From the News Center at UC Santa Cruz: “In his new book, Cosmological Koans: A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality”, physicist Anthony Aguirre explores deep questions about the nature of reality, using an approach inspired by Zen koans to take the reader on a thought-provoking tour of the cosmos and the core ideas of modern physics.
In Zen Buddhism, koans are short parables or questions meant to confront the practitioner with the inadequacy of conventional concepts and habits of thought. Similarly, Aguirre’s “cosmological koans” confront the reader with the unexpected nature of the world as described by physics and the mind-boggling ways in which it differs from our subjective experience or intuitive understanding of things.
‘I wanted to convey that sense of mystery and wonder that comes from seeing reality in a new way,’ said Aguirre, a professor of physics and holder of the Faggin Family Presidential Chair for the Physics of Information at UC Santa Cruz.
The book covers a wide range of topics, woven together with a fictional story line that recounts a journey from Italy to Japan. Multiple universes, the nature of time, the meaning of quantum theory, and entropy and information are among the subjects explored in short chapters that manage to convey mind-bending ideas in a way that is accessible and entertaining.
The topics include some of the most challenging open questions in cosmology and physics, as well as concepts that have long been settled science yet remain disturbingly counterintuitive. With respect to the enduring mystery of time, for example, Einstein showed that there is no universal ‘now’—in other words, different observers can have different perceptions of whether two events are simultaneous.”
Let’s explore the concept of time a bit further. In Chapter 28, p. 210, Professor Aguirre writes that you don’t see the world as it is now, whether that “now” is cosmic or not. The world you see around you is the world as it was in the past. Viewing the leaf falling from a tree 50 meters away, you see the tree as it was 167 nanoseconds ago.
What does “now” mean? In other words how do we define the present as distinct from the past or the future? It’s a timeless question borne of metaphysics as much as physics. As soon as you stop to identify that now is now, the moment has already passed into the past. Perhaps the closest we can come is envisioning a pause button as the label for a given “time t” that occurs as an event in a particular space at a specific time. But as we know, within our physical framework, there is no pause button. The arrow of time is always moving forward. The instant we reflect on the present it becomes the past, and the future is the next moment in time.
So if identifying the present is nearly a fleeting impossibility, would we have the audacity to imagine a perfect moment in time? Art Garfunkel believes we can, and who am I to disagree?
In chapter 30, p. 226, Professor Aguirre turns his attention to the thorny question of Theodicy, or why a designer would create a world of beauty such as ours while allowing for unimaginable levels of pervasive suffering. This leads the good professor to contemplate the multiverse, and that the universe we inhabit is one among many – merely the one that is most inhabitable to us. That thinking is in line with Leibniz, who imagined this to be the “best” universe not just in terms of good outweighing evil, but also as the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena.
Chapter 31, The Floating Gardens, prompted me to get even more whimsical than usual. From a biblical standpoint, and the Old Testament in particular, the most significant “uni-verse” is the first verse. (Might we consider this a Cosmological “Cohen” as opposed to a “Koan”?) It reads: בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
בְּרֵאשִׁית – in the beginning. The beginning of what? Time would seem to be the essence.
בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים – God created. The apparent conflict between “God” in the plural, and “created” in the singular.
אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ – The heavens and the earth. Note the singularity of the earth and the multiplicity of the heavens, not to mention “the two aces”.
So by now you may be wondering, who is Katrina? In chapter 50, p. 355, Professor Aguirre takes note of the host of dichotomies he has assailed us with: Us and Them. Self and Other. East and West. Katrina is a young woman in the service industry I encounter in her role as a barista at Starbucks in the morning and as a waitress at Martell’s Tiki Bar in the evening, a dichotomy in its own right. She took an interest in what I was reading one morning – it was Cosmological Koans – which led to a conversation about East/West and the Yoga which got shoved down to the bottom of my bucket list.
Starbucks of course asks for your first name if you order anything but regular coffee. Originally I gave my name as Len, but for some reason the baristas kept hearing “Glen”. I got tired of correcting them, and so Glen I became for the purposes of my morning routine. When Katrina waited on Miriam and me and at Martell’s, my “real” name came to the surface. “If you’re Len, be Len” she said. Sounds like a cosmological koan to me.