With most scientists toiling away in corporate R&D labs developing faster computers or smaller mobiles, is anyone still trying to work out where the universe came from and where it’s going?
Paul Davies is at the vanguard of the few scientists for whom knowledge rather than patriotic or commercial advantage is the reward. His books are a return to what science was originally about; curiosity about our world and ourselves.
Applying Newton and Einstein to the big questions of existence, The Goldilocks Enigma expands upon and refers to themes of Davies’ past work like the existence of God and life elsewhere and distils conventional cosmological wisdom about the origins of the universe.
While Davies the scientist is doubtless at the top of his field, it’s up to Davies the writer to present such findings in a way far less flexible minds can appreciate, and that’s his greatest skill as an author. He’s fully aware most of us don’t understand the abstract details of microscience, and while there are several concepts so bizarre you simply have to take his word for them, many are conveyed using visual representations and similar devices that make them surprisingly easy to digest.
The aim of The Goldilocks Enigma is to analyse why life and consciousness have evolved in the cosmos when the chemical mechanics of nature were so stacked against them. A stark example can be found in Davies’ notion that had the big bang been any bigger, matter would never have formed amid the early, all-pervasive plasma. Had it been any smaller, gravity would have crushed the fledgling universe back in on itself. Cosmological history is peppered with such unlikely coincidences, yet here we are. Like Goldilocks and the third bowl of porridge, the universe seems uncannily ‘just right’ for life.
Using the February 2003 thermal mapping of our region of space by cosmologists as a starting point, Davies tells the story of the universe fairly linearly, so The Goldilocks Enigma is unforgiving if you intend to skip ahead through the parts that don’t grab you.
He presents his thesis by telling us the whole story. He describes the likely properties of the universe milliseconds into its life, the latest concepts such as string theory and the bizarre behaviour of subatomic particles, all paving the way for four or five accepted theories on the universe’s bio-friendliness. They range from the monotheistic — the guiding hand of an intelligent creator — to the cutting edge — we live in a ‘multiverse’ where every possible iteration exists somewhere, ours simply that one in a squillion that supports life, hence our awareness of it.
It’s almost a relief when Davies favours a universe where the evolution of intelligent consciousness is hard wired into the laws of nature much like E=mc2. Teleology is the science of causation towards a state, where evolution is said to be completely accidental with no regard for the future. We already know extremes of mass and velocity can manipulate the dimension of time in strange ways, and Davies raises the fascinating possibility that some fundamental ‘life principle’ can act backwards through time, building the teleological principle into the universe. In other words, we were in fact meant to be here.
Those with any religious inclinations will feel a progressive fear of him disproving everything they hold dear — especially when he quotes Stephen Hawking describing humanity as nothing more than a ‘chemical scum on the surface of the Earth.’ But while Davies admits to possibly being a little crypto-religious — the egocentric belief that we are indeed special beings — he backs his claims up with scientific knowledge that seems unassailable.
For all the dispassionate scrutiny, The Goldilocks Enigma isn’t afraid to have a little speculative fun. Davies injects the text with personality, giving the book a spirit all its own. Where else but science could we find a turn of phrase as delightful as ‘deuterium detritus’.
The book has a single shortcoming, which lies as much with the reader as with Davies. His understanding commands such faith in his ideas it’s quite disappointing to realise science still can’t answer the question of why we’re here. The handful of models from contemporary physics Davies presents, however, come as close to doing so as you’ve ever seen before.
But The Goldilocks Enigma’s greatest triumph is rudely lifting you out of your everyday life, making you wonder once more about those big questions — something us egocentric humans do far less the older, wealthier and busier we get.