Features & Columns

Infinite Wisdom

Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack bring philosophy and astronomy together in a powerful new book about the cosmos—this one offering hope for a troubled planet
The Bangerz's PACK YOUR TRASH: The authors use the problem of space debris in Low Earth Orbit—a deadly 'halo of bullets' surrounding the planet—to illustrate the need for an understanding of our place in the cosmos and the consequences of our actions.

IN AN interview with C-SPAN last August, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was asked which non-lawyer, alive or deceased, he'd like to share the bench with. The swing voter in the nation's highest court hemmed and hawed. He'd interview Plato, he deadpanned, but wouldn't hire him. His old high school classmate Joan Didion might be a good choice. When he finally settled on two names, both were scientists, and one was a Northern California astrophysics professor who specializes in the formation of galaxies and the nature of the confounding, universally present substance known as dark matter.

"If, in my own lifetime and maybe in yours, we could discover the nature of dark matter, we would have a unified theory of creation for the first time in human history," Kennedy said. "And that would solidify the bonds of humankind."

That's a big job for science to do. But Kennedy had read The View From the Center of the Universe, the 2006 book Joel R. Primack wrote with his wife, philosophy professor Nancy Ellen Abrams. That volume, based on the popular course the couple started teaching at UC Santa Cruz in 1995 (now cancelled because of cutbacks), addressed the idea that for the first time in the hundreds of years since science split from religion, humans have the opportunity for a unified understanding of their place in the universe. More than that, Abrams' and Primack's first book suggested that humans enjoy a privileged place in the cosmos thanks to long-ago tiny accidents of chance and substance; eons later, we really are the perfect composition and size for intelligence, and we are very likely unique in the universe. That combination of data and reassurance could add up to a new globally accepted creation story, they posited—a shared story that could "solidify the bonds of humankind," as Kennedy put it.

The Universe COMING FULL CIRCLE: This diagram from 'The New Universe and the Human Future' shows the range of human identity and self-consciousness in the form of a snake closing in on its own tail, called an 'uroboros' from the ancient Greek for 'tail-swallowing.'

Five years later Abrams and Primack have taken the central concept of their first book and built on it. The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World addresses the shared creation story as the starting point for common global action on pressing problems like climate change and the little-known phenomenon of space debris. It also draws parallels between human evolution and the evolution of the cosmos (see excerpt, page 24). On a recent warm spring afternoon, the couple sat on the deck of their home overlooking Monterey Bay and explained a little more about their project, starting with the fundamental proposition, sure to raise secular eyebrows, that humans are unique in the cosmos.

"We found that our students typically came into our course having this idea that they're insignificant motes in a universe that doesn't care," says Primack. "But the peak of complexity doesn't happen on the large end of the size scale." "We're the perfect size," says Abrams. "We are. It's like a Goldilocks size."

"This is physics and biology," says Primack. "Once you understand it, it's just the way it is. So we shouldn't feel that we're insignificant compared to the gigantic things."

Once humans understand the cosmos and our unique place in it, the authors say, we can start making rational decisions for the long term and hopefully extend our planet's livability. Says Abrams, "Once you understand how to think cosmically—how to understand the very long term, because we're part of this enormous flow, this wonderful process of the evolution of intelligent life out of particles, and it's amazing we're here at all—if you start to think from that standpoint, you'll see a new way of thinking about the problems you happen to be expert in."

The Universe STARPOWER COUPLE: Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel Primack on the deck of their Westside Santa Cruz home

As if in preparation for a computer-savvy, forward-thinking audience, the book contains innovative symbols (linked, in the case of the iPad version) pointing to videos on their website, several with very high production values (Pixar and NOVA are represented among the credits) and more than one featuring music composed by Abrams herself.

Asked who they hope will read their book, Abrams doesn't hesitate. "I'd like high school students to read it," she says. "I would. Yale [University Press] is putting this at the top of their list of graduation presents, which I think is just great. Because this really is a book for young people. This says, 'You don't have to fall into the same old thinking traps as old people.' It really is about finding a new way of looking at the universe and an optimistic but convincing way to look at reality."

Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack speak about "The New Universe and the Human Future"

Friday, May 6


College of San Mateo Planetarium


The Universe LITTLE BIG UNIVERSE: Another uroboros diagram from 'The New Universe and the Human Future' shows the extraordinary range of cosmic dimensions, from the unimaginably small Planck length at the tail to the staggeringly immense size of the visible universe at the head.

'This Cosmically Pivotal Moment'

Excerpts from 'The New Universe and the Human Future'

In Chapter 5 of their provocative new book, Abrams and Primack make the case that we are living at the "midpoint of time on multiple timescales." First is the cosmic timescale. "There will never again be so many galaxies visible," they write, because the universe is expanding and galaxies are disappearing over the horizon of what we can see. Second, our solar system is about halfway through its expected lifespan of about 10 billion years, which will end with our sun puffing up into a red giant. Third, we are halfway through the roughly 1-billion-year period when complex life on Earth can exist; in another 500 million years the ever-warming sun will make us a desert planet. And fourth, they write, humanity is at a pivotal moment in the sense that it's approaching the end of a period of very rapid growth and can now, if it chooses, change its behavior to create a more sustainable future on Earth.

At the very moment that we are discovering our place in the cosmos, we are reaching the end of a period of explosive worldwide growth in both the human population and the physical impact of each one of us on the planet. This period of explosive growth has gone on longer than the lifetime of anyone now living, and therefore it seems normal, even inevitable. But from a larger perspective it is not normal at all and cannot last.

In 1800 there were about a billion people on Earth. In the past two centuries the population has increased by a factor of six, or six times. In the twentieth century alone the population doubled and then doubled again.

Let's look at a graph tracing the growth of the human population over the past two thousand years. Exponential growth always looks more or less like this curve: it rises slowly, then shoots up sharply like a bent elbow. Growth of something is "exponential" whenever the rate of growth is proportional to the amount of whatever is growing—in other words, the more there is, the faster the rate at which it grows. In biology, a species can get into runaway reproduction and grow exponentially, but if it then overconsumes the resources of its ecological niche, there is an abrupt die-off. Take, for example, a hypothetical bloom of pond scum that doubles each day. It starts slowly, but speeds up. Until the last couple of days, the pond looks nice and the fish are happy, but on the last day the scum chokes the whole pond and everything dies. It looks a lot like the graph of the human population over the last millennium.

The Universe GROWING UP: This graph showing human population growth could point toward resource depletion and species die-off—or a better outcome, with the universe as a model.

As we write this book, the world population is approaching seven billion. Population experts agree that Earth cannot support another doubling of the human population. We will hit a limit before that. Hitting a limit is inevitable not only for the human population but probably even sooner for the exponential growth of natural resource use by each person. While population was increasing six times, carbon dioxide emissions increased twenty times, energy use thirty times, world gross domestic product a hundred times, and mobility per person a thousand times! If all the people in the world were to consume like Americans, which many aspire to do, it would take the resources of four Planet Earths. A typical person in the United States uses his or her weight in materials, fuel and food every day. The United States and a few other countries have been dumping far more than our share of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans.

Clearly, we are beginning to hit material limits. Increases in greenhouse gases are now causing worldwide climate changes, the effects of which we are seeing in the form of record-breaking heat waves and storms and the melting of the polar icecaps. We are running out of fresh water and topsoil worldwide. We have destroyed more than half of the earth's forests and wetlands, and we are appropriating for our own consumption a large and increasing fraction of the biological productivity of the entire earth. Our actions are killing not just individual organisms but wiping out entire species at the greatest rate since the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species after the meteor impact sixty-five million years ago.

What most people do not understand, because it is counterintuitive, is how little time is left once an exponential trend becomes noticeable at all. The pond scum doesn't seem to be a danger to the pond until the next-to-the-last day. This is why we need to figure out quickly how to transition out of the current period of worldwide human inflationary growth as gently and justly as possible. Cosmology can help—by providing a model for this seemingly insurmountable task. The model fits because this pivotal moment for humanity is mirroring the most important pivot point in history: the beginning of our universe.

Our narrative is going to step backward here to explain what may have occurred in the instant leading to the Big Bang. Then we'll show the way humanity today is mirroring that instant and how we might be able to use this knowledge to transition out of this dangerous period in a way demonstrated by the universe to work.

According to the theory of Cosmic Inflation, just before the Big Bang (or at the very beginning of the Big Bang, depending on how you choose to look at it) there was a very brief period of about 1032 seconds during which the universe expanded exponentially; in other words, in each successive unit of time it doubled in size, again and again. Then this exponential growth ended abruptly in what we call the Big Bang, after which the universe continued to expand, but far more slowly.

Cosmic Inflation is the only theory known that explains how the Big Bang could have gotten started—how the right initial conditions could have existed for the Big Bang to have happened the way it did. The theory predicts exactly the small differences from place to place that could grow with cold dark matter into the galaxy distribution that astronomers actually observe throughout the visible universe: the great chains, clusters, and superclusters of galaxies that lie along the filaments in the cosmic web. These small differences arose from quantum effects that occurred during the cosmic inflation.

The theory of Cosmic Inflation makes six predictions, and as of this writing five have been tested and found to agree with observations. The theory also appears to be compatible with modern particle physics theories, so it is definitely to be taken very seriously.

The shape of the curve representing cosmic inflation looks like the curve of human population or of pond scum—the only difference is the time between doublings, which for cosmic inflation was not years or days but an almost inconceivably tiny fraction of a second. If the theory is right, in the 1032 seconds before the Big Bang the universe expanded just as much, in powers of ten, as it has expanded in the 13.7 billion years since! ... [T]he size that the presently visible universe had reached by the end of cosmic inflation was fully halfway, logarithmically, to the size it is today.

The way that the universe transitioned from its exponentially explosive growth during cosmic inflation to the slow expansion that let it go on for billions of years could model for us the transition from rampant growth to sustainability that we humans must make. Countless cultures going back at least to ancient Egypt and Sumer used the cosmos as they understood it as the model for their lives. Now that we understand incomparably more about how the universe actually works, it is even more important—and valuable—to do this. The death of the pond is one model of how exponential growth can end; the universe gives us a very different model. The universe's inflationary period ended abruptly with a Big Bang—but this was good! It was only after cosmic inflation ended and cosmic expansion became relatively slow that the universe entered its most creative and long-lived phase.

How can we use this as a model? Our own inflationary growth must end, but it doesn't have to be catastrophic. Afterward, if all goes well, it is still possible to grow, but only very slowly. The universe has shown that exponential growth transformed to slow growth can last for billions of years. But there is also a warning in the model: When cosmic inflation hits its limit, countless random events that were happening—quantum fluctuations—froze into permanent wrinkles in the new space-time. Amid partisan mudslinging in Washington and a "you first" attitude frustrating progress on the international level, it's tempting to discount the politics of our day. That, however, would be an irreversible mistake, because what the warning of the model means in practice is that countless political and social decisions being made on all size scales during these final years of human inflationary growth may end up getting frozen into the future of our species and our planet. Nothing could be less useful than to think that politics doesn't matter. Today's actions—and failures to act—may reverberate into the distant future far out of proportion to the thought going into them.

If we take the universe as our model, we should plan for and seek a stable period in resource use, which can happen only with renewable resources. The universe, of course, made its shift naturally. For it, injustice, suffering, addiction and fatalism did not have to be overcome because they didn't exist, but for us they do. Nevertheless, we have the knowledge and internal resources to overcome them. Only resource-heavy activities have to slow down. Our drive for meaning, spiritual connection, personal and artistic expression, and cultural growth can be unlimited. These abstract treasures are often adequately appreciated only after they are lost, but if we valued them above consumer goods, then we would have a paradigm for human progress. For our universe the most creative period, which brought forth galaxies, stars, atoms, planets and life, came after inflation ended, and this could also be true for humanity. A stable period can last as long as human creativity stays ahead of our physical impact on the earth.

THE NEW UNIVERSE AND THE HUMAN FUTURE: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World, by Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack. Yale University Press, 2011. (238 pages, $28). To read portions of the book and view videos, go to http://new-universe.org.