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Monday, October 16, 2006

The Goldilocks Enigma

Nobody can say that this blog avoids the big issues in life and these short reviews and extracts from a book by Paul Davies prove it .

The book is reviewed on the BBC web site where longer extracts can be seen.

The Goldilocks Enigma - Professor Paul Davies.

The Goldilocks Enigma tackles fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it. Scientific breakthroughs, he argues, have brought us to the brink of comprehending the underlying structure of nature or "a final 'theory of everything'".
Central to finding this solution, he says, is answering the Goldilocks Enigma - why is it that "the universe seems 'just right' for life"?

THE GOLDILOCKS ENIGMA is published by ALLEN LANE, an imprint of Penguin Books.

By Paul Davies

Why are we here? How did the universe begin? How will it end? How is the world put together? Why is it the way it is? People have always sought answers to such 'ultimate' questions in religion and philosophy, or declared them to be completely beyond human comprehension.

There have been two major developments.
The first is the enormous progress made in cosmology. Observations made using satellites, the Hubble Space Telescope, and sophisticated ground-based instruments have combined to transform our view of the universe and the place of human beings within it.
The second development is the growing understanding of the subject known as high-energy particle physics. It is mostly carried out with giant particle accelerator machines (what were once called 'atom smashers') of the sort found at Fermilab near Chicago and the CERN Laboratory just outside Geneva.
Combining these two subjects provides tantalizing clues that deep and previously unsuspected linkages bind the micro-world to the macro-world.
These spectacular advances hint at a final 'theory of everything' in which a flawless account of the entire physical world is encompassed within a single explanatory scheme.

If almost any of the basic features of the universe, from the properties of atoms to the distribution of the galaxies, were different, life would very probably be impossible. Like the porridge in the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, the universe seems to be 'just right' for life.
Until recently, 'the Goldilocks factor' was almost completely ignored by scientists. Now, that is changing fast."

In a second extract Davies looked at the coincidences which are required to make the universe fit for life.

A good way to think about this is to imagine playing God and setting out to design a universe. Suppose you had already settled on the basic laws of physics but you still had some free parameters at your disposal. The values of these parameters could be set by twiddling the knobs of a Designer Machine. When would it make a big difference, and when would it scarcely matter? Maybe you can't raise the mass of the electron and lower the strength of the strong nuclear force together because these two properties of nature are connected in some deep way that forbids it.

Finally Davies looks at existing theories of existence.

"So, how come existence? At the end of the day, all the approaches I have discussed are likely to prove unsatisfactory. In fact, in reviewing them they all seem to me to be either ridiculous or hopelessly inadequate: a unique universe which just happens to permit life by a fluke; a stupendous number of alternative parallel universes which exist for no reason; a pre-existing God who is somehow self-explanatory; or a self-creating, self-explaining, self-understanding universe-with observers, entailing backward causation and teleology. Perhaps we have reached a fundamental impasse dictated by the limitations of the human intellect. I began this book by saying that religion was the first great systematic attempt to explain all of existence and that science is the next great attempt. Both religion and science draw their methodology from ancient modes of thought honed by many millennia of evolutionary and cultural pressures. Our minds are the products of genes and memes. Now we are free of Darwinian evolution and able to create our own real and virtual worlds, and our information processing technology can take us to intellectual arenas that no human mind has ever before visited, those age-old questions of existence may evaporate away, exposed as nothing more than the befuddled musings of biological beings trapped in a mental straightjacket inherited from evolutionary happenstance. The whole paraphernalia of gods and laws, of space, time and matter, of purpose and design, rationality and absurdity, meaning and mystery, may yet be swept away and replaced by revelations as yet undreamt of."

How will such revelations if they come about influence us in our attitude to conservation and global warming?
How does this all relate to the thinking of James Lovelock and his Gaia Theory?

Somerset Wildlife Trust AGM October 14 2006

Before I start on the AGM here is a photograph taken from home early in the morning a few days ago. Why would anyone want to live anywhere else than Somerset?

Now for the AGM.

There were some memorable points of interest at the AGM yesterday. The large audience of around 160 was impressive as was the buffet lunch provided by the hosts, the West Somerset Area Group, and offering local produce. Apart from the food I was struck by reports of new projects such as the enormously significant large scale landscape conservation work on the Mendip Hills. The project is aiming to link the many existing reserves with adjacent private land to rebuild biodiversity across the area. This concept of working outside the confines of reserves was touched on by different speakers and relates to concern for the state of the countryside everywhere. The Mendip scheme covers 29 nature reserves managed by SWT and other conservation groups, 17 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, 93 County Wildlife Sites and the surrounding intensively farmed land.

It was good to hear about the merger of the Carymoor Environmental Trust with the Somerset Wildlife Trust. There was plenty of information about the facilities that are now part of SWT and there is no doubt that the centre near Castle Cary will provide an excellent education and training resource for anyone interested in doing something to help wildlife in Somerset. It would be well worth while organizing a visit from our committee and any other local members so that we can see for ourselves what is available.

Bringing new experience to the Council of the SWT was David Watson. Of interest to me was his work on the creation of species rich grassland at Carrymoor. He is a Principle Lecturer in Biology and Assistant Head of the School of Science and the Environment at Bath Spa University. He has worked as a volunteer with a number of Wildlife Trusts in different parts of the country.

Reports on campaigns showed that responses were generally good. News was awaited on the DEFRA intentions for a possible cull of Badgers; Raising funds for Fyne Court repairs is going well as had been the case for the Beer and Aller Woods purchase of additional land. The Big Switch Campaign had highlighted the need for individuals to save energy consumption to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Trusts concern about proposals to raise water levels over parts of the levels to encourage tourism was reported with the warning that members of the Trust might be asked to support a formal objection if concerns were not meet.

The afternoon was given a very stimulating conclusion by the guest speaker Rosie Boycot who gave her own views on the current climate change state of play. In brief she made it clear that whilst individual actions were important only government action could make the major changes necessary. She was sympathetic to questions from members and agreed that only some major event which had a serious economic impact was likely to get politicians to ignore the displeasure of voters and force changes in lifestyles. The situation calls for urgent change to many elements of our social structure such as planning changes to make all new houses energy efficient.

I found it interesting to compare the three presentations on global warming I have heard in the last week or so. First Bill Butcher of SWT and SERC, then Al Gore, the man who once was the next president of the USA. And finally Rosie Boycot. Their views all overlap with some differences of emphasis but all committed to the seriousness of the situation.
Bill Butcher gave details at the AGM of coach parties to go to London on the 4th Nov for the Stop the Climate Chaos rally. Members should if at all possible make the trip.

Bill and Rosie both recommended a new book by George Monbiot called "Heat". Here is a link to The Guardian and an extract from the book.,,1875762,00.html