Book review – Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life

7-minute read

Did life arise merely by accident? Many scientists feel uncomfortable with talk of goal-directedness and greater plans, as it reeks more of religion and theology than rational explanation. And with creationists lurking, the risk of “smuggling God in through the back door” under scientific pretences (as Richard Dawkins put it) is something to be wary of. Without descending into this territory, Universe in Creation might skirt dangerously close to it for some. In turns lyrical, unsettling, and, yes, speculative, this book argues that life may be written into the most basic laws of nature.

Universe in Creation

Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life, written by Roy R. Gould, published by Harvard University Press in May 2018 (hardback, 273 pages)

Roy R. Gould, a Principal Investigator and Education Analyst at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, here takes a two-pronged approach to examine the emergence of life. He follows the cosmological story from the Big Bang forward, and, since life’s origin somewhere in the middle remains impenetrable, he also follows the story of evolution today back in time.

The first part was the more unfamiliar territory for me as it put forward some ideas that I had never heard of. Not being well-versed in cosmology, it is hard to be sure how widely accepted they are. Gould starts with observations by Hubble (the astronomer, not the telescope) that every galaxy in the universe is moving away from us. An expanding universe seems odd, as “gravity should attract, not repel“, writes Gould. Similarly, if the universe started with a cosmic explosion, its light should have sped off into space and be long gone. Instead, astronomers discovered that cosmic microwave background radiation, a leftover from the Big Bang, is coming at us from all directions. So, we need a new idea, and things will get more speculative going forward: “We will put aside our observations about the universe, take a deep breath, and dive into the world of ideas” (p. 42).

See, writes Gould, the terms “Big Bang” and “expanding universe” are somewhat misleading metaphors. Rather than expanding outwards into something, the universe expands inwards. How? Einstein’s model of gravity predicts that: “the universe is continuously creating more space [because] the scale of length is shrinking [with time]” (p. 61). Space is continuously welling up between the galaxies. The universe is fractalizing. This was one of those interesting and, for me, novel ideas. Gould traces its history through the 18th-century discussions between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz (is the universe the same scale everywhere?). Through the mathematician Bernhard Riemann’s questioning of a cornerstone of geometry (is the length of a line independent of its position?). And, of course, through Albert Einstein who argued that mass distorts space and time, an idea that was confirmed with the recent discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO detector. A logical follow-up question is what happened in the beginning, allowing Gould to recount how the Big Bang theory was conceived.

“Rather than expanding outwards into something, the universe expands inwards. How? […] the universe is continuously creating more space [because] the scale of length is shrinking [with time].”

Where it gets more speculative, and for some readers perhaps questionable, is when Gould asserts that the universe has a building plan. He refers to the universe’s infrastructure: the elementary particles making up atoms, and the forces that animate them (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces). He marvels at the exact proportions in which these forces work: “nature’s specifications guarantee the stability of atoms” (p. 86), and remarks how slight tweaks of these values would have precluded the formation of even hydrogen atoms, and with it life.

Why is the infrastructure of the universe so hospitable to life?“, asks Gould (p. 88), noting that this is known as the fine-tuning problem. One scientific perspective says this is a leading question and there is no reason: “nature does not “intend” to produce either atoms or life” (p. 88). A more speculative idea is that of the multiverse: “a vast landscape of universes, almost all of which would be stillborn” (p. 89). Our universe is the lucky exception where life flourished. But there is another perspective.

In 1983, physicist John Archibald Wheeler asked a question that Gould revisits throughout this book. In short: Is the universe set up such that intelligent life is guaranteed to arise? Gould thinks yes, and explores several highlights in the universe’s evolution in support. In its infancy, the universe was not completely uniform, it was just the right kind of lumpy for matter to coalesce into stars and galaxies. Had starting parameters been different this would not have happened, so “the universe was built from the start with a clever set of plans” (p. 109). Of the chemical elements forged in large stars that are scattered when stars explode, Gould writes: “it is truly marvellous that they are created in the abundances needed to form planets and to nurture life” (p. 118).

“Gould’s injection of meaning into events does not sit comfortably with me. Is the cosmos miraculously fine-tuned for life, or is life miraculously fine-tuned to the cosmos?”

This is where I found the book at its most unsettling. Gould’s injection of meaning into events does not sit comfortably with me. Is the cosmos miraculously fine-tuned for life, or is life miraculously fine-tuned to the cosmos? There is a subtle difference. Plus, we have no record of all the times life tried to take off and failed. This is a bit reminiscent of the bias that can arise when you exclude zeros and missing values during the statistical analysis of data sets.

The other half of the book looks at evolution today and works backwards. Without resorting to a veiled attempt at scientific creationism, Gould makes two arguments that life arises naturally from the laws of nature and is not just a happy coincidence. One, life’s ability to replicate depends on the molecular properties of its machinery (DNA and RNA) that are ultimately dictated by the fundamental properties of matter (what Gould earlier called the universe’s infrastructure).

Two, chance has a role to play, but random does not mean unpredictable. You can have a system with randomly behaving components that, as a whole, is still predictable. The molecular machinery of life has random behaviours (e.g. mutation and recombination) with a predictable outcome: genetic diversity. “Chance is the engine of diversity, and with enough diversity anything seems to be possible” (p. 183). This touches on some of the hottest topics in evolutionary biology such as convergent evolution, the predictability of evolution, and the origin of evolutionary innovations.

“Gould makes two [evolutionary] arguments that life arises naturally from the laws of nature and is not just a happy coincidence”

That last question touches on one of my favourite books: Andreas Wagner’s Arrival of the Fittest. Elsewhere, I rather verbosely summarised its central thesis as “evolution probing multidimensional spaces of possible protein sequences to rapidly come up with innovative solutions to life’s problems” (one day I will review that book properly, I promise). Gould, the science poet, outdoes me: “The landscape of evolutionary success appears to be very broad; there are many pathways of mutation that preserve function. Nature is wonderfully redundant.” (p. 201)

Compared to the cosmological argument in the first half of the book, I thought Gould makes a more appealing and sound argument here. Also as I consider it an example of life being fine-tuned to the cosmos rather than vice-versa. A final trio of chapters deals with senses and sensations, an exploration of the Mandelbrot set as an example of design without a designer, and the recent discovery of large numbers of exoplanets that might finally start offering resolutions to the Drake equation and the Fermi paradox. I was already savouring the taste of an argument well made at this point, so these chapters were like a dessert to me.

Gould is an enthusiastic and, at times, lyrical guide, and Universe in Creation is not hard to follow. It elicited contrasting responses, both fascinating and discomfiting me. That, surely, is the hallmark of an intellectually engaging book.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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