About… The Egg and the Rock
With The Egg and the Rock, I’m basically writing my next book (called, um, The Egg and the Rock) in public: I want to test my best ideas on you while they are at their most fresh, exciting, vulnerable, and often (no doubt) wrong, and get your feedback. I also plan to share interesting research interviews, etc.
I hope you will enjoy the journey.
That’s a little vague. What are these ideas that you are exploring?
Do you want the sober and respectable answer, or the passionate and personal answer?
Start with sober and respectable.
OK. The Egg and the Rock is a non-fiction exploration of the strange fact that our universe, in its development, behaves far more like an egg than a rock – that is, the movement of energy through the system seems to organise the system, rather than disorder it. As a result, significant parts of the universe have cascaded upward into complexity, rather than simply slowly losing order over time. (For a prime example – just look at you and me, now, talking of complex phenomena, via technological marvels, while embedded in a self-sustaining biosphere of astounding intricacy, orbiting an energy source of extreme efficiency and stability. All of which emerged from an initial hot, dense cloud of undifferentiated gas.) So it’s an attempt to understand just how and why our universe behaves more like an evolved organism than a pile of dead matter.
But there is a more personal answer, too: The Egg and the Rock is also a memoir of an ongoing obsession with seeing the universe more accurately, an obsession that keeps taking me to interesting places, to talk to fascinating people. Places and people I believe you will find interesting, too.
But how can the universe cascade upward into complexity? And why? And what about the Second Law of Thermodynamics? And…
OK, OK. The Egg and the Rock makes a big, specific argument (backed up by a lot of recent data, across many fields), that our universe appears to be the result of an evolutionary process at the level of universes.
That is, our universe evolved. Not evolved in the sense of developed: evolved in the sense of, our universe is descended from a long line of earlier, less sophisticated universes. And yes, there's even a plausible model for how this could happen. And it has WILD implications…
If this intrigues you, and you want to dive in, this post gives you an overview of everything I have written here so far, and also tells you which pieces are the most important and/or interesting.
BUT WHERE DID THIS IDEA COME FROM? AND WHY ISN’T IT BETTER KNOWN?
The idea that our universe evolved isn’t a new theory. The American theoretical physicist John Wheeler (who popularised the term “black hole”) came up with a version of the theory in the 1970s. Another American theoretical physicist, Lee Smolin, greatly improved on it in the 1990s. And the theory, in its vaguer form, is of course even older that: back in the late 19th century, the great pragmatist philosopher Charles Peirce argued that:
“Law is par excellence the thing that wants a reason. Now the only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature, and for uniformity in general, is to suppose them results of evolution.”
However, the theory never really gained mainstream traction, for a whole bunch of reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of the theory. Wheeler and Smolin were theoretical physicists, and having thrown this extraordinarily provocative idea out there, went back to their day jobs, poking at particles and pondering gravity. Smolin did write a book, The Life of the Cosmos (OUP, 1997), but it wasn’t really written for a general audience, and the physics community were too busy arguing about string theory at the time to pay it any attention. (The evolutionary biologists, who would have been able to do the most with this theory, didn’t even notice it, and wouldn’t have been able to read it if they did.) And so, as the extraordinary implications of the theory cascade across the borders of so many different disciplines, from astrophysics to zoology, there was simply nobody in academia qualified to see them all. The theory fell on stony ground.
But in the decades since, we have learned a colossal amount of new information about our universe, from instruments, probes and telescopes of unprecedented sophistication (both on earth and in space). And that new data has thrown up an astonishing amount of fresh evidence in favour of the theory that our universe evolved.
The Egg and the Rock explores the theory, the new evidence for it, and the implications for science (and for humanity) if the theory is indeed true.
Actually that’s too weakly put. The Egg and the Rock smacks you repeated in the face with evidence that the universe evolved. And then it shouts in your ear about how important that is, and how it changes everything. This is, I’m afraid, my obsession; I have become completely convinced it is true, and I want to tell everyone. I spend an alarming percentage of my days shouting at scientific papers “WHY CAN’T YOU SEE THE IMPLICATIONS OF YOUR PAPER?!”
If you like that sort of thing, you will love The Egg and the Rock.
About… Julian Gough
Born in London, I grew up in Ireland, and now live in Berlin.
I’m the author of four novels (most recently the near-future thriller Connect), and the Rabbit & Bear series of children’s books, illustrated by the great Jim Field (most recently A Bad King is a Sad Thing). They are published in over thirty languages (so that’s the Christmas presents for your Portuguese, Nepalese and Finnish friends sorted).
Over the years, I’ve also written the first-ever short story published by the Financial Times; a couple of BBC radio plays; a stageplay; a book of poetry (Free Sex Chocolate); and the ending to Minecraft, the biggest-selling computer game of all time.
My writing has won some awards, including the BBC National Short Story Award, and the Prix Livrentête, and has been shortlisted for others, including an Irish Book of the Year Award (twice) and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction (twice).
Back in my teens and twenties, I sang in the profoundly obscure underground literary pop band Toasted Heretic. (An excellent way to spend one’s youth.)
Basically, I’m a writer who chases his obsessions. And for the last decade I’ve been obsessed with the universe: the way we describe it, and the ways in which that description has gone so badly wrong.
THE ART/SCIENCE FEEDBACK LOOP IS BROKEN
The Egg and the Rock is an attempt to describe our deeply peculiar, deeply misunderstood universe again, from scratch: to go through a century of scientific papers, and extract the meaning from the data.
That’s a job which science traditionally outsourced to the arts, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through Jules Verne’s submarines to William Gibson’s cyberspace. Writers and artists showed us what all these new materials, power sources, and laws could mean to us, as humans. “Oh, you could build underwater vehicles with that. And send rockets into space, and transmit your voice and image….”
And then scientists built the things the writers had suggested. (The transistor-to-Star-Trek-Communicator-to-flip-phone pipeline.)
Art and science, in dialogue, dragged each other forward.
But science has become so ultra-specialised that even other scientists in nearby fields can’t understand each other’s papers now.
As a result, writers and artists have given up on even trying to understand contemporary science in all its astonishing fecundity. Literature has become insular, and backward looking. To the extent that it engages with our technological present at all, it is from a posture of fear, distrust, and confusion.
And so the West has had a lobotomy. The cultural corpus callosum has been cut: our autistic/scientific left hemisphere obsessively piles up data that our artistic/holistic right hemisphere doesn’t even look at.
The feedback loop is broken.
And yet, and yet, and yet…
I believe there is a story hidden in that data which is coherent, surprising, deeply satisfying, and (for those who are still interested in that sort of thing), true.
I try to tell that story here. If you think that sounds interesting, stick around.
PS: If all that is a little overwhelming, and you don’t know where to start, maybe start here, with my explanation of the problem I am trying to solve, and then read this, where I lay out how I plan to solve the problem. And perhaps then read this meta-prediction of what we are going to see over the next few years from the James Webb Space Telescope. And feel free to tell me what you think; your comments will help shape the book.
All the posts are free to read, whatever way you choose to subscribe. But I have recently added a paid layer, for those wish to help fund my thinking and writing, or to say thank you for it. (And a founder layer, for those with a LOT of money, or a particularly strong desire to hep.) I am trying to move as much as possible of my life, and writing, into the gift economy, and Substack helps me do that. But please, only pay if you feel a genuine urge to do so, because the work has moved you, or because you want to help. I will not think any the less of you for not paying.
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