Welcome! Let me show you around... (Digest/Overview #1)
A quick guide to all the Egg and the Rock posts so far
Firstly, I’d like to say hi to the huge number of new readers who have arrived in the past month. I know that some of you came from Austin Kleon’s Substack, via his delightful newsletter, 10 Things Worth Sharing This Week, and many came from Adam Mastroianni’s excellent Experimental History Substack (often starting that journey with a link from the Marginal Revolution blog, or this piece in The Atlantic).
But however you got here, welcome! This quick overview of all the Egg and the Rock posts so far is for you. (Longtime readers might enjoy it too, as a quick and easy way of catching up on what they may have missed. But if you feel this one’s not for you, no problem, just skip it.)
Substacks, as they grow, can quickly become sprawling and hard to navigate, especially for new arrivals. That’s not a problem if the posts all work as standalone reads, but it’s trickier when the Substack is, um, slowly building a book-length argument redescribing the whole universe, in new terms. It really helps to have read a couple of the early foundational posts, laying out the basics of the theory. So, three months in, this is the first in a series of occasional digests, or overviews, to help new readers navigate.
If you are impatient, and just want me to tell you which two or three pieces to read, I would say you should read this one on the problem I am trying to solve, this one on how I am trying to solve it, and this one, which makes a fun meta-prediction based on the theories I’m exploring. OK, off you go…
For the rest of you… I’m now just going to list all eight posts so far, with a quick synopsis in bold describing what they cover. (Yes, their titles, and subtitles, should tell you that, but sometimes they don’t, because my early titles were not very informative.) And as a bonus I’ll add in my favourite paragraph from each, for those who want their overview to have a bit more flavour and texture before they decide what to read. (And, of course, you can just read this digest, decide that’s more than enough background, and go with the flow – that’s fine too! Future posts will usually include links back to earlier posts, if I think you need them.)
My brief attempt to introduce myself; introduce the book I am writing; explain why I am writing it in public; and why I think it’s important.
I don’t yet know when the book will be published, because, obviously, I am still writing it, here: I am a slow writer, and it is a long book. But I am setting up this Substack because I want to make it as easy as possible for you to watch the book being written, should that interest you. A finished book, the book encountered by a reader – polished, published – is a static object, very demure and well-behaved; but, as any writer knows, the true book, the book the writer lives with, and struggles with, is a quest, is a monster, is a war, is a love affair – and that hyper-dynamic process of writing, often lasting many years, is far richer and more complex than any single, static, finished book can ever capture.
I describe how writing the ending to Minecraft led to this new book about the universe. I then describe the various, entwined, problems science is currently suffering from, which the book tries to solve: the limits of a simplistic materialist reductionism as a method of describing a complex, multilayered universe; the massive over-production of scientific papers no one has time to read; ever-increasing hyper-specialisation that means scientists (even in neighbouring fields) can no longer understand each other; etc. All leading to a highly fragmented knowledge base, and a resulting inability to describe, and understand, the universe as a whole.
At the beginning of the universe we have a hot, undifferentiated soup of particles. But 13.8 billion years later we have a dog that can bring you your phone.
Careful, careful, don’t bite it… don’t drop it… oh, well done, good dog!
Can reductionism predict the dog from the particles? No. Can it predict you? No. The phone? No.
Why is this such a problem? Well, we know that our universe casually produces sub-units as complicated as, say, a dog, or a phone, or you. The universe-as-a-whole is clearly far more complex than the dog which makes up one of its smallest subunits.
And science has no problem seeing that it is impossible to understand, explain, or predict the behaviour of a dog using just physics, or chemistry, or even biology. When a physicist’s dog runs upstairs and they want to know why, a theory of how gravity acts on matter is not going to help them.
A dog has emergent properties.
This is the longest, and perhaps most important, of my posts, as it lays out the main ideas at the heart of the book. (This post is my personal favourite, because I think this fresh way of looking at our universe, as the product of an evolutionary process at the level of universes – essentially as an evolved organism – is incredibly liberating, and fruitful. Oh; and I think it’s true...) If you only read one, read this.
…one of the saddest sights in the known universe is that of scientists peering back billions of years in time, across billions of lightyears of space, at the dust and gas that gave birth to them, and saying, in effect; well it all looks random and meaningless to me; just dead matter, going nowhere in particular, blindly obeying arbitrary eternal laws in a random one-shot universe – as right behind them a million artists make art, a million mothers nurse children, a million people bathe in the Ganges, a million children sing; a million birds swoop on updrafts from oceans in which a million fish swim.
This post is for people interested in what I am talking about, but who don’t know much about astronomy, or the early universe. It’s basically a simple explainer, to help them get the most out of some upcoming posts. I wrote it at my daughter’s suggestion, as she felt (correctly) that a lot of people didn’t understand the astonishing achievement of the James Webb Space Telescope, because they didn’t understand the expansion of the universe, and what that does to light, and the problems of seeing infrared light from the early universe, and so on. So I explain all that here.
Because the universe has been expanding for the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, the light waves travelling through that space-time have been stretched along with it.
Stretched a lot.
Light emitted very soon after the Big Bang would have been stretched out to dozens of times its original length by the time it finally gets to earth.
That means visible light from the early universe has been stretched so much, it has dropped deep into the infrared by the time it reaches us, and we see it. So, we don't see it (or at least we never have, up till now). Because infrared light is basically heat; the kind of light everything warm gives off.
This is a huge problem for telescopes, because everything on earth, including our telescopes, including the air itself, is warmer than the incredibly faint, extremely redshifted light of the early universe – and our warmth drowns out its faint signal. Imagine using infrared goggles, which are on fire, to look through a nearby burning forest, for a glimpse of a distant icecube.
I briefly recap the evolved-universe theory my book explores, and point out that such a theory has some interesting implications. Those implications mean I can make some predictions as to what the James Webb Space Telescope will see. And then I lay out a kind of meta-prediction, that will tie my other predictions together. This is an important post, I think, that will help you understand much of what is coming later, and so I will cut’n’ paste a longer than usual extract here, summarising the meta-prediction…
So here’s my meta-prediction: At all points in the early years after the Big Bang, the James Webb Space Telescope will see that the energy flowing through the system acts to organise that system. It's egg physics, not rock physics: far closer to biology than to the powerful but limited, reductive, mathematical physics we are using in cosmology today.
Another way of putting this is to say that the James Webb Space Telescope will see structure as far back as it can see: it will never find an amorphous, totally random cloud of gas.
That is, the future structure of the universe will be encoded in that matter from the very start, and it will unfold in a clearly directional process from day one, as the universe expands. Large galaxies, in particular, will come together early and fast, as the basic parameters of matter smoothly mesh to generate the conditions required for such rapid, efficient galaxy formation.
To a simple-physics reductionist, it will look like order is repeatedly and mysteriously emerging from chaos due to a series of odd coincidences in the masses of particles and the strengths of forces; but to an evolved-physics holist (like, um, me), it will be obvious that those masses and strengths evolved (over many, many, many, earlier generations of universe) so as to produce, in concert, just this unlikely (but ultimately reproductively successful) outcome in our particular (highly evolved) universe.
Our universe doesn’t just expand; it develops.
The analogy is with a fertilised egg, doubling and redoubling in size; though it might look from a distance like a mere blob on day one, it is never just randomly expanding, but is always building out a structure, which will grow clearer and clearer over time.
This one is a bit dense, but important. If our universe is indeed the result of an evolutionary process, then we should be able to make some specific predictions about what the James Webb Space Telescope will see, and not see. That is, the early universe uncovered by the Webb telescope should show signs of a developmental process optimised by evolution at the level of universes. I therefore make predictions about rapid, early, optimised galaxy formation; about surprisingly low numbers of small galaxies in the early universe; and so on.
Both HD-1 and CR-7 (click on them if you want to know more… and yes, CR-7 was knowingly named after Christian Ronaldo – scientists are human beings!) will turn out to be active galactic nuclei: that is, supermassive black holes and quasars – and not simply clusters of (hot, young, hydrogen-and-helium-only) Population III Stars. (Yes, for irritating historical reasons, astronomers call these imaginary, theoretical, first-ever stars Population III stars. Yes, this is a terrible name for the first-ever stars. Astronomers have many virtues, but none of them are literary. If they ever wrote a novel, the hero would be called something like Protagonist 6b, and be introduced on the second-last page.)
This is the less dramatic of my two main prediction posts; many mainstream scientists would, at this point, agree with much of it. In essence, I predict that life has been evolved for (at the level of universes), and so life will prove to be everywhere. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, though, because… oh, just read the post!) There are also thoughts on possible ammonia-based life in the atmospheres of gas giants, etc. Oh, and I wrote it the night before the James Webb Space Telescope released its first images, so it has a certain… chaotic vigour? Adrenalised charm? Basically, it moves fast, and is messy.
Primitive life automatically develops into intelligent life, but the process takes several billion years.
Here’s the dynamic: As primitive organisms develop senses, predator/prey relationships evolve. (Because now they can detect and hunt each other.) Predators need to evolve enough intelligence to outsmart their prey (or they’ll die out); but that forces the prey to evolve more intelligence (the less smart ones are eaten), which forces the predator to evolve more intelligence, to outsmart the newly smarter prey.
Basically, the least smart prey get eaten, and least smart predators starve to death, in each generation, so there is an automatic ratchet upward in intelligence.
A Tyrannosaurus Rex is (in some ways) slightly smarter than a Triceratops.
A lion is (in some ways) slightly smarter than an antelope.
You are (in some ways) slightly smarter than whatever you ate for dinner.
To get from single-celled creatures to Einstein (and Beyoncé, and Messi, and David Bowie, and Marie Curie) seems to take several billion years of predator/prey cycles, and there might not be any way of speeding this up. Ratchet’s gonna ratchet, at a certain speed. So a two- or three-billion-year-old planet will not have intelligent life. Yet.
This is simply a light-hearted, and great relieved, post, describing how my daughter and I watched live, as NASA revealed the James Webb Space Telescope’s first images. I then go over what those images seem to say about my predictions, and the implications for my book’s overall thesis. Spoiler alert: It all looks pretty good so far.
For those of you who missed it: imagine if the Oscars were scripted, presented, organised, and broadcast by very sweet, extremely nervous, government bureaucrats whose greatest fear is public speaking. And everything went wrong. I (and yes, this does not reflect well on me) laughed like I was watching the Marx Brothers wrestle a piano into an occupied toilet cubicle. My daughter, on the other hand, who is a far nicer person than me, and has more empathy than anyone I know, was completely doubled up with second-hand embarrassment watching it. I mean, in agony.
Aaaaaaaaand… that’s all the posts so far. Again, I would recommend Post 2 (In Which I Talk About Writing Minecraft’s End Poem…), Post 3 (In Which I Tell You About My Next Book…), Post 5 (A meta-prediction…) and Post 6 (Predictions!) And if you only read one of those, I recommend, mmmm… Post 3, because it sums up the heart of the book.
Hope that overview was useful.
And please do give me feedback: that’s one of the main reasons I’m writing this book in public. Your comments, and criticisms, really help.
Also, steer me towards any interesting books or journal articles (or Youtube clips, or podcast episodes, or alchemical texts written in blood using mirror-writing on vellum scrolls) that you think might be relevant or useful. My knowledge base is broad, but that means it is, of course, shallow in many areas; and so if you think I should have mentioned something, and didn’t, well, I probably don’t know it exists, so please do draw it to my attention. I have already received some great tips from readers that have helped several chapters enormously.
Oh, and if you have any friends you think might be interested in this, please do share it. I’m trying to find my ideal readers, one by one, and you can really help.
And thank you again for joining me on this adventure. See you soon…
(Oh, and if you are one of the friends this was shared with by a subscriber, and you enjoyed it, you are very welcome also. Please do subscribe too, so we can keep in touch, and feel free to share this in turn. It’s going to take a LOT of people to change how we see the universe…)
Thanks for reading The Egg And The Rock! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
This all comports with what I perceive to be my intuitive understanding of the characteristics of universes and black holes. It is extremely likely that what I perceive to be my intuitive understanding is in reality the accumulation of the ideas and speculations of many others over 8 decades. It is also slightly possible that I am creating an illusory universe and everything it contains for my own amusement. In either or some other case these posts make for very enjoyable reading.