Three Minute Warning

Steven Weinberg's book The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe reads quite well today, despite its 1977 (updated edition, 1988) pedigree. Thoughtful especially are the final words of the final chapters. From VI ("A Historical Diversion"):

This is often the way it is in physics–our mistake is not that we take our theories too seriously, but that we do not take them seriously enough. It is always hard to realize that these numbers and equations we play with at our desks have something to do with the real world. Even worse, there often seems to be a general agreement that certain phenomena are just not fit subjects for respectable theoretical and experimental effort. Gamow, Apher, and Herman deserve tremendous credit above all for being willing to take the early universe seriously, for working out what known physical laws have to say about the first three minutes. Yet even they did not take the final step, to convince the radio astronomers that they ought to look for a microwave radiation background. The most important thing accomplished by the ultimate discovery of the 3°K radiation background in 1965 was to force us all to take seriously the idea that there was an early universe.

I have dwelt on this missed opportunity because this seems to me to be the most illuminating sort of history of science. It is understandable that so much of the historiography of science deals with its successes, with serendipitous discoveries, brilliant deductions, or the great magical leaps of a Newton or an Einstein. But I do not think it is possible really to understand the successes of science without understanding how hard it is–how easy it is to be led astray, how difficult it is to know at any time what is the next thing to be done.

From Chapter VII ("The First One-Hundredth Second"):

To me, the most satisfying thing that has come out of these speculations about the very early universe is the possible parallel between the history of the universe and its logical structure. Nature now exhibits a great diversity of types of particles and types of interactions. Yet we have learned to look beneath this diversity, to try to see the various particles and interactions as aspects of a simple unified gauge field theory. The present universe is so cold that the symmetries among the different particles and interactions have been obscured by a kind of freezing; they are not manifest in ordinary phenomena, but have to be expressed mathematically, in our gauge field theories. That which we do now by mathematics was done in the very early universe by heat–physical phenomena directly exhibited the essential simplicity of nature. But no one was there to see it.

From Chapter VIII ("Epilogue: The Prospect Ahead"):

However all these problems may be resolved, and whichever cosmological model proves correct, there is not much of comfort in any of this. It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable–fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakable unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. 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.

And from the Afterword ("Cosmology Since 1976"):

This work on the very early universe represents real progress but it is progress of a conceptual sort, only distantly related to observations of the present universe. We are today (in 1982) not much closer than we were in 1976 in understanding the origin of the structures that fill our universe: galaxies and clusters of galaxies. As we look out at the night sky, the great arc of the Milky Way and the faint luminous patch of the Andromeda Nebula continue to mock our ignorance.

(cf Edge of the Universe (1999-06-08), Cosmic Chaos (2001-04-14), Universal Knowns (2002-06-13), Four Golden Lessons (2021-08-06), ...) - ^z - 2029-09-27