Lead book review

Physicists have stranger ideas than the most preposterous Old Testament preacher

But in The Universe in Your Hand, Christophe Galfard takes the reader by the hand to explain quarks, gluons, parallel universes and exploding suns in a friendly, avuncular-vicar manner

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time and Beyond Christophe Galfard

Macmillan, pp.436, £14.99, ISBN: 9781447284086

Physicists have a nerve. I know one (I’ll call him Mark) who berates every religious person he meets, yet honestly thinks there exist parallel universes, exactly like our own, in which we all have two noses. He refuses to give any credit to Old Testament creation myths and of course sneers at the idea of transubstantiation. But, without any sense of shame, he insists in the same breath that humans are made from the fallout of exploded stars; that it is theoretically possible for a person to decompose on one side of a black hole and recompose on the other, and that there are diamonds in the sky the size of the moon.

The Universe in Your Hand by Christophe Galfard, a young French theoretical physicist and former student of Steven Hawking, is subtitled ‘A Journey Through Space, Time and Beyond’. It could just as well have been called a journey through common sense into preposterousness. ‘A popular science book that aims to explain Quantum Mechanics, General Relativity, String Theory and Parallel Realities using storytelling instead of graphs and equations,’ declares the blurb. Since I last studied physics, as an undergraduate in the 1980s, the subject has lost all pretence of good behaviour: it is now much kookier than anything in the Bible. It took me a week to read The Universe in Your Hand and two weeks to recover from my outrage. My friend Mark’s hypocrisy is immeasurably deeper than I’d realised.

The book opens with a Doom. Picture yourself lying on a beach, begins Galfard, ‘on a faraway volcanic island on a warm cloudless summer night’ — ‘the surrounding ocean is as still as a lake’ and ‘you remember questions you had as a child: what are they, these stars? Why do they flicker? Why should we care?’

For a page and a quarter Galfard lilts along in this soothing tone. ‘Your friends will soon be joining you for a drink.’ ‘A tiny shooting star gently streaks across the sky’. Suddenly, boom!, the next thing you know, you are no longer on the beach but in outer space, floating through emptiness…. A few hundred thousand miles ahead, a ball is flying against a background of tiny distant stars. It is a liquefied planet.

Our sun is about to burst. The liquefied planet is us. Galfard’s style becomes cinematic, staccato, informative, thrilling, poetic. We are going to witness ‘one of the most violent events the universe can provide’, a thing ‘of monstrous beauty’. As the sun swells, ‘huge filaments of million-degree hot plasma blast through space’ and the liquefied planet, ‘pounded by energies beyond its strength, is blown into nothingness’. The sun ‘does not even notice and then, quite suddenly, it explodes, firing all the matter it was made of into outer space.’ The entire event is silent, ‘for sound does not spread in the vacuum of space’.


In the foreword to his book, Galfard writes: ‘Before we start, there are two things I would like to share with you. The first is a promise, the second is an ambition.’ His promise is ‘never to use any other equation apart from E=mc2.’ His ambition is that ‘in this book I will not leave any readers behind’. He honours both; without mathematics, he manages to make his mathematical subjects feel possible for ordinary readers to think about in non-trivial ways; without trivialising, he is clear and never gets entangled (as so many other popular physics books do) in frenetic passages of jargon and big numbers.

After our first ‘journey’, to witness the dying sun, Galfard returns us with a thud to our tropical beach and adopts his pastoral cooing tone again, like a dove in the church eaves. We must learn about the universe if we’re going to survive this catastrophe, which means going on more guided journeys through spacetime with Dr Galfard. We’d better hurry. We’ve got only 420 pages and five billion years to go.

The rest of Part I of The Universe in Your Hand (there are six parts in all, each covering different aspects of either quantum physics, relativity theory or cosmology) takes us through the cosmos and beyond the Milky Way until we have reached what Galfard calls ‘the First Wall at the End of the Universe’, 13.5 billion light years from earth, ‘a place that is not for light to travel through’. Part II, ‘Making Sense of Outer Space’, introduces general relativity and explains what the First Wall tells us about the origin and growth of the universe. It is in Part III, ‘A Dive into the Quantum World’, that Galfard starts to lose his sanity.

If the fundamentalists of the American Midwest want to advance exegesis, they should send their preachers to MIT. Parallel worlds; entire universes smaller than the size of a subatomic particle; the fact that there is real, visible evidence that all possible existences (some of which would have led to the worlds of two noses) were at one stage frozen in time, and that this evidence comes from looking up at the sky when sitting on a sunlounger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; that there are universes inside universes inside universes, encased like bubbles … all this, says Galfard, ‘may (and should) sound completely crazy to you (it does to me, but I like it)’; yet there are sound and consistent arguments, each built out of the basic ideas of GCSE physics, to justify every word.

Quantum fields are not unlike agricultural ones: they are continuous landscapes in which crops can spring up anywhere. Just as different fields of the countryside grow different produce — steep fields for sheep, drained fields for wheat — different quantum fields grow different particles. The electromagnetic field grows electrons and photons. The strong nuclear force field grows quarks and gluons. One critical difference between agricultural fields and quantum ones is plenitude. Whereas Britain supports several million fields, the universe supports four. All this is well established, repeatedly proved by long equations and backed up by multi-billion dollar experiments in the subterranean particle-smashing tubes at Cern. Gravity is another field and, since there’s no point having a field unless you can produce something on it, gravitational fields grow gravitons.

Only they don’t.

No matter how hard the theoretical farmers of mathematics try, they cannot make gravity produce gravitons without sending the whole of quantum theory into oblivion. Experimentalists have also never spotted a graviton. Places such as Cern are the Defra of physics. Their job is to confirm what particles are growing in which fields, and the gravitational field is looking increasingly like a Brussels subsidy scam.

Hemmed in by inconsistencies, badgered by paradoxes, aware that soon something somewhere must give and result in a new theoretical evangelism, physicists have proposed extraordinary ideas. Galfard guides us around many of them with calmness and good humour. His style is occasionally annoying. Now and then he overdoes the gently guiding, avuncular-vicar tone and sounds more like a physics graduate trying to chat you up in the pub; but, somehow, against all my desire to be grumpy about it, it eventually works.

On the last ‘journey’, Galfard takes us outside the universe in the company of a small talking robot. Exiting our universe is allowable, according to the latest, and currently most successful, attempt to unite gravitation with quantum fields — String Theory. Strings are vibrations of nothingness, ‘like the blur of a guitar string without the string itself’. A billion billion billion times smaller than the width of a human hair, each string is capable of giving rise to a universe. String theorists call these universes ‘branes’. Out of nothing comes everything, and our universe is a brane.

If my friend Mark emits a peep of complaint about the modest idea of a god or the myths of Genesis the next we meet, I’m going to be down on him like a ton of exploding suns.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £12.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Alexander Masters is the author of The Genius in My Basement, a biography of the mathematician Simon P. Norton.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • Presumably if there is a universe where people have two noses (contrary to any notion of the scientific laws of Darwinian natural selection which suggests a single nose is optimal) then presumably there could be a universe that a God created in six days, Paradise and people included, contrary to the science of Newtonian, Einsteinian or any other physics we know of in this universe.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Well there you go, physicists unlike dog-collar vampires don’t claim to have all the answers… Yet.

      • justejudexultionis

        The dog-collar vampires I know certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. The Bible is a collection of 66 works of theology, not a handbook of biology or physics.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Ah yes, the Jewish book of fairy stories.

        • Warbling J Laskitude

          please – it ( the GENESIS account of creation at least) is ALSO the first description in recorded human testimony of a world-birth process in which one event is utterly dependent on the one preceding it, the whole thing following a series of logical steps, and as such sets in motion the mode of thinking that paved the way for the birth of viable science; so much have i learned, and so much i reckon, is incontrovertible…the Spectator reviewer errs most horribly in classing the unique nature of Genesis’ account in the category of “myth” – myth (and its societal function) being quite another matter …thankyou

      • wiffle

        The only difference I can tell between theoretical physicists and dog collars is that the later are far more honest in what they do on a daily basis. Theoretical physics left the realm of hard science a long time ago. The appearance of quantum mechanic theory, at least as explained to me, should have been a big clue that science had left the building. 🙂

        • Mikebert

          No. Solar cells are a modern technology that is impossible according to the laws of classical physics. They are possible according to QM. Since they exist, QM must work.

          • wiffle

            I’m not arguing against the existence of QM as physical phenomena. It does it exist. I’m saying that “random particles show up randomly” is total garbage and not science. It’s the spontaneous generation of our generation.

          • ron_goodman

            The appearance of “random particles” has been observed and their effects measured. Google the Casimir effect.

          • wiffle

            I’m not arguing the existence of them. I’m arguing Quantum Mechanics is lousy theoretic explanation. You can both observe physical phenomena and predict to a lesser extent without really understanding why. We don’t understand why.

          • ron_goodman

            If you can come up with a better idea, and support it, a Nobel prize is waiting. In the mean time, it’s a pretty useful theory. Einstein didn’t like it either, but it’s still the model of choice in modern physics.

          • wiffle

            I don’t need to. 🙂 I just need to call it like I see it, so modern physicists will stop preaching and start figuring out why they need to explain an observable physical phenomenon with “it just shows up”

          • ron_goodman

            The last thing modern physicists are worrying about is whether or not you approve of their work.

          • wiffle

            Absolutely true, although the logical conclusion is they don’t care about you either. And if they don’t care about me, who cares if I voice my opinion? Strange that anyone would even react. 🙂

          • Jack-Lamar Ron

            “it just shows up?” expand on that?

          • wiffle

            Okay, here’s how QM was explained to me in an official Intro to Physics calls in college. A lion is in a sealed room and somehow, he gets out. That’s how they’re explaining the appearance of certain sub-atomic particles that do dependently show up for us to make computers and solar cells with. They had a Power Point slide and everything with the sealed room and the lion. That my friends, is magic. 🙂

          • Jack-Lamar Ron

            Sounds like you had a bad teacher, because you have the wrong picture of QM even from my layman understanding of it.

          • Muawiyah

            Quasi – crystals were initially proposed as a substitute for QM. Both seem to be real.

          • wiffle

            Again, I’m not arguing the existence of what we’re calling QM. I’m saying our favorite physicists haven’t owned up to “I don’t know”. It is our spontaneous generation theory.

          • Muawiyah

            Why should they say they don’t know ~ they do know something….. and much of it is a current event you didn’t hear about yet

          • wiffle

            Because I expect that level of honesty from a scientist. They want me to respect magic as a science theory when it’s a PC version of “I don’t know.”

          • Muawiyah

            Sounds so negative…..

          • Muawiyah

            Yes, particles show up and go back…. all the time! It’s a staple item in modern physics. We are actually hoping to build powerful Woodford Drives ~ which will create levitating platforms and devices for transportation and or living.

          • wiffle

            Sure we are. We hoped for cold fusion, too. 🙂

            If you can’t explain to me why particles appear and disappear, that’s called magic, not science.

          • TexasStomp

            pfffffffft……you need branes to understand dat stuff, wiffle :)))))

          • Muawiyah

            Hmm ~ so, tell me, where do particles come from ~ and why is it the just recently completed experiment with anti-matter found that it truly is a mirror image of matter?

            There are a good 11 dimensions of existence according to ancient Jewish tradition, and we can use math to suggest 17 dimension that we should be able to reach in some manner.

          • wiffle

            Okay, science has totally left the building and we are officially now in theology. 🙂 There’s no such thing as a scientific argument that brings up ancient Jewish tradition, unless we’re attempting to quantitatively measure how much better a bagel is with lox versus peanut butter.

          • Muawiyah

            Well, why lox ~ isn’t that a product not naturally present in the Black Sea regions where that ethnotype originated? No doubt they stole Irish culture!

            Seriously, if you know you’ve got a multiplicity of dimensions, why not give them traditional names . Dodechahedron has been exhausted for a long time ~ currently math is running short on names for higher dimensions.

          • Warbling J Laskitude

            au contraire m’sieu.. the separation of synagogue and temple prefigures the very ‘separation’ later on of nature from the sacred, thus making it (nature) susceptible at last of inquiry..

          • Muawiyah

            Then there are quasi crystals ~ which will allow us to pump Positively charged protons in between atoms …. at will …… and do all sorts of stuff from the ground up…

        • ron_goodman

          You need a better explanation then. The predictions of QM have been supported by observations for nearly 100 years. If they hadn’t been, that computer you’re sitting in front of would never have been invented.

          • wiffle

            Again – a difference between being able to observe and partially predict (please note however, that QM does not have a good working model for an atom beyond hydrogen) and a good explanation. QM’s explanation, summarized, is magic.

    • Griffonn

      I don’t know why people think that God’s “days” would be days measured according to a world that hasn’t been invented yet.

      But of course if you’re going to use your conclusions as your assumptions, you can prove just about anything, can’t you?

    • Natalie Ann Johnson

      Well done on completely failing to understand evolutionary theory. (You might want to read the stuff about environment).

      • Muawiyah

        Self assembly seems to be quite capable of building very large structures ~ DNA can be explained as well with self assembly and quasi crystals as it can by any sort of evolution.

    • Dominic Stockford

      And maybe that Universe is this one…

      Shocker!!!

      • Muawiyah

        Or, darned, the one next door. We get to look in but not participate.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    There are books on astrophysics, they are the ones that use Imperial (USCS) measurement terms, and there are astrophysics study books. They’re the ones with formulae on nearly every page.

  • blithering_idiot

    Bohr was ahead of you, back in the dawn of quantum theory, when he said to someone: “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that
    divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being
    correct.”

    • wiffle

      It’s crazy, but it’s also not science. It’s observing a real phenomena and going “Heck if I know”. Except you don’t get grants for that, so enter particles showing up at random, which is the exact opposite of scientific thought.

  • justejudexultionis

    I’m constantly amazed at the willingness of theoretical and astrophysicists to indulge in metaphysical speculation. Their subject is a theology in all but name.

    • wiffle

      Totally. My husband gets totally frustrated when I cut him off as he loves the stuff. Invariably I can’t help but asking about 300 questions that basically go “Are you sure, because it sounds like you’re making stuff up”. Thankfully, he still loves me anyway.

    • Mikebert

      It’s not metaphysical speculation. It might look that way, but it is not what they are doing. What they are is trying to develop theories that explain all observations. These theories make other predictions (or have consequences) that are often just plain weird. The gold standard would be a theory that explained all of existing reality and some new thing that was testable. Then it could be tested and if passed you would have a validated theory. Then whatever weirdness that comes from the theory would have a higher probability of being correct. As far as I know this hasn’t happened.
      This means you can divide apparent weirdness into two categories, (1) not yet demonstrated, examples stuff like parallel universes and (2) demonstrated stuff like humans being made of exploded stars and the possibility of large diamonds in space.

      • John

        “[T]hey are is trying to develop theories that explain all observations”. This is also what theologians are trying to do,. Theology has a claim to be the subject the unites all subjects as nothing is considered beyond its remit. The methodology is of course different, and there is a particular emphasis on conscious human beings that physics doesn’t care for.

        • chump23

          No. No, they aren’t. Theologians are saying ‘God did it’. Look – here’s a book written by desert nomads.

          • John

            You’ve confused a small group of fundamentalists with an academic discipline. I suggest you go to the website of any major university and look at the research interests of the theology faculty to begin to get an idea of the breadth of what counts as theology. Maybe you might even read a book.

          • chump23

            You’re right of course: theologians are mainly atheists. The sort who couldn’t get onto a decent course. I meant of course theists.

          • John

            You clearly know nothing about theology. You are just very angry. Perhaps–even though you are angry–it is better to confine yourself to talking on subjects you know something, anything, about.

    • Dean Thompson

      Rubbish

  • mlindroo

    “But, without any sense of shame, he insists in the same breath that humans are made from the fallout of exploded stars; that it is theoretically possible for a person to decompose on one side of a black hole and recompose on the other, and that there are diamonds in the sky the size of the moon.”

    Uh, did the reviewer of Galfard’s book write the paragraph above in jest?

    It’s common knowledge that most of the elements that make up the human body (and most of Earth for that matter) were in fact created by supernova explosions more than 4.6 billion years ago. And diamond is just a form of carbon formed at very high temperature and pressure … current planet forming theories predict the existence of celestial bodies made up mostly of diamond.

    • wiffle

      Yes, that’s common knowledge. But show me your proof, young man. 🙂

      They are all best guesses, not fact. Are they plausible best guess, sure. But you can see the extraordinary nature of those best guesses when they are rephrased with synonyms.

      Also, the last time we checked, we really don’t know exactly how natural diamonds come to be, given especially their size. We can make artificial ones, but that only gives a clue to the nature of the process. High heat and pressure alone do not spontaneously create diamonds in the presence of carbon (which itself is though to be very rare in the galaxy)

      And I’ll note that you did not wish to tackle the subject of a black hole. That, I think is wise. 🙂

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      “If stars didn’t die, we would not exist”
      “Neptune and Uranus: Methane can decompose, and the released carbon can form crystals of diamond, perhaps the size of pebbles.”

  • The Wet One

    ” But, without any sense of shame, he insists in the same breath that humans are made from the fallout of exploded stars;”

    At least nucleogenesis, supernovas and gas and dust spreading throughout the galaxy as well as stellar nurseries are observable. Angels, gods and the supernatural (including burning bushes that are not consumed) aren’t so readily observable, nor are the stories of the bible universally shared (which is rather peculiar), while observing the night sky and its contents is there for everyone.

    • wiffle

      True. But you really have no idea if 4.6 billion years ago that’s what the universe looked like. Assumptions get you every single time. What we observe today might simply be a new to the universe phenomena. We’ll never really know.

      • The Wet One

        Actually, I think if one looks at objects that are 4.6 billion light years away, you can get some idea of what the universe was like 4.6 billion years ago.

        • wiffle

          Assuming the laws of physics remained the same for 4.6 billion years. Which we have no idea if they did or not. Heck, if that’s too outlandish, consider the possibility that in 4.6 billiion years there’s no particular reason to assume the speed of any particular photon is constant, if you don’t want throw out all of physics.

          I love science. But to make it work, it is an endless list of assumptions. Those assumption clearly works well on short term, planetary levels – it got us to the Moon. Anything that our solar system, or too big or too small or too old is probably beyond what we can really ever know for sure.

          • mikehorn

            Be careful how far you take your central assumption, that nothing in science is 100% known. While this is true, what you haven’t really wrapped your brain around is how probability works. Science deals in probabilities. 100% doesn’t really exist in science, but 99.9% does. Those percentages reflect our confidence in what will and has happened. That extra .1% is usually a clue to further discoveries, increasing our predictive power. A young area of study might have only 60-70% confidence, leading to rabid growth, and also rapid increase in confidence. But there is always room for further breakthroughs.

            Your thinking reflects knowledge of the scientific frontiers that existed 100 years ago or so. Newton’s laws indeed are good enough to get us to the moon and every planet from Venus on out. Mercury is too close to the sun for Newton to work well, so we correct his equations with knowledge newer than 300 years. Relativity and modern understandings of it are what makes GPS so accurate. Newtonian math gets us to about 300 meters of doubt in your location. But the satellites broadcasting signals are so different in speed and location on the earth’s gravity gradient that relativistic effects are significant. Modern knowledge gets us inside 3 meters or even closer on the military systems, a difference of two factors of 10, or very significant.

            Realize we do find things out, and modern knowledge is much more confident and able than you give it credit for.

          • wiffle

            I’m not arguing about our knowledge at a planetary level. Not one bit. GPS is a fine example of science at our scale – planetary.

            Much beyond or bigger than our solar system or smaller than an atom and we’re in real trouble. It’s just a fact, ironically, that such things are mostly conjecture because they seize to be testable. Once they stop being testable, it’s no longer science.

          • mikehorn

            Of course they are testable. Smaller than an atom? We’ve been working colliders for a century. CERN and the LHC are testing the Standard Model, which among other things predicted the Higgs Boson even though it had never been seen or observed in any way. It was a test of the math and the implications of previous evidence, and they found one. Ironically for the article, the more confirmation we have of the Standard Model, the less likely Strings are real. Quantum Theory is partially proven every time you use a computer, every time they make a faster chip.

            Larger than the solar system? Telescopes and radiation collectors at all wavelengths. Want a list of famous telescopes and their discoveries from Galileo to Hubble to the HST and VLA, newer? The Webb should be launched in the next few years, hanging out at a Lagrange point if memory serves.

            Math and observation are the tools we use. Sorry, but you are just wrong. If it is at all observable, applying the tools of science opens up mysteries and solves them.

          • wiffle

            “Math and observation are the tools we use. Sorry, but you are just wrong. If it is at all observable, applying the tools of science opens up mysteries and solves them.”

            No, I’m not. Almost of what you discuss uses mathematics and inferred, not direct evidence. We think we know what Jupiter is made of, but without direct samples, can we ever be sure. If we cannot be sure of Jupiter, how would be sure of anything beyond our galaxy?

            QM is stymied by it’s “random particles appear randomly”. As far as I know, there’s no mathematical formula that really models something more complex than hydrogen. I’m not sure when uncertainty principles disappeared from general thought, but it’s clearly there if you’re honest with mathematics of the whole thing.

            That’s why people create a religion out of science — they begin to believe that they know for sure what they cannot. They create facts out of best guesses.

            Again, I love science and math. But I understand it’s limits.

          • mikehorn

            You insist on direct observation, but that is not necessary. If we can see through two windows in a hallway, but not the rest of the hallway, and we see a person walk past one window, then the other, we can infer with very high confidence they walked the part of the hallway in between. We can also judge the interval between windows and their observed pace while seen and also infer their pace when not seen. We can estimate where the floor is, how cushiony it is, and have a good idea what the temperature is inside. This is all readily apparent, though inferred, by the two passes behind windows.

            If no one sees a murder, we can still gather enough evidence to convict by logical inference based on facts gathered.

            We have a good idea what is inside Jupiter by measuring its gravity, spectrum, magnetic field, and how it interacts with its moons. The options for what is at its core narrow greatly with each spacecraft sent.

            Inferring based on observed facts is indeed science and generates very high confidence.

          • wiffle

            “You insist on direct observation, but that is not necessary.” Point blank, you don’t really appreciate the scientific method. Inferring data is a necessary evil and with it comes uncertainty. We prosecute murders based on inferred data because we have no choice. We prefer both eye witness testimony and a video tape of the event for sound reasons, we just never get them. We also are guaranteed to put innocents on death row because of that.

            You can create high confidence in inferred data by making predictions with it that are proved true with direct observations. (The exact timing of say the sunrise and sunset anywhere on the planet is a great example of inferred data creating a directly observable prediction.) There is no reason to be confident in inferred data that has not been verified with direct observation of any sort.

            You might not appreciate how much confidence I do have in most science. I do. I accept, generally speaking, what scientists tell me about the universe. But I also know when to make a judgement about what is only merely possible fact versus what is probable fact. The heart of science is a skeptical one.

          • mikehorn

            No, eyewitness testimony is not preferred at all. Witnesses are the least reliable form of evidence because the human brain is not good at precisely laying down accurate memories. Questions after the event can even change a memory or alter how that memory is used to identify the accused. If an eyewitness is the only evidence, I’d push for dismissal of charges. If I have DNA and hair and a phone location, but no eyewitness, I’d say the accused better plead guilty.

            Science is skeptical, sure, but I’d go with the evidence and the logical inference any day over nothing. And I’d trust inference from data with high confidence if multiple streams of data converge on the same inference. This is how we demonstrate many Theories, to include Evolution and Gravity. We haven’t seen a black hole, but the measurements of stellar motion at the center of our galaxy show something very massive and consistent with a different model of what a black hole should do to its neighborhood. It’s there, without eyeballing it.

          • wiffle

            I agree that in general eye witnesses are not reliable, but the video tape would be good. You got my point on it – inferred data is inferior to direct observations and always will be.

            And as for the rest of it, the point is that there are certain modern limits of science, of which I absolutely include evolution, where people would do better to treat them as best guesses and yet as in this article, they are treated as undeniable fact.

            I’ve already lost count of the replies on this thread alone where all I’m really suggesting is that science has a limit and beyond that, there’s no point in anyone getting uptight about any particular theory. And yet they do.

            It does not matter to the whole of science whether anyone believes in macro-evolution, or that a quasar is a diamond, or that people could pop up on the other side of black holes. Science wants things to measure, that we can humans can test with our limited time, resources, and senses. Those questions never end, but we insist science do theology, too. But worse, we get into this silliness that it isn’t theology, even though we’ve clearly speculating well beyond what anyone can test or predict at this moment in human history.

          • kingkevin3

            DIrect observation? Quantum mechanics tells you nothing is directly observable. Nothing. Saying I prefer direct observation over “inferred data” as you call it is meaningless. Everything you detect with your senses is inferred. This is quite obvious when you compare how different animals perceive the world to be. Your argument makes zero scientific sense.

          • wiffle

            Well, why bother with science, then, given your arguments? We can’t possibly know anything.

            I’m arguing a distinct middle ground here and it appears I’ll be run over by everyone. 🙂

            Yes, some data is clearly inferred and some data is clearly a direct observation, regardless of the mechanics of your senses. And no, QM says nothing of the kind about directly observable. That my computer runs is direct observable proof of the existence of QM.

          • right1_left1

            At the root level modern science when firing single photons at a double split says that your conclusion would be wrong.
            you are interpreting averages extracted from the macro scale.

            Re your touching faith in what science really knows.
            What introduced rotation in the Universe ?.
            How do stars really form ?
            Likewise galaxies which are now known not to rotate at a velocity modern science says they should.
            Does gravity exist as force crossing free space ?
            How is the spectrum of a galaxy measured ?
            Why are red shift anomalys ignored ?

            As for the patches required to sustain the Big Bang theory.
            Give ’em some ad hoc untestable physics backed up with a bit of maths..
            That should suffice to keep we cosmologists employed for a few more years.hehehehehehehe
            ..

            Did you know that it is now thought that Eddington’s measurements confirming deflection of light by gravitational fields are now suspect.?
            His equipment wasn’t accurate enough.

          • right1_left1

            Pehaps Mikehorn can explain how modern scientists know they are firing a single photon at the double split ?
            If I said it was wave who is to say I am wrong ?

          • right1_left1

            Even those conjectures that seem to produce accurate interpretations of nature do not demonstrate that nature is really understood.

            Succesfull modern science is based on definitions which have been generalised by the concepts of theoretical and experimetal physics and the language of mathematics.

            For example nothing whatsoever is understood about the electro magnetic forces that have been harnessed to produce to wondrous machines.
            Like wise the forces that bind the atom,.Itself of course a concept.

            When we turn to cosmology we see how highly intelligent people can delude themselves, probably due to a mixture of arrogance naivety and paradoxically stupidty to produce ever more nonsense leading eventually to nothing creating something.
            aka the Big Bang theory.

          • Warbling J Laskitude

            ja ja,, dude, WHERE’s your grasp of ineluctable, founding and foundational human paradox?Something from something is ten times as absurd as something from nothing, as Infinite Regress lives there and its COMIN’ TO GET YOU NOW

          • right1_left1

            If you mean what it sounds as though you mean , and quite frankly I dont give a monkey’s for your jive talk, , the infinite regression only exists because materialist homo the ‘unsapien’ thinks his tiny mind is sufficient to explain the creation of the universe.

            Said homo’s are both “unsapien” and wrong
            Materialist science has its limits.

          • Warbling J Laskitude

            so, what then – at a certain point your own regress terminates at a sufficiently substantial ‘limit’ point to actually explain how something comes from something that in turn comes from something else yet is not ‘something else’ enough to present a problem?

          • Laura Robertson

            Why should we pay in attention at all to someone who does not know the difference between “seize” and “cease”?

          • wiffle

            I have no idea. Why should I pay attention to a comment whose only argument is that I made a typo involving homonyms? Although I do appreciate the error check. 🙂

          • Laura Robertson

            Dude, that’s not a typo. That’s incorrect usage of a common word. You must be trolling. As Mark Twain said, “This is where I get off.” 🙂

          • wiffle

            No, it’s a homonym error which I just fixed. Do you have comment on the actual substance of my post, or is it just you that’s trolling?

      • ADW

        Maybe, maybe not. But 1,000 years ago we didn’t think we’d be able to fly at twice the speed of sound (if anyone even twigged what that was), nor have gps maps, the internet, space travel, smartphones and the atomic bomb.

        Clue – we didn’t get all those things by reading dusty old religious books or making up religious stories. We got them by science, like it or not. Of course, if we showed any of them to a mediaeval peasant, he or she would immediately assume they were witchcraft, and would take many years before learning that they were not.

  • The Wet One

    That said, I’ll readily concede some of what cosmologists / theoretical physicists cook up barely seems like science to me either. Super massive diamonds and us being made of star stuff is not very far fetched and is reasonably straightforward even if it is fantastical. The observations are there for everyone to see, whereas the voice of any given god is heard by relatively few, and not in every language at the same time which is, again, rather peculiar.

    • wiffle

      And yet the concept of God in some form, is in every culture. When you find humans, you find art and religion (and usually religious art). Diamonds in the sky sounds reasonable only because you’re used to thinking about it. If we ask someone from third world Africa, he’d probably laugh at you. So that makes that theory particular to a culture and place.

      • The Wet One

        Regarding diamonds in the sky, here’s the paper: http://arxiv.org/abs/1108.5201 and here’s a news article on it: http://m.theregister.co.uk/2004/02/18/moonsized_diamond_found_in_space/

        As for Thor, Zeus, Ra, Heracles and Amaterasu-Ō-Mi-Kami, well where’s the evidence?

        Just because humans seem to have a similar mental trait doesn’t mean that the product of that mental trait is actually true.

        For example, we seem to think of ourselves as being solid. Until you look at a human in an x-ray, where our ephemeralness becomes quite clear. Similarly, because we see the world within a narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum (visible light) we don’t see all the other things that can seen in spectrum but which are viewable in radiowaves, microwaves, infra red, ultraviolet and so on. We look at the sky in all these different wavelengths to see different things that aren’t available to the human eye because we can’t see radio waves, infra red (though we can feel that), ultra violet or microwaves.

        It has been more than amply demonstrated that what we humans think is real, just isn’t. Without actual evidence of same, deities and religion likely fall into the category of things thought real but aren’t. Case in point, I’m a believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Seriously. I converted about 6 years ago. Prove to me that Beneficent Noodly One isn’t real. Good luck with that. 😉

        • wiffle

          “Case in point, I’m a believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

          I used to be good with that, as a joke. I’m not so much anymore, especially since I’ve had atheists fling the phrase at me like so much poo online. It’s disrespectful of your fellow human travelers and plain old childish.

          People’s religious beliefs are important to them, whatever you think of them. I get these associations are some big ha ha joke, but they don’t speak well of people.

          At any rate, it’s not my business to prove you wrong or even to prove the existence of God. I don’t really care if you believe in God or not, because my God is way bigger than worrying about the belief of any particular human. After all, the laws of physics work (within near time and in our solar system) if you believe them or don’t. So too with God.

          “Regarding diamonds in the sky, here’s the paper:”

          I’m not going to bother with the news article. The abstract clearly states only an ultra-low mass carbon dwarf. I have a BA in Geology and a took an entire class on Crystallography. Pure carbon can take on two more forms than diamond, with diamond being the most unstable. In fact, you if you have a bit of pure oxygen you can make diamond worthless graphite and soot in lab with a little bit of flame. While there’s arguably little oxygen out there, a diamond is still an unstable form whose creation processes is still poorly understood in nature.

          So there’s no reason in particular to think there’s a big old diamond out there. I’d put much more money on pencil lead, honestly.

          “Just because humans seem to have a similar mental trait doesn’t mean that the product of that mental trait is actually true.

          For example, we seem to think of ourselves as being solid. Until you look at a human in an x-ray, where our ephemeralness becomes quite clear. Similarly, because we see the world within a narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum (visible light) we don’t see all the other things that can seen in spectrum but which are viewable in radiowaves, microwaves, infra red, ultraviolet and so on. We look at the sky in all these different wavelengths to see different things that aren’t available to the human eye because we can’t see radio waves, infra red (though we can feel that), ultra violet or microwaves.”

          So what was I supposed to take away from this? What I took away is that there’s more to people than meets the eye, which is also pretty much every religion ever. 🙂 We’re all distrustful of this ugly “solid” matter, even if we can’t quite bring ourselves to think that there’s something out there much bigger than us.

          • Mikebert

            In my opinion, as an agnostic, I see no reason to worry too much about fantastic theories that have as yet not made any testable predictions (e.g. string theory) as who knows if they are right and simply go with Ockham’s razor and use the idea from the Far Side: “and then a miracle occurs”. We don’t know what happened in the very early universe. Until we have a demonstrated theory lets just plug in the uncaused Cause (i.e. God) where the current (demonstrated) theories leave off. Of course I am an engineer and used to fudge factors.

            For example, why does the cosmological constant have the value it does? Because God made it so.

          • wiffle

            I agree. I’m not bothered by any theories of the early universe. Ironically everyone has a right to conjecture because how do you test it? Getting the right answers to complex calculations means nothing if your assumptions were totally wrong to begin with.

            What bothers me is making a religion out of theoretical physics and treating as hard fact. That I’m a dummy for seeing both the obvious flaws and the clear parallels to theological reasoning. Since theoretical physicists live on government grants, in many ways in the Western world, it has become a state sponsored religion to a certain group of people.

          • Griffonn

            Getting the right answers to complex calculations means nothing if your assumptions were totally wrong to begin with.

            This is the much-overlooked key right here.

            To me, a far more relevant question in the debates between atheist vs. religious is, why do you believe it is more logical to assume the universe is random rather than believing self-organizing behavior indicates a larger creative force? That question is one that would be a lot more interesting to talk about IMO…unfortunately most atheists don’t want to (I even gave Ari a shot and he declined).

          • Muawiyah

            One single observation of self assembly in a basic element disproves randomness as actually being random.

            Best such demonstration were the microscopic but visible nanoparticles down below the threshold of what may be a 5th dimension in terms of measurement.

            A DNA strand was laid along side of them and they indexed 90 degrees, becoming perpendicular to each other rather than parallel.

          • Griffonn

            Self-organizing behavior is well known and well documented.

            Atheism teaches that such behavior arose out of randomness by pure chance, and is now self-perpetuating.

            Which is a faith-based belief: the conclusion (that there is no creative force or creator) is also one of the starting assumptions.

        • John

          You seem to think that as most humans report seeing things that observation is reliable, but when most humans report an experience of God you turn your nose up. It’s not really very scientific.

          • The Wet One

            I’ve actually had such experiences myself so I don’t wholly discount them. And yet, the brain does odd things, so it’s unclear what is going on. Evidence outside of one’s own world, which are repeatable, observable and constant have somewhat firmer ground than whatever I (or anyone else for that matter) alone experience.

            ETA: Furthermore, while “god” or religious experience, are a handy explanation, that doesn’t mean that explanation is correct. Other things could be going on.

        • LoveMeIamALiberal

          “Case in point, I’m a believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Seriously. I converted about 6 years ago. Prove to me that Beneficent Noodly One isn’t real. Good luck with that. ;-)”

          Easy. It’s a logically inconsistent idea (spaghetti lacks the properties to support flight). It has no explanatory power. As a material being, it must have been created so cannot be a first cause of the universe.

          God as an extremely powerful entity outside of time and space is an internally consistent notion, offers an explanation of the creation of the universe and being eternal does not need a creator. Even if you don’t believe in God, you can see it’s a clearly more plausible notion than your FSM or Betrand Russell’s flying teapot.

      • Chris Morriss

        I fail to see the problem here. We have evolved as thinking material beings on a physical planet.
        Gods, demons and other such entities evolved as thinking non-material beings in the universe. Some of them may (as CS Lewis envisaged) be tied to the region of a physical planet for some unknown reason, but no-one should think, that just because such powerful non-physical intelligences exist, that in some way they created the universe.
        Some of these entities may attempt to interact with the physical universe, possibly in a playful or malicious way or maybe even in the spirit of interested investigation.

        But whatever else you do: don’t start worshiping these entities, it only gives them ideas.

        • wiffle

          What is the material difference between an intelligent spirit that can interact and change the physical world and the Creator, for the purposes of mankind? None, I think. They might as well have created the universe.

          At any rate, you’ve acknowledged the Devil. I don’t think it hurts to imagine that there’s an ultimate force bigger than the Devil because despair follows if there’s not.

          The reality is I have to choose a belief system either way and I may never have confirmation that I was right. I might as well pick one that gives me hope.

          • Chris Morriss

            You are falsely extrapolating from my post.
            (Oh, I like your witticism of starting your comment with “What’s the material difference”. Very droll).
            My beliefs overcome the very real problem with the conventional view that God has to pre-exist before the universe can come into being. My supposition is that both physical entities, such as ourselves, and non-physical entities have both evolved in a universe that spontaneously appeared as a result of a random fluctuation in the zero-point flux. (It is speculated that matter and energy can spontaneously be created in this way). Consider the creation of so-called dark energy and dark matter as a result of pairs of virtual particles popping into existence exactly at the event horizon of a black hole. Anywhere else, they go back where they came from in picoseconds, having no effect at a macroscopic level. If however, they appear at exactly the right position next to a black hole, there is a slight (but real) chance that one of the pair can disappear into the black hole, leaving the other existing in our space, together with a tiny amount of lost energy.
            (Hmm, that did go on a bit. Sorry).

            If non-physical entities did evolve in an analogous manner to the way that physical ones did, then there is a chance that gods may not be all-powerful, and that at some point, malevolent ones, such as the composite WHWH/Allah, may be defeatable.

          • wiffle

            Putting us at the center of the universe. And if we praise these non-Gods too much, it’ll go to their heads. Sure, why not? 🙂

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Message of support.
          “Gods, demons and other such entities evolved as thinking non-material beings in the universe”
          Religion: A paranoid hang-over from the infancy of the species. Violent superstition for the weak-minded that can’t handle mortality and thus take refuge in the majority.

  • Richard Eldritch

    The trouble with reality is that some of it ( to be fair most of it) is unknowable to us. In much the same way as a moth around a lamp can never understand the nature of the lamp, electricity, or it’s manufacturing process. With so much Unknowable we can never really build a picture with any resolution or accuracy. In fact it could be rather dangerous to be fiddling about with forces we don’t understand. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t stop inquiring, but it does mean that the pointy heads need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Then of course we have the problem of consciousness which I doubt lies in the brain but rather in the energy fields that make up what we laughingly call our physical bodies, when in fact they’re made of nothing held to gether by not much at all. We’re are in fact ghosts in many ways. Personally I suspect that the nature of reality as experianced by humans is an interaction between our fields and fields outside of our personal atomic/quantum make up.

  • rjb

    “On the last ‘journey’, Galfard takes us outside the universe in the company of a small talking robot. Exiting our universe is allowable, according to the latest, and currently most successful, attempt to unite gravitation with quantum fields — String Theory. Strings are vibrations of nothingness, ‘like the blur of a guitar string without the string itself’. A billion billion billion times smaller than the width of a human hair, each string is capable of giving rise to a universe. String theorists call these universes ‘branes’. Out of nothing comes everything, and our universe is a brane.”

    I hope the author has included this paragraph at the beginning of the article, so I could stop reading earlier.

    “Strings are vibrations of nothingness” Really? where did you get that from? strings are , well strings, (if they exist) they are very tiny, about a planck lenght but they are certainly not nothingness. They are actually much more smaller than a billion billion billion times the width of a human hair, and they are certainly not capable of raising an universe.

    Branes are not universes, I don’t claim to fully understand what branes are a brane is a physical object that generalizes the notion of a point particle to higher dimensions. For example, a point particle can be viewed as a brane of dimension zero, while a string can be viewed as a brane of dimension one. It is also possible to consider higher-dimensional branes. In dimension p, these are called p-branes. The word brane comes from the word “membrane” which refers to a two-dimensional brane.

    that’s not a definition of a universe is it? M theory claims the universe is made of 11 dimensions, 10 spatial and time. Since the mathematics to deal with 11 dimensions are a nightmare, physicist have found ways to work with fewer dimensions.

    String (and M) theory might help explain how the universe came to be and how it developed, but branes are not universes. Some cosmology theories say the universe maybe contained on a brane, but that’s very different as to say branes are universes.

    there are quantum fluctuations that result on particles apparently being created and destroyed all the time, but really thinking they are coming from nothingness is preposterous.

    Last but not least. Nothing is settled in physics, string theory is just a theory, very elegant, but it has not been proved in experiments, it might be totally wrong and even the mathematics that support it (very, very complex) are not complete, there are many issues that are not resolved, even the well known and proven standard model has a lot of unanswered questions.

    And when relativity meets with quantum mechanics, they blow each other apart, they don’t like each other.

    Physicist are very far from having all the answers, they know a lot more than 100 years ago, but what they know have risen many more questions, does it mean that science is wrong and we need to rely in religion? certainly not, we have to just accept that our minds are limited and our knowledge is limited and it will always be that way, and it certainly doesn’t mean that somebody (e.g. God) has the answers either.

  • chump23

    Yeah, you’re right. If it’s difficult and contradictatory, don’t bother using facts and logic, assume the sky wizard did it.

  • Dean Thompson

    “But, without any sense of shame, he insists in the same breath that humans are made from the fallout of exploded stars;” this is accepted science and nowhere near an outlandish hypothesis; the vast majority of the universe’s elements were created in exploding stars.

  • Dominic Stockford

    The article is right – it is impossible for people to believe in nothing. Everyone has a belief system, and many, many physicists are as barking as people think us Christians are. I know one who thinks that a total vacuum, with nothing in it, and nothing added, can magically create enough matter to be the genesis of a universe.

    • bramhall

      “a total vacuum, with nothing in it, and nothing added, can magically create enough matter to be the genesis of a universe”

      That hypothesis has much credence in the scientific community. An in fact one can distinguish between a cubic meter of nothing and a cubic meter of a vacuum which is pulsating with a whole sea of virtual particles (not that you could measure a cubic metre of nothing, since it would not be nothing if it could be measured). These may appear as real particles for a very short time and then disappear, so that energy is observed to be conserved. There are other things very strange such as quantum entanglement which seems to show that one of a pair of particles “knows” about the behaviour of its twin even if an enormous distance apart, particles which may travel backwards in time so that they arrive before they start out. In fact Quantum mechanics allows time, in some cases, to not only move forward but backwards as well, and sometimes not move at all.
      Of course theories and conjectures seem to be barking mad, but they are only a model of apparent reality and not reality itself, and one may therefore reasonably suppose that they are a reflection of the fact that the universe itself (or all of them) is a barking mad, weird and bizarre construct.

  • mikehorn

    A problem in explaining science to non scientists is separating Theory from Hypothesis. String “theory” is not yet a Theory, only a very compelling Hypothesis that hasn’t really been demonstrated. Parallel universes again are compelling, and stem from suggestive math in established Theories, but again remains speculative only, not demonstrated.

    We have good mathematical models about diamonds the size of planets, which are gas giant planet cores that have been stripped of their gas, the naked core probably orbiting the corpse of a dead star, or nearby a massive supernova remnant. That these diamonds exist I’d put as likely but not observed. It’s a prediction of what we should find if our current understanding is accurate. In other words, it is a potential test of current knowledge. If we find one, that is evidence supporting the Theory. If we don’t find one where we should, that is evidence against. Science uses these tests all the time to make our confidence higher.

    The neat thing is when we look for what we predict and find something completely different. The “dark matter/dark energy” discovery is one of these. “Dark” is in quotes because we have no idea what it really is, and so it is a whole branch of physics waiting for a genius. That discovery upended physics and cosmology, and won a couple people a Nobel Prize.

  • Robert Oldershaw

    The sine qua non of science is the identification of definitive predictions, which are made prior to testing, feasibly done, quantitative, non-“adjustable” and unique to the theory being tested.

    The problem with the pseudo-science that is commendably skewered in this article is that it fails the predictions/testing steps of science. String/brane theory has been hyped for 44 years and it still cannot generate a definiitve prediction, or even say what exactly it is a theory of. The multiverse is a complete fantasy that fails Occam’s razor test by a factor of 10^500 (and that is a 1 followed by 500 zeros).

    Such is the state of a large and vocal segment of the theoretical physics community in our era. Thankfully experimental physics is doing exceedingly well ( note the cornering of “WIMPs” and “supersymmetry” into ever-diminishing corners of non-physical parameter space).

    The true believers in our midst will wake up from their drunken revelry at some point and we will look back at this era of pseudo-scientific theoretical physics and laugh at the extreme weirdness, arrogance, and unscientific certainty.

    Instead of promoting this pseudo-science, the media can play a role in outing the empirically naked purveyors of this crap. The above article does a nice job of that. We could use a lot more of this healthy skepticism.

    RLO
    http://www3.amherst.edu/~rloldershaw

  • “The Universe in Your Hand by Christophe Galfard, a young French theoretical physicist and former student of Steven Hawking…”

    Stephen Hawking! Well that explains the nonsense! Why didn’t you put that name in the caption as a head’s up to the reader for the impending humor your article delivers?

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Sounds like Galfard is just exploring possibilities and emphasising that the more we know, the more we realise we do not know. And in favour of theoretical physicists, unlike religious hierarchies & zealots they don’t burn people at the stake who disagree with them.

  • stag

    Yes, I get tired with the pomposity of physicists. Brian Cox does a nice impression of Socratic ignorance and humility… but at heart, he’s as pompous as the next one.

  • bramhall

    Two quotes from W Heisenberg, one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th century and a key contributor to Quantum mechanics.

    “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” and …

    “Although I an now convinced that scientific truth is unassailable in its own field, I have never found it possible to dismiss the content of religious thinking as simply part of an outmoded phase in the consciousness of mankind, a part we shall have to give up from now on, Thus in the course of my life I have repeatedly been compelled to ponder on the relationship of these two regions of thought, for I have never been able to doubt the reality of that to which they point.”
    Heisenberg and most other great scientists never sought to trivialise those concepts which are the subject of religious thought, because they recognise that they are also an attempt to relate human experience to its place in the universe and the general order of things. References to Sky Fairies and such like have nothing to do with religious thought or philosophy.

  • FactsWillOut

    Masters is an idiot.
    General relativity works well enough that without it, no GPS or LHC.
    Quantum mechanics, well, it’s been verified to better then 1 part in 1 000 000 000 000.
    The author also lies and says there are only 4 fields(there are more like 18), then whines about not finding gravitons. The idiot doesn’t seem to realize that every single particle known experimentally to exist, bar 3, was predicted to exist by a theory before it was ever found.
    Gravitons are very hard to detect, because they only interact through gravity, and are massless, so we’d need an accelerator the size of the solar system to find them, but there may be indirect ways to measure their effects.
    The possibility of parallel universes is a consequence of attempts to unify gravity with quantum mechanics, and Leonard Susskind and Juan Maldecena are both making significant inroads into this, often using string theory.

    If idiots like him were in charge of things, we’d still be living in grass huts.

  • JSC

    So the author thinks the biblical account is better than the scientific; what does the bible have to say on hydrogen atoms?

  • ADW

    The key difference between science and religion is that any proposition in science is up for refutation – that’s the whole point. So yes at the outer reaches there are some strange sounding theories that it is hard to understand or accept, but that’s fine – come up with a better theory.

    Whereas religion is equally preposterous, but falls apart quite quickly if given the slightest scientific enquiry.

    Incidentally, all religious believers are atheists plus one. That is, they reject all other religions (Norse, Greek, Roman, Hindu, Maori, Aborigine, whatever) and if pressed would happily agree with scientific criticisms of those religions. But strangely they then decide that their one is correct, for absolutely no reason whatever (ie there is nothing to distinguish their religion from all the others which they reject).

  • ArtieHarris

    Sam Harris is the man when it comes to thinking about religion and consciousness.

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