Every star shall sing a carol?

by
22 December 2016

Adam Ford considers the debate on the nature of the universe

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A Fortunate Universe: Life in a finely tuned cosmos
Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes
CUP £18.99
(978-1-107-15661-6)
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

 

OUR daily lives — eating breakfast, reading the papers, going to work — may seem humdrum and ordinary; but dig a little deeper into the laws of nature and you begin to realise that they are truly extraordinary. How did we come to be here, drinking this cup of coffee?

A Fortunate Universe is basically a book of physics, written by two scientists who are fascinated by the question “Why are we here?” The language is straightforward, the style is easy, often witty, with short digestible paragraphs, and yet the subject-matter is inevitably dense and demanding. The reader has to be prepared to delve into probability theory and all the mysteries of the fundamental-particle zoo of leptons and quarks, quantum theory and dark energy, carbon resonance and proton decay.

The authors approach their question by examining the funda­mental properties of the universe — the electron and proton mass, the strength of the force of gravity, and so forth — and exploring how things would have worked out in a multitude of alternative universes if these constants were altered in any way. Sterility seems to be the sur­prising result, everything disappear­ing, for example, into black holes or spreading thinly throughout space in a lifeless hydrogen soup.

An outrageously narrow range of numbers defines a universe that has the conditions necessary (such as generating stars that create the necessary chemistry for evolution to get started) for intelligent life to emerge. Why are the constants
of nature so finely tuned that we can sit here and ask the question?

It is pleasing to come across the line “we do not know” so regularly in this book about the fundamentals of science, which echoes the book of Job, where God addresses his ser­vant with the words “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . Who decided its dimensions, do you know?” When science reaches its limits, we have to consider a different kind of explana­tion for why the laws of nature are as they are, and why they are so finely tuned for the emer­gence of intelligent life.

At the very end of their book, the authors explore some theology through a chatty dialogue, while sitting in a Sydney park at sunset. They wonder if classical arguments for the existence of God have any­thing to say about the fine-tuning of the universe, speculating whether God is a necessary being and whether our sense of truth and morality hint at God’s inevitable existence.

 

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls.

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