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Archive for July, 2008

I am currently reading Universes (1989) by John Leslie, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at The University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. The book, praised on the back cover by Antony Flew and Quentin Smith, discusses the issues surrounding the “fine-tuning” of the constants of nature, initial conditions, and even the forms of the laws of nature themselves to permit the existence of observers. I will not go into details of the fine-tuning here – readers are referred to “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle” by Barrow and Tipler.

This is a huge and hugely controversial area and I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. (Leslie: “The ways in which ‘anthropic’ reasoning can be misunderstood form a long and dreary list”). Instead, I want to consider a single point made by Leslie, in response to the following quote from M. Scriven’s “Primary Philosophy” (1966):

If the world exists at all, it has to have some properties. What happened is just one of the possibilities. If we decide to toss a die ten times, it is guaranteed that a particular one of the 6^{10} possible combinations of ten throws is going to occur. Each is equally likely.

The argument is as follows: we cannot deduce anything interesting from the fine-tuning of the universe because the actual set of constants/initial conditions is just as likely as any other set. It is this claim (and this claim only) that I want to address, because I found Leslie’s treatment to be calling out for an example.

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Astronomy Royalty

I’m planning a series of posts on public speaking in science, which I generally find to be infuriatingly poor. There are exceptions, thankfully. The closing address of “Putting Gravity to Work”, a conference held over the last week at the IoA, Cambridge, was given by Martin Rees. It was a class above the normal “cure-your-insomnia” talk given at conferences and seminars. I hope to dissect the talk in more detail in a later post, but for now here’s an action shot of the Astronomer Royal in action:

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I was sitting with some fellow tourists on a three-day coach tour of Ireland yesterday when the topic of what I do for a living came up. After being briefly mistaken for an astrologer (I really should start charging money for my services), my mother-in-law Christine mentioned my interest in black holes.

(Aside: black holes are something of an in-joke for my in-laws. Christine was asked by an work mate what her son-in-law does, and the conversation went something like this:

Christine: He’s measuring the black hole, or something.

Office mate: Well it’s about time someone did that!)

Returning to Ireland, a fellow tourist remarked that black holes “are bad things, because they suck everything up”. I’ve encountered this opinion a number of times before. The mental image of a black hole as a giant cosmic vacuum cleaner, destroyer of worlds, is surprisingly common. But the image, as any astronomer will tell you, is wrong. (more…)

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