson.” I keep it handy to remind myself that deep down, this often grungy-appearing universe we inhabit is stunningly beautiful when seen the right way.

Everything is light, says Wilczek’s 2008 book (hence the title), and this 2015 book follows up with the fact that not only is everything energy and light, but that it’s beautiful as well. Not only in terms of color, but in a mathematical sense: particles and forces array themselves in neat arrays governed by a few principles. But this is jumped ahead a bit…let’s start with the 2015 book itself.

It is certainly fitting that a book on the beauty of reality is a beauty of a book. And all for a hardcover list price of about 30 dollars, and a discount price less than 20 (there is also paperback edition at about the same price as the hardcover). The dust jacket has a cutout that reveals the front cover itself: a beautiful antique full-color reproduction of the circumpolar constellations, balanced by a pure white rear cover.

Inside, you’ll find not one but two full-color sections of illustrations, from Plate A to Z and then from Plate AA to AAA (ZZ wraps to AAA). There are also 43 text figures, although these are not in color. That’s 96 of them in all, many more times as many than you would find in a typical science-oriented text.

How come? Two reasons: First of all, Wilczek is a Nobel Prize winner with a couple of best-selling science books to his credit (this book is the #1 Bestseller in Quantum Theory at Amazon). Second, Wilczek is a heck of a good writer. If anything, people who read about physics or have read his previous books might grow impatient at how the author patiently travels through 2500 years of science and mathematics to get to the point where readers can easily follow his main point, if not how modern physics has established it all (that would require some heavy-duty math, I’m afraid).
This is not just a book: it’s almost a textbook. The main text ends on page 328, and is followed by Acknowledgements and more than 100 pages in six other sections. These are a Timeline of main discoveries, Terms of Art (a kind of glossary), Notes, Recommended Reading (both classical and modern), Illustration Credits (all those color plates, mainly), and an Index. The Terms of Art are most valuable, in case you forgot what the electromagnetic fluid is (he prefers the term “fluid” to the more common “field”) or what an Axion is (it’s what Wilczek won the Nobel for, of course, and he knows it was a laundry detergent—but the international physics committees didn’t). I always have to look up hadrons and leptons, so it helps to have all this right at your fingertips.
So the book is a bit of a wild ride. Where does it end up? Basically, at Plates TT through XX, explained on pages 260 to 305 (actually, Plates RR and SS set the whole climax up).
It’s important to note that while Wilczek can tell us what the current “Core Theory” consists of—he does not like the more common description if what we think we know as the “standard Model”—no one, even a Nobel Prize winner can tell us why the universe is the way it is.

For example, if you look at Plate RR, you find that the universe consists of six fundamental “entities” and three fundamental forces. He calls them “entities” because we really have no idea what they “really” are. We know they aren’t little billiard balls that spin around (although, confusingly, they have a property called “spin” that carries their angular momentum). Not only that, but these “entities” repeat our normal “reality” at two higher energy levels. Why? No one knows—yet.

So protons are made up of three quarks. At our everyday energy levels, these are the up and down quarks. Add energy, and you can make a “super proton” out of the strange and charm quarks. Still more energy, and you get a “super duper proton” made out of top and bottom quarks. (They wanted to call them “truth” and “beauty,” but that would just be silly, right?)
Each “family” gets a type of electron and neutrino to go with it, but there are only three major families. Why? It might have something to do with quarks carrying electric charges in thirds (like +1/3), but maybe not. In fact, there might even be a fourth family that has eluded us.

So the whole book is really a package to allow the readers to understand Plates VV and WW. These extend the idea of symmetry (as among the three families above) from what we currently know is real to what Wilczek would like to see as the “ideal” ultimate reality. And scientists might be getting very close.

You might think that quantum physics is one of those things you can just ignore and things will take care of themselves, like when driving your car. If the “check engine” light ever comes on, you can take it to the mechanic and let them worry about it. Quantum effects were once thought to be absolutely limited to things so tiny that what scientists call “quantum weirdness” would never intrude on our world or everyday reality. But now it seems that photosynthesis, cellular protein and DNA processes, and even computers of the future all might be tied up with to quantum theory. (See, for example, Life On the Edge in this series.) Once, calculus was a mathematical magical mystery understood by only a handful of people in the world. Soon, a basic appreciation of quantum physics might be a pre-requisite for something as simple as graduating from high school.

But don’t worry about getting lost: just reach for Wilczek’s A Beautiful Question. 🙂

I liked this book because science books often emphasize what we know and pretend what we don’t know isn’t really there. Everything is “just so”: logical and in its place. Like going to see the neighbor’s house for the first time and the living room is neatly done, the kitchen spotless, and all the beds made. Then you hear a bump and a scrape and you go “What’s in the attic?” and the neighbors go, “Oh, no one knows what’s in the attic. We haven’t got a ladder to climb up there yet. But it’s probably not very important or interesting.” But every visit, the noises get louder and louder until they can’t be ignored.

Read this book to see how messy—but still beautiful—the universe we live in really is.

Spooky Action at a Distance by George Musser

Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time–and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything by George Musser (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015) 286 pages

SAAAD Musser

I’ve been told—and by more than one person—that I have a kind of knack for explaining complicated concepts in a way that is understandable to people who are not familiar with them. So I have a real interest in how other writers attempt to accomplish this, because I know it’s not an easy thing to do. It has to look easy, but a lot of thought goes into this kind of exploration.

Musser is a general science writer of some note, and he’s won awards for his work with Scientific American magazine. This is a good thing, because what he is attempting to explain here is one of the trickiest concepts to modern physics for general readers and even physicists to grasp: the nonlocal aspects of the universe we live in.

Really? Physicists don’t even grasp nonlocality? That’s more or less what Musser claims (pages 3 and 20) when he notes that his own professors didn’t mention nonlocal “spooky action” once during classes. He had to hear about on the street (well, in a non-textbook) instead of in school.

So what is “spooky action at a distance” and nonlocality? And why is it so upsetting to many modern physicists? Nonlocality is the idea that what happens here, locally, depends not only on the things that can act on the space we have in front of us, but things that are impossibly far away, perhaps even at the edge of the universe. These effects occur faster than light, in fact, instantaneously, and so constitutes not only “action at a distance” such as the moon raising tides on earth, but “spooky action at a distance” because the space between here and there makes no difference in the size of the effect at all.

The “spooky” phrase and title comes from a comment by Einstein, who was disturbed that quantum theory allowed photons of light to become entangled and then separate much farther than any signal could travel between them (no information can be sent faster than the speed of light), yet still have measured values that were coordinated. In other words, if one photon is polarized in the up direction, the other must be polarized in the down direction.

Now, you’re probably thinking what I did when I heard about this phenomenon: what’s the big deal? Isn’t it like have a red and blue ball and putting them in boxes? If you take them to the opposite ends of earth, and open one box and find the blue ball, then the other one must be red, right? What’s the surprise in that? Ah, but if you think of it that way, you would be wrong. Quantum theory was needed because scientists realized that atoms and such could not be tiny versions of regular things like balls (page 8). Otherwise, atoms would explode and so on. To make theory fit with measurements, quantum theory had to take a radical step of proposing that certain physical characteristics, like polarity, could not have fixed values until they were measured.

So it’s not that one ball is red and the other blue from the start: both balls are a mix of “redness and blueness” until the measurement (the opening of and looking into the box) occurs. Then the observed ball “pops” (or quantum jumps) to red or blue and, of course, the other ball must “pop” to the opposite value.

But what does all this “nonlocal” talk mean? Well, Einstein and other physicists have long fretted that if we can’t isolate systems in space during experiments, and influences can travel across the universe in no time at all, then there is no point is doing physics at all (page 11). Something deeper than we know knits the fabric of the world together. But for now, we have no idea what this might be.

Musser uses “magic” coins as an example throughout the book: entangled coins, when flipped, will land both heads or both tails after they have been entangled and separated much more often than chance requires (page 103, among other places). This difference between chance and observation is known as “Bell’s inequality” because Irish physicist John Stewart Bell first formulated nonlocal effects for entangled photons and particles (pages 101-105).

I’m not sure coins are a good analogy for nonlocal effects. I read a very good explanation years ago that showed conclusively why there could be no “hidden variables” that explained the effect. In other words, Bell’s inequality showed that there can’t be little “arrows” attached to the photons that tell observers if the photon is up or down. The percentage of predicted matches in that case will not be the same as the observed percentage.

I realize I am being very opaque about these effects, but that’s because Muller is. There is a rule in publishing general science books today that you can’t mention math or show equations. You can talk about Bell’s inequality, but you can’t show it. I am not sure it’s possible to convey a real feel for “spooky action” without showing any math at all. But I guess it’s better than ignoring nonlocal effects and pretending that’s it’s not a problem for modern physics. (Some physicists shrug and say “it’s weird but who cares? It’s not like you can use it to communicate faster than light…” page 107.)

The real value of Musser’s book is that he not only tries to give readers a feel for the issue, but takes things a step further. He shows how nonlocality pops up not only in the case of purposeful entanglement, but in other contexts as well.

Once thought to be restricted to entangled photons and subatomic particles, Musser show how nonlocal effects seem to play a role in the way Black Holes operate. Black Holes cannot decay, it seems, by Hawking radiation without nonlocal effects making this energy escape possible (page 25). There’s no real surface to a Black Hole, which makes it difficult to decide what’s in and what’s out unless there are nonlocal effects. And without a nonlocal early universe, even with cosmic inflation, the Big Bang should not have left us with the pattern of cosmic microwaves that we see (page 33).

What would the new, nonlocal, physics look like? Musser spends the last sixty pages or so musing about a theory of “Quantum Graphity” (page 184) where space is more complex that a gird of points, and the the “Amplituhedron” (page 203), which bends time and space in new ways. A quote on page 206 from physicist Rafael Sorkin says “A star is closer than yesterday” and shows how far we have come from Newton’s mechanical universe.

Here’s something to think about when I talk about another popular scientist writing about physics next week: Maxwell’s equations. You don’t have to know anything about them for new, just know that the equations as we have them today are not the ones that Maxwell originally formulated (page 143). That’s because Maxwell originally allowed things like electric potential to get values from nonlocal effects. That bothered Hertz and others so much that they rewrote the equations as soon as they could to banish nonlocal aspects.

And that’s the thought I want to leave you with: nonlocal “spooky action” is scary to some, and they would rather “shut up and calculate” (page 20) and work around it than to address it head on and figure out what it is trying to tell us about the universe we live in.