Review of ‘The Universe Next Door,’ by Marcus Chown

The Universe Next Door, published in 2002, is much more interesting for my money than his more recent book on quantum theory. The title is part of a quote from e.e. cummings.

It comprises three parts divided into a total of 12 chapters, the three parts are headed:

1)      The Nature of Reality;

2)      The Nature of the Universe; and

3)      Life and the Universe.

I am not sure that this sub-division achieves very much more than the chapter headings alone.

Chown’s purpose is to widen our imagination by showing us some fairly recent speculative hypothesising by various eminent theoretical physicists. Some of these conjectures are more grounded than others but the basic pattern is the same: state some facts; ask some questions; express complete puzzlement; come to the rescue with suggested meanings from a scientist or two; scatter around words such as, ‘Astonishing’ ‘Amazing’ ‘Remarkable’ or even ‘Astounding;’ move on to the next topic.

Some of the chapters deal with fairly well-worn ideas such as ‘Many worlds’ ‘Panspermia’ and ‘the Multi-verse’ but there were others that I had not previously encountered including the possibility of the arrow of time running backwards, mirror particles (not to be confused with anti-matter) and interstellar dust comprising bacteria (a variation of panspermia).

The last example emerges from the puzzle that stars should be brighter than they appear but they have been dimmed, apparently, by clouds of dust each particle of which has been calculated to be the precise size of a single bacterium. From this the late Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe (two eminent cosmologists) speculate that passing comets pick up some of these possible bacteria and release them as the comet nears the sun. The solar wind then scatters them to all corners of the universe and some, inevitably, will fall on to planets. We know how hardy bacteria can be, surviving extremes of heat and cold, just waiting for favourable conditions before bursting into life and dividing. This is how life might have arrived on earth in its formative stages just waiting for it to cool sufficiently for liquid water to provide ideal living conditions. If true, life is probably common in the cosmos but intelligent life rare as it would not have had sufficient time to develop much beyond where we are now. The evidence is interesting without being compelling. The trouble with this conjecture is: where did the cosmic bacteria come from in the first place? Hoyle and Wickramasinghe are silent.

‘Many worlds’ is based on the peculiarities of the wave function in quantum mechanics. It states, briefly, that all possible realities exist as parallel worlds but we can only experience the one that we are in. The ‘Multiverse’ is a logical extension of string theory whereby there are an infinite number of universes created from the vacuum, each with its own unique set of physical laws. It follows that perhaps this is the only one so far created that is suitable for life.

I must say that I rather enjoyed the book. There is more depth I felt than the one I recently reviewed by the same author. In the end though it depends for its impact on the Erich von Daniken approach in the 1970s – ‘We can’t explain x, so it must have been caused by y.’ I suppose much religious faith is based on such speculations – ‘Where did the world come from? No idea, so it must have been created by… (substitute whichever is your chosen creation myth.) Books like this rely for their success on our craving for concrete answers, our apparent need for certainty. The human mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

8 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Universe Next Door,’ by Marcus Chown

  1. Delighted that you enjoyed “The Universe Next Door”. You might also like “The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead” (Faber), which is about ultimate questions. What’s beyond the edge of the Universe? What happened before the Big Bang? What are the limits of what we can know? Where do the laws of physics come from? etc. My best book, however, is “The Magic Furnace” (Vintage).

    Thanks again!

    Best wishes,
    Marcus Chown

  2. Never Ending Days… was the first of yours I read, which is why I bought the other two. IMHO I think that it is the best of the three, although ‘Universe’ is fun. I will definitely read ‘The Magic Furnace,’ and post a review here.

  3. “The Magic Furnace” took me 4 1/2 years and nearly killed me!

    Best wishes,

    I don’t know if “Boltonian” means you have a Bolton connection but my wife’s family come from Bolton.

  4. I look forward to reading it.

    My family are all from Bolton. I was a mere 18 months old when we left but childhood indoctrination means that I am condemned to support Bolton Wanderers for the rest of my life (a sort of Sisyphean punishment), although I prefer rugby union these days. And Lancashire CCC of course, which is less of a burden.

    I tweet as Linkolanko, so I might catch up with you there.

  5. I look forward to reading this. The omens are good! One of my favourite books (The Moon’s A Balloon) also derives its name from e e cummings

  6. Gordy:

    Would you like me to send it to you? If so, please email me with your postal address.

    I read the David Niven autobiog. many years ago and really enjoyed it.

  7. This is not a genuine comment; it’s been so long since I’ve visited this site that I’m not sure of either my user name or the email address I supplied when first registering. As a result, I must test various combinations.

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