Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe, Brian Greene 2020

This wonderful book is both exhaustive and exhausting.  Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia, is a well-known populizer of complex science due to his exquisite literary style, his vivid and approachable metaphors, his enthusiasm for the science and mystery of our universe, and his obvious love for his subject.  In this volume, he takes on the explanation of everything from the tiniest sub-atomic particle to the expanding universe, from the start of it all with the Big Bang to the end of it all with the Big Rip.  He unites these enormous scales of size and time with two concepts:  entropy and evolution.  Using those two themes he explains it all giving equal weight to Newtonian physics, Einsteinian relativity, and the probabilistic complexities of quantum theory.  For Greene, the key to understanding our universe is mathematics, the language in which our physical laws are written.  These laws determine everything from the accelerating expansion of the universe, to the binding of protons in stars and super-novae explosions to produce the elements of the periodic table, and the mysteries of the origin of life and the workings of the human mind/brain.  In a fascinating chapter on consciousness, he struggles with how a three pound mass of stuff thinks, imagines, dreams, and plans.  In another, he envisions the beginning of life with the concept of molecular Darwinism.  He repeatedly returns to his stance as a physicalist, i.e. someone who explains everything, including the workings of the mind, in terms of physical laws that determine the actions of quantum scale particles.  He accepts and even embraces our inability to understand everything and the apparent contradictions between Newtonian and quantum physics by using the metaphor of ‘nestled stories’ each one consistent and logical in itself and compatible with the next one as we move up or down the scale of size and/or time.  A fascinating part of the book was when he made the case that while religion, myth-making, art, poetry, etc did not directly contribute to natural selection, they did indirectly contribute by enhancing social solidarity and creativity—two elements that do enhance natural selection. My favorite metaphor was his use of the Empire State Building with each floor representing a 10 fold increase in time, so that life on earth occupied a small section of a very low floor and the end of the universe was reached well before the observation deck.  My favorite “Duh!” moment was his discussion of Bolzmann Brains.  Ludwig Bolzmann was an Austrian physicist in the latter part of the 19th C who discovered how the physics of atoms determined the characteristics of matter.  Briefly, probability and entropy explain that in the universe of the far future (and by far, I mean 10 raised to the 368th power.  Don’t even try to imagine that!) there is a vanishingly small but not zero probability that the photons spinning through nearly empty space might find themselves in an orientation that is identical to my brain with all its memories, ideas, dreams, etc. raising the question of which brain is ‘real’, mine or the Bolzmann equivalent.  This is very weird stuff, but the kind of fascinating detail that Greene provides in a readable fashion along the course of these 400+ pages.  Despite my education and training as a scientist, I found this book to be a heavy lift at times.  Reading one chapter at a time when I could sit and concentrate, I made it through and loved it, but it’s not easy. Despite that caveat, I’d urge you to give it a try.  The journey through time and space is worth it.

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