Skip to comments.Design for Living: A theoretical physicist weighs in on a hot-button topic (Leonard Susskind)
Posted on 01/10/2006 6:14:20 PM PST by gobucks
Many high-profile critics in the raging debate over "intelligent design" have, understandably, been evolutionary biologists. Legendary Oxford professor Richard Dawkins regularly appears on British TV to talk up Darwin and lash out against ID between books. Harvard emeritus prof E.O. Wilson has edited a hefty new 1,700-page anthology of Darwin's collected works, with the fighting title From So Simple a Beginning. They're generally not people like Leonard Susskind, a renowned physics professor at Stanford and a prime architect of string theory. His new book, his first for a general audience, has the provocative title The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design (Little, Brown). It's not the term "cosmic landscape," trippy as it sounds, that's drawing the attention. Nor is it the words "string theory"even though "string theory" is, admittedly, one of those futuristic-sounding 10-dollar terms, like "chaos theory" or "complexity theory" or "quantum gravity," that get the layperson daydreaming of The Matrix and cybernetic implants. The words that are causing double takesand in some cases, drawing ireare "intelligent design," and the word that precedes them, "illusion."
"Intelligent design" is, for better or worse, its own 10-dollar term these days. But another reason why the book's title seems so surprising is because Susskind hails from the ultra-rarefied world of theoretical physics.
Never mind that the word "hadron" appears more often in his book's index than "intelligent design." The Cosmic Landscapewhich is by turns a memoir, an impassioned manifesto, and a brain-melting theoretical-physics primermainly addresses another controversial concept, the anthropic principle, which, as Susskind defines it, is "a hypothetical principle that says the world is fine-tuned so that we can be here to observe it."
"I started writing about it as a controversy strictly between physicists," says Susskind. "I started writing it as a physics book, and quite honestly, I didn't know that much about biology and chemistry, but as I started to write, I realized I was writing something broader."
While doing some online research, Susskind inadvertently came across dozens of religious blogs and websites invoking the anthropic principle. "I discovered this very large culture of people [who believe] that the anthropic principle means intelligent design," he says. "That was a bit of an education for me. This book is about the lack of need for supernatural explanations."
Why are the laws of nature so precariously balanced, Susskind writes, on the fine line between life being possible and life being impossible? Susskind argues for the idea that the universe is so huge, messy, diverse, and pregnant with possibilities that the anthropic principle can make sensewithout the necessity for intelligent design. It's a strange stew of several concepts, including nonzero cosmological constants, expanding universes, and vacuum energies.
Susskind has been a professor at Stanford since the late '70s, but you can still detect a trace of old-school New York in his grizzled, no-nonsense voice. He begins and ends his book with a plainspoken quotation"I have no need for this hypothesis," Pierre-Simon Laplace's famous retort after getting grilled by Napoléon for not mentioning God in his mathematical masterwork Mechanique Céleste (Celestial Mechanics).
A lot of weird things have happened in physics since the time of Laplace and Newton. As no-nonsense as Susskind seems, he rejects the idea of a holy grail of beautiful, tidy mathematical equations and elegant minimalist explanations. Our universe, he argues, is a messy place. He frequently uses crazy patchwork quilts and ungainly Rube Goldberg devices as points of comparison. He says he actually finds it "embarrassing" to explain particle physics to a lay audience. "So many different pieces and assumptions and orders of magnitude," he says. "I always think, jeez, is anybody going to believe this?" I ask him what it would take to get answers to some of those hazy questions. His response: "If we had an accelerator at least as big as the galaxy, and if we could pour in 10 trillion barrels of oil per second . . . "
Before Susskind dedicated his life to plumbing the mysteries of the cosmos, he spent some time working as a plumber the kind that clears drainpipes. Born in the hardscrabble South Bronx, Susskind went to City College with the practical objective of learning how to build heating systems. He quickly realized that he was lousy at his engineering classesall of their interlocking mechanical parts, slide rules, and graph paper diagrams. He found himself falling madly in love with the more ethereal world of physics. Finally, he decided he had to break the news to his dad, a plumber who toiled in gritty tenements in Harlem and the Bronx.
As he vividly recounts in an autobiographical essay, this news wasn't received well by his father.
"The tough guy looked at me and said, 'What thedo you mean, you're not going to be an engineer? What are you going to bea ballet dancer?' I said, 'I want to be something else, a physicist.'
" 'Physicist? Physicist? What the hell is a physicist?' . . . I held my ground and answered, 'It's a kind of scientist.' . . . I was not sure that I could explain so I took a shortcut. I said, 'A scientist like Einstein.'
" 'Einstein?' he said. 'Yeah, Einstein.' For a full minute he stood silent, in deep thought. Then he said, 'Are you any good at this stuff?' "
Susskind wasn't actually comparing himself to Einstein, but it illustrates a pointeveryone knew Einstein. No physicist today can claim the same status in the public imagination. There are famed British physicists like Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, and physicists who have recently written well-received popular books, like Columbia professor Brian Greene; there's Case Western University professor Lawrence Krauss, who routinely speaks out on public issues, and a handful of others. "I think physicists these days are less public figures than they were 40 or 50 years ago," Susskind observes. "They're less comfortable interacting with the press and political structure. There's so much out there that requires expertise, and requires the input of experts and scientists.
"When I was very young, the great scientists I knew were really public figures. They had come out of Los Alamos, they had come out of the Manhattan Project, and they were used to being taken seriously as authorities, as experts."
Granted, it's no longer World War II. But today, there's a different type of battle at hand.
"As you know, there's something of a war against science going on," Susskind says.
I think he meant to say, "...there's something of a war against scientific naturalism going on".
But that would be expecting too much honesty of course. The question is plain however. Why would a man, a man as famous in Physics as Oprah is in T.V., feel that his time would be well spent responding to outlandish claims in 'religious blogs' which invoke the anthropic principle?
"This book is about the lack of need for supernatural explanations."
Really? I guess I'll go right out and get a copy. Lord knows that your average man or woman out there doesn't need supernatural help in say, losing weight, stopping smoking, kicking that nasty on-line porn habit, etc etc.
All we need is the love and altrusitic fellowship of a Standford Particle Physicist to get us through those tough bumps in life.
I sure hope he included chapters regarding how a Husband can make his Wife feel loved.
It's amazing the great lengths some men will go to reassure themselves that there is no God.
'Why are the laws of nature so precariously balanced, Susskind writes, on the fine line between life being possible and life being impossible? Susskind argues for the idea that the universe is so huge, messy, diverse, and pregnant with possibilities that the anthropic principle can make sensewithout the necessity for intelligent design.'
Romans 1:18 - 21
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
Oh...THEM again. Always swelling up with importance. Hmmmph!
"I discovered this very large culture of people [who believe] that the anthropic principle means intelligent design," he says. "That was a bit of an education for me. This book is about the lack of need for supernatural explanations."
Well, Mr. Susskind, the anthropic principle seems rather better suited to ID than to some crazy hodgepodge, now doesn't it? It's certainly not been even close to refuted or even ruled out. But, you needed to provide a way to address what was lacking, from an atheist perspective.
As a scientist, why does this religious matter, matter so much to you, Mr. Susskind? Is it not out of your realm, the realm of science?
Wise words bump!
Is this one pingable? It's really a book review. I'm mulling it over.
Ok, that was objectively funny.
There she goes! Miss Anthro-opic!
That makes only partial sense, and I expect that the reviewer has confused his terms. The anthropic principle does not require fine-tuning; all it says is that we are only capable of observing an environment that is appropriate for human life. Now, maybe the environment was finely tuned just for us, but an equally valid possibility is that we're only seeing a tiny fraction of what exists, which by construction will be that portion that is just right for us.
Just in the last two years I have come to the conclusion that the latter interpretation is correct. (I used to reject the Anthropic Principle as unscientific. I have changed my mind.) I gather from the article that Susskind has come to the same conclusion. Anthropic principle, yes, fine tuning, no.
"He says he actually finds it "embarrassing" to explain particle physics to a lay audience. "So many different pieces and assumptions and orders of magnitude," he says. "I always think, jeez, is anybody going to believe this?" I ask him what it would take to get answers to some of those hazy questions. His response: "If we had an accelerator at least as big as the galaxy, and if we could pour in 10 trillion barrels of oil per second . . . "
So in other words, no faith in God, but we are to put faith in Susskind, who can't even figure out plumbing.
I would say, mostly, by scientists.
ID? No! We are not allowed to consider it, not allowed to consider its merits, not allowed to look for evidence for or against!
Evolution? We cannot question it, we cannot evaluate it, we must believe it on faith!
string theory FR links:
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