(Ultimately) Alone in the Universe, by Richard (Dick) Gordon

Loeb2015

I was trying to convince Abraham (Avi) Loeb to join me as an editor of Habitability of the Universe before Earth (HUBE), a book I’m planning in the new book series Astrobiology: Exploring Life on Earth and Beyond (World Scientific Publishing, London) with series editors Joseph Seckbach (Israel), Pabulo Henrique Rampelotto (Brazil) and me (Canada & USA). Now, as Natalie and I have long observed, organizing scientists is much like herding cats. Avi turned me down, despite saying he is very drawn to the subject, on the basis that he is writing yet another book (Books by Abraham Loeb) and that he is heading some sort of award giving group (Breakthrough Initiatives Project of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation). Then he sent me his latest book, available only in Kindle format, From the First Star to Milkomeda. (He did not ask me to do this review.) Milkomeda refers to the result of collision of our Milky Way Galaxy with the “nearby” Andromeda Galaxy “within a few billion years”. Whew! Imagine trying to absorb and assimilate migrants from another 100 billion planets.

This is a semi-autobiographical account of a fine mature scientist and academic who has reached the peak in his career. By reading this book you can see how his mind works and sense his high personal and academic standards. You can also sense the intense loneliness that comes with reaching such a place. It’s a weird book giving you a view most people never see, the workings of an imaginative, clever, sharp, yet careful mind. He is a theoretician, par excellence, with substantial immunity from the grant system and the committees who decide who gets viewing time on expensive, communal telescopes. As a theoretical biologist I understand this independence. It allows our ideas to pour forth.

Avi thinks big. His latest work is on the earliest formation of water in our universe, and the possibility that life developed way back when. I have long been annoyed with the many books on the origin of life that presume, without discussion, that life began on Earth. This is one of the last anthropocentrisms, the first being that Earth is the center of the universe. I had an opportunity to knock the idea down a bit when Alexei Sharov and I wrote Life Before Earth. He came at the problem from a biological point of view, extrapolating a measure of organism complexity back in time, and I helped spell out the consequences. Avi calculates the first time the universe had places warm and cool enough to support liquid water. Both calculations allow for life for most of the 13.6 billion years our universe has been around, not just the paltry 4.54 billion years since the formation of our solar system.

When you start Milkomeda, you think you are about to be treated to a proper autobiography, farm boy near Tel Aviv rocketing to theoretical astrophysicist. But the book in short order plunges into the kind of language one expects in grant applications, giving only hints of Avi’s personal life. As all of Avi’s work is new to me, his 500 or so papers not having crossed my computer desktop previously, I saw past the “justifications” in the grant style of writing to fascinating ideas, like stars doing sling shots around pairs of black holes to achieve speeds near the speed of light. What a ride! Now I have to know whether life on planets around such flying stars would have any chance of surviving the trip? If so, we’d have a mechanism that could spread life well beyond the confines of galaxies. Close encounters with black holes are tales worth telling. I really enjoyed this.

Avi has reached that point in scientific life where he gives much thought to mentoring. A substantial portion of Milkomeda is devoted to the cultivation of the minds of young astrophysicists, trying to strike a balance between them towing the line and being obnoxiously creative. Here Avi shows he is one of us unherded cats. Did you ever hear of a labor union of scientists? No such thing. I’m still nominally President of CARRF, the Canadian Association for Responsible Research Funding, whose members have long since dispersed or departed Earth. My cofounders rejected my preferred moniker UNFUN, the Union of Unfunded Scientists. But under the CARRF banner, we produced much peer reviewed and other literature on how to improve/replace the peer review system for grants. Avi has rediscovered many of these ideas, our tiltings at windmills, unaware of our published efforts. So many scientists independently come to these conclusions, but ununionized, nothing happens. The shame of it all is that the taxpayer, who foots most of the bill for scientific discovery, gets far less bang for the buck than should be possible. I so completely agree with him but I found the whole topic maddening to read about, again. He gives ten specific examples in astrophysics of scientists suppressing the research of other scientists they thought were wrong. It is a warning for anyone who practices science by consensus. If you are someone who has looked with curiosity at the inner workings of astrophysics and wondered what being in the field is about, this book will give you keen insights.

Good ole Lord Kelvin predicted the Heat Death of the Universe, back before nuclear energy was discovered, a rather depressing scenario. Avi, while holding his head high in contemplating the universe on the cover of Milkomeda, points out that with the universe expanding, most of the galaxies we see beyond our local cluster will vanish from the sky. Their light will not reach us, because the rate of expansion of the universe exceeds the speed of light. Somehow gravity will keep our small corner of the universe intact, but alone. Well, perhaps: another depressing outcome. But maybe we could hitch a ride around that pair of black holes from the Milky Way and Andromeda as they hurl towards each other, and be out of here. Stay tuned. And buy the book. You still have time.

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