PERFECT SYMMETRY: The Search for the Beginning of Time by Heinz R. Pagels

PERFECT SYMMETRY: The Search for the Beginning of Time

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Theoretical physicist Pagels (Executive Director, the New York Academy of Sciences) has shown a flair for graceful exposition before (The Cosmic Code). Here he takes the objects of the universe as a point of departure for a discourse on cosmology, in particular on the events that occurred around the Big Bang. Until recently, physicists were so enamored of particle theories and the waltz of the quarks that they all but dismissed concerns for cosmic evolution and the beginnings of time as idle speculation. Then came physicist Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes. Now, the quantum physicists are in league with the astronomers and astro-physicists in trying to dissect out not only what happened in the first minutes, but in the first billionth of a second. And even ""before""--where ""before"" invokes a false vacuum or maybe, l… Steven Hawking and James Hartle, ""The Wave Function of the Universe."" These are among the ""wild ideas"" discussed in Part Three of the volume, along with magnetic monopoles, the search for gravity particles and Grand Unification Theories--the ""GUTs"" that attempt to see the four known forces--gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear forces--as the fallout of a single theory or set of equations. Part One, ""Herschel's Garden,"" reviews standard material on stellar evolution, on galaxies, along with the more recently discovered radio galaxies and quasars, concluding with a sampling of traditional cosmology. Part Two moves to the microcosm, reviewing details of quantum mechanics and showing how the microcosm becomes linked to the macrocosm in those first moments of the Big Bang, where the primal symmetry gets broken and the universe of photons, particles, atoms and molecules is born. Pagels is a serious expositor who deftly uses felicitous quotes and an occasional disarming image; e.g., ethyl alcohol clouds near the center of the Milky Way are enough ""vodka"" to fill 10,000 earth-sized goblets. He is also a wry philosopher whose concluding chapter, ""First-Person Science,"" is an astute commentary on the motivations that energize scientists in their pursuits. For him it is a question of Homo faber, the practical maker and activist, and home ludens, the one who plays. The book is eloquent testimony to both.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1985
ISBN: 1439148880
Publisher: Simon & Schuster