Weinberg, Steven (1977). The First Three Minutes. New York: Basic Books. 178 pages
A Book Review by Ozodi Osuji
I have heard about this book, The First three Minutes; indeed, I have seen it at bookstores but had never had the urge to read it. I supposed that its contents are found in the various books on astrophysics and cosmology that mention it; moreover, it seemed, today, dated given when it was written, 1977.
I read more contemporary books on astrophysics, so I did not feel like returning to the 1970s to find out the state of the art of that by gone era on the subject.
Three days ago, returning home from work I decided that I had nothing to do at home and that instead I should go to a used books book store and browse at books. I did. As usual, I went to the section on physics and astronomy (am drawn to physics and stories on the origin of the universe). I was there to just browse but somehow I decided to pick up Steven Weinberg's book (and other books).
Last night I decided to read Professor Weinberg's little book, it is only 178 pages long; it is little in comparison to the tomes written on astrophysics. I read the book all night long and by this morning had read all of it.
I did not learn anything new from the book. However, this evening I began thinking how the man ended his book and decided to write a review of it. Weinberg ended his book thus:
"The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.....The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy." Page 144
The ending of the book struck me as interesting. If the study of particle physics, aka elementary particles...Professor Weinberg's specialty...he was a professor at Harvard University... helps him to understand the universe and the more he understands it the more farcical and pointless it seems to him then why study it?
What is the point in the scientific enterprise; why do we study science if we know beforehand that it is going to show us a universe that seem to have been put together by accidental concatenation of physical events and will end either in the big chill or the big crunch?
If we are the products of accidental workings of events beyond our control does life have any meaning? If it does not have any meaning why bother with studying it?
This is a very serious question, at least, to me. It is serious to me for I had long ago reached the conclusion that the universe is pointless and that living as a human being is a waste of time, is totally pointless, meaningless and purposeless.
As I see it, the universe seems like what an intelligent force put together to amuse his self and kill time with but beyond that is pointless; take it away from my sight, I used to say. Why did the universe bother coming into being in the first place?
More importantly, why did it produce human beings like us and give us the intelligence to study it only to find out that it is a pointless universe?
Was the intelligent force that put this universe together insane; did it invent the universe out of insanity?
Religious folks run around thanking what they call God for creating them; me, I do not see how a loving God could have created this farcical universe; just think about it: we are born in body, struggle to live in body, have physical diseases, suffer and age and die; we enslave ourselves to doing meaningless work to earn a living, to maintain our bodies, feed them, clothe them, house them and medicate them and a hundred years later those bodies die and smell like feces.
Our bodies are a compendium of twenty-six elements, especially carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen; those elements are held together by chemical bonds. When we die, the chemical bonds holding together the various elements in our bodies decay and, the elements eventually decay. The elements that hitherto composed our bodies, compound and molecules, separate to their individual states in nature.
In time the atoms, made of particles of electrons, protons and neutrons, decay and the particles separate. In time the particles decay to radiation, light, photons. Those in time probably decay to whatever they came from during the Big Bang, to nothing.
If physics is believed we came from nothing, are nothing and return to nothing. If so, what is the point in living?
Human life seems totally pointless so I sought a way to entertain me, kill time without thinking about the pointless universe we live in.
So, is the universe pointless? Weinberg is as pessimistic as the German idealistic philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (World as Will and Idea).
I am getting philosophical but Weinberg's book is not an exercise in rationalistic philosophy; it is an exercise in materialistic science; it is based on the scientific method: observation of phenomena as it seems to be. Therefore, before we proceed, let me summarize the book on its own terms.
13. 7 billion years ago something happened that got our physical universe going. What is now called the standard model of the universe does not pretend to understand what it is that came out of nowhere and got the universe going. Whatever it was, professor Weinberg did not speculate on its nature. In fact, he did not even begin his book at the beginning; he skipped the first second of the universe's existence.
Thus, we have an unknown singularity; that particle sized thing exploded in what is now called the Big Bang. It is from here that professor Weinberg began weaving his fascinating but stale tale.
I tend to believe that physicists have replaced our forefathers myth makers; they are now the merchants of mythology; they fill the airwaves with speculations on the origin, nature and end of the universe just as Christian ministers do from their reading of Genesis and Revelation in the Bible. We are creatures that want to understand our universe; we do not have the courage to say that we do not have a clue on how the universe came into being; nevertheless, we posit yearns on how it supposedly came into being.
Contemporary stories of creation are clothed in the language of science and probably are as mumbo jumbo as religious stories are!
He tells us that the temperature of whatever exploded is beyond anything that we can conceptualize but he did give a quantitative value to it (we shall skip mathematics here). What is salient is that something came out of nowhere and exploded. Its explosion produced hot energy. He called that hot energy light (hot light is radiation).
Light, we know from quantum mechanics, is both wave and particles. So, that energy, now called heated light (radiation), was both wave and particles. The particles are photons (what Max Plank called quanta and Einstein called photons).
The radiation expanded. As it expand it cooled down (we are talking millions and millions kelvin, so it was still hotter than the hottest stars).
The hot photons collided with each other. Professor Weinberg tells us that as photons collided (attack) with each other they became transformed to electrons (and anti-electrons, positrons).
Whereas he did not expand on this aspect of it, he implied that colliding photons formed other particles of matter, such as quarks and antiquarks.
Quarks combined into protons and anti-protons; neutrons and anti-neutrons; neutrinos and anti-neutrinos and the over 100 other particles we know (Baryons, Hadrons, Leptons etc.).
In effect, energy transformed itself to matter through particles of light colliding with each other. To our question: how did matter come into being? It came into being from energy; photons, massless light, colliding with each other gave rise to matter.
Albert Einstein's famous equation: E=Mc2 is vindicated. (E) Energy multiplied by the speed of light twiced become (M) matter.
Matter, in turn, can be transformed into energy; for example, when electrons and anti-electrons attack each other they annihilate each other and return to radiation (energy). The same goes for the attack of protons and antiprotons and neutrons and anti-neutrons (neutrons decay to protons and electrons).
During the first minute of the existence of the universe, the photons formed electrons and anti-electrons attacked and annihilated each other but leaving one electron for every one billion electrons destroyed; the same goes for protons and neutrons (and neutrinos).
At this point Professor Weinberg discussed the four forces of physics: strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetic forces and gravitation. He showed how they worked in the context of the nascent universe. The strong force held protons and neutrons inside nuclei of atoms; the weak force decays them; electromagnetic force, among other things, attracts electrons to nuclei and is responsible for electrical movements; gravity is responsible for holding large objects where they are in space and time.
By the second minute of the existence of the universe the temperature in the universe is reduced and the universe kept expanding. Allan Guth's inflation theory told us why the universe did not collapse back to itself and ended the incipient universe.
By the third minute of the existence of the universe the universe was cool enough for protons and neutrons to combine into nuclei (of helium and hydrogen...since hydrogen generally has only one proton we are then talking about hydrogen isotopes: deuterium, one proton and one neutron; tritium, one proton and two neutrons).
During the next 400, 000 years (Professor Weinberg's number was 700, 000 years) the universe remained plasmatic; that is, nuclei had not yet captured electrons to form atoms; electrons were in ionic forms, unattached to nuclei. But at the 400, 000 year mark nuclei captured electrons and atoms were formed.
The elements formed were primarily hydrogen (which constitutes 75% of the elements in the universe) and helium. When nuclei was formed the nucleosynthesis released radiation, light. That light is now called the Cosmic Background Microwave Radiation. Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias accidentally discovered it in 1965.
The nascent universe thereafter was a cloud of helium, hydrogen and neutrinos and photons. A few million years later, space occurred in the cloud; each clump of gas was acted on by gravity, pulled in words and in its core ignition started and stars were born.
Stars are clouds of hydrogen and helium in whose cores heat (high temperature) and pressure lead to the fusion of hydrogen to helium (hydrogen has only one proton in its nucleus; this then means for it to capture another proton and two neutrons and one more electron to form helium which has in its nucleus two protons and two neutrons and two electrons circling the nucleus). Like hydrogen, there are isotopes of helium. Those need not detain us here although they play critical roles in nuclear fusion.
Inside stars hydrogen is cooked, fused into helium and heat and light (radiation, energy) is given up. That heat and light, radiation, travels from the core of stars for millions of years before reaching the surface and escape from the stars as the light we see as from stars.
In time stars exhaust their hydrogen supply and begin to fuse to other elements; say, helium to carbon (there are intermediary elements) and thereafter to oxygen until the process reaches iron.
When nucleosynthesis reaches iron the heat inside the star is insufficient to continue fusing to heavier elements. The star then enlarges and explodes in supernova.
During the heat accompanying the explosion of stars the other elements on Chemistry's periodic table are formed (there are 92 naturally occurring elements plus the 20 or so we form in laboratories).
The initial stars were massive in size. They did not live long. In a few million years they exhausted their hydrogen and exploded and spilled other elements (such as gold, diamond etc.) into space.
In time those elements and dust (nebulae) combine to form new stars. Our star, Sun, was formed 4.5 billion years ago from exploded older stars; it will live for another five billion years and explode and die (it will slough off its outer regions and its inner core live a little longer as an amber of a dying light, and then splutter off and become a rock in space (kind of like asteroids and meteorites).
Before the sun dies the earth and the other planets that orbit the sun would have long been dead. When the sun begins its dying process it would expand and become very hot and over heat the earth; in about two billion years our earth would be charred and become like a piece of rock in space ( kind of like Mercury and Venus are now).
When massive stars explode their inner cores collapse to form either neutron stars (where all matter is crushed to neutrons) or to black holes (where the core collapses to what we do not know except that anything that enters its events horizon cannot escape, light included).
At present we have over 200 billion galaxies; each galaxy has over 200 billion stars. Our galaxy, the Milky Way is about 100, 000 light years across (that is calculated from the speed of light of over 186, 000 miles per second).
In the tail end of our spiracle galaxy, where it is neither too hot nor too cold, the goldilocks region, is our solar system; that solar system has nine planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn, Jupitar, Uranium, Neptune and Pluto).
On planet earth biological life exists. It is supposed that in the waters on planet earth (apparently comets brought frozen water from space to cool our hot earth and formed the oceans of the earth) twenty six elements mixed and produced compounds and molecules that produced biological life forms. First were single celled organisms and some of those became multi-celled organisms. The process led to the formation of huge animals.
Human beings apparently evolved from other animals. About 80, 000 years ago, human beings, aka Homo sapiens spread from Africa, where they formed, to all the other continents on planet earth.
Today we are able to ask questions about our universe and astrophysicists borrowing from quantum physics and particle physics have constructed an elaborate story of the origin of the universe and Professor Weinberg summarized that myth of creation in his book, The first three minutes.
Are there other planets where life forms exist? Astrophysicists have discovered millions of exoplanets that look like our planet and speculate that some of them have biological life forms. Occasionally, some imaginative folks talk about "UFOs" aliens from other planets visiting us. The fact is that so far no one has discovered life on other planets but given the vastness of the universe there is no reason to suppose that life evolved only on planet earth?
Professor Weinberg in telling us what Alexander Friedman and Edwin Hubble already told us, said that the galaxies are expanding away from each other (if they are expanding away from each other, George Lemaitre reasoned that they began in one spot, a spot he called the cosmic egg and George Gamow and Fred Hoyle called singularity where the Big Bang took place).
At some point, in trillions of years in the future, the galaxies would be too apart from each other and lose heat; the stars would decay to their constituent elements and those decay to particles and particles decay to nothingness and ultimately the universe would be empty of matter.
Subsequently, the universe would die from a cold chill (the alternative is that the expanding universe would contract and collapse back on its self in what is called big crunch...this idea is no longer accepted by many astrophysicists).
Weinberg's book is an interesting read, but is it true? It is true as contemporary physics understands truth to be.
Physics is only four hundred years old. From Nicolas Copernicus, 1543, to Galileo, Newton and to the present is less than five hundred years, so modern science is very young.
Who knows what future physics would reveal about the nature and origin of the universe? In the 1990s physics realized that visible matter is only 4% of the universe (invisible dark matter is 23 percent of the universe and invincible energy is 73% of the universe).
So, we are only beginning to understand four percent of the universe and that is not enough to say that we have understood it. May be, by the end of this century we would have a totally different picture of the origin and future of the universe?
In the meantime, Professor Weinberg's story of creation is what most contemporary western scientists work with. This story of creation appears better than the story of creation found in the bible.
In the bible a force called God magically conjured the universe out of nowhere. In contemporary cosmology accident conjured out the universe and us. Either story has no way to prove its veracity.
What exactly existed before the Big Bang? Where is the universe expanding to? Was there a vacuum it is expanding to? Is it creating the space it is expanding to? If so what lays at the end of the space it created, nothing?
What exactly is nothing? Nothingness means everything. Could it be that there are things behind the universe that we do not understand?
Our scientific instruments are still very crude and cannot enable us to understand many things. May be the universe came from an already existing universe; maybe there are infinite universes as Hugh Everett's interpretation of quantum mechanics suggest?
Ours is a three dimensional universe; maybe there are universes with many dimensions as String's theorists speculate.
I do not know the answer to any of these questions; nor does science have answers for me. Thus, I end up where I began, not knowing about the origin, nature and future of the universe. That means that I would keep searching for answers.
Searching for answers take folks to metaphysics. Metaphysics really does not give provable answers; it gives poetry, good sounding stories that you have no way of verifying as true or not true; you, in Karl Popper's language, cannot falsify the postulations of religion and spirituality; so, they are not within the purview of science.
In the meantime, I agree with professor Weinberg that the more we understand the universe the more it seems pointless; our efforts to understand the universe is kind of heroic.
I do not know about what he called the grace of tragedy of human existence. Tragedy implies comedy; both must exist for either to exist.
To me human existence seems both tragic and comic; it seems pointless yet it is funny. I do not know what to make of it other than keep studying it and, hopefully, in millions of years to come we shall find conclusive answers to the riddle of why the Universe even bothered to exist!
As Arthur Schopenhauer said, it would have been nice if the universe and people did not exist; people seem a mistake; they are always killing themselves for a few feet of land and in time their little blue earth would be dried up by a dying sun and they die along with it.
In the meantime, professor Weinberg's book is a useful way to kill an evening when one is bored and has nothing better to do; but if I could I would rather go to a symphony, say, on Beethoven or Mozart's music and kill time more joyously rather than read how pointless the universe, hence human life is.
Since the beginning of human beings sojourn on planet earth science probably has been the best gift they gave to themselves. Look around you and see the benefits of science and its applied form in technologies. Just look at the Internet and see how it has brought information to literally our finger tips and connected the entire world. Science has enabled us to understand matter, space and time and the more we do so the more we improve our lives.
But like every good thing science has its down side. It has attempted to kill God. God and religion used to give people solace, a belief that when they died that there is life after death. Now science tells them that their bodies are not different from the bodies of animals, trees and rocks.
We are like everything else in the material universe. Like animals and trees we die and that seems all there is to us. Any talk of God and heaven seem a joke.
Yet people seem to need belief in life after death. Because science has killed that which gave them hope people these days are hopeless and floundering.
In the West people are mostly rudderless and seek solace in alcohol, drugs and sex. Americans are drowning in drugs and sex. They must perpetually stimulate their bodies with drugs or sex to forget their hopelessness.
Most Africans still believe in God and are not yet at the level of hopelessness found in Westerners. But they, too, soon will discard their gods and religion and join the hopeless party that science has given mankind.
Obviously, we must do science and technology for there are really no alternative to them; we cannot escape back to primitive religions.
But is there really no life after death? Maybe there is more to our existence than what science teaches? I tend to think that whereas religion and metaphysics are mostly nonsense that there is life after death. My writings on unified spirit self ought to be explored by the hopeless and desperate students of modern science.
Those who read Professor Weinberg and enjoy his book and then go get drunk to forget the pointlessness of being ought to examine my metaphysics.
Go become a scientist you are told but nobody tells you that scientists are living desperate alcohol and sex filled pointless existence.
People need metaphysics for without it they destroy their lives with drugs and, sooner or later, with nuclear weapons. And since life is pointless destroying people with nuclear weapons would not matter!
Life matters! How? Love you and love all people and you find out that there is an alternative to godless science!
January 24, 2015