19.8.16

WHAT LIES BEYOND

Michael Martin and Keith Augustine (editors).  The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case Against Life After Death.  Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.

As the editors point out, there are plenty of books arguing the case for an afterlife but few that examine the case against. This collection of thirty articles in over 650 pages does just that. It is organised into four major parts; the first examines the findings of neuroscience which show that consciousness and human personality are wholly dependent on the embodied brain; the second part examines philosophical arguments against and afterlife, the third critiques theological views of the afterlife as heaven and hell or the eastern view of karma, the fourth examines the evidence given by psychical research which is said to prove survival.

The first and fourth sections are the most accessible; and the collection of nine essays in the first section shows how numerous malfunctions of the brain due to injury, illness or substance abuse can profoundly influence consciousness now just in gross ways but profoundly subtle ways as well. In some of these the patient is unaware of the deficit, arguing against all the evidence that they are not blind, or that a paralysed limb is properly functioning. Changes to specific portions of the brain lead to specific deficits or specific changes in personality.

There is a fair amount of repetition in these papers, an occupational hazard of compilations of essays, but this do seek to hammer home the conclusion that there is absolutely no evidence from neurology that mental functions have any independence from the physical brain, and indeed such an idea when critically examined makes no sense. Those who argue otherwise do so against the evidence and based only on religious or philosophical beliefs.



The eight essays in Part Four address a range of alleged evidence from psychical research dealing with ghosts, out of the body experiences, Ian Stevenson’s studies of allegedly reincarnated children, and Gary Schwartz’s studies with mediums. The two papers on Stevenson, one by a former research assistant, show the many errors and assumptions that went into his studies, for example peoples’ speculations were often presented as fact, many were recorded long after the events, assumptions were made about peoples’ behaviour which sometimes based on cultural ignorance, for example the argument that noone came forward to challenge this or that claim, without realising that such a challenge might have been regarded as highly impolite in some cultures.

The third section which deals with philosophical problems connected with survival is in parts quite challenging though often worth persisting with. The arguments deal not with the sort of survival envisioned by spiritualists but those imagined by religions such as Christianity, so we don’t just get discussions dealing with the impossibility of truly disembodied existence or the lack of evidence for astral bodies, but also with assumptions to do with the traditional Christian view of bodily resurrection. Which generally comes to the conclusion that if this some new body modelled on the old one then we are dealing with a replica not the original person, and that if one copy can be made so can any number of replicas .

To get round that, in perhaps what is close to one of the strangest ideas ever proposed by a respectable theologian, Peter van Inwagen, has come up with the notion that when you die God snatches away your body to somewhere else and then substitutes a replica corpse in its place to rot away. Compared with that idea Phillip Gosse’s notorious Omphalos appears eminently sane.

Various contributors also demolish the line of argument which compares consciousness to a TV programme and the brain to the set, but no matter what we do to a TV set we cannot change the plot of a soap opera from the one that was broadcast.

To refute these criticisms supporters of survival will have to take on board the findings of modern neuroscience and not wave it away (even the most superficial critics of psychical research usually deal with its evidence better than paranormalists’ treatment of mainstream science) and not to rely on personal abuse and populist rhetoric. Personally I suspect that arguments involving real time survival involving some kind of spooky extra stuff over and above the quotidian things of the world has no traction.

Those who want get-out clauses might try either subjective survival, the idea that brain events lasting only a few seconds might generate subjective experiences lasting for vast periods of time; the possibility that the quotidian things of the world including brains, bodies, chairs, TV sets, computers , motor cars and rocks are not what they seem to be, or the idea that in a truly infinite universe people might be born complete with your memories just by chance. The odds against the latter are of course unimaginably greater than astronomical. Of course in a truly infinite universe these extraordinarily unlikely events would still occur an infinite number of times. -- Peter Rogerson


8.8.16

BEYOND THE BLARNEY

Christine Zucchelli. Sacred Stones of Ireland. Collins Press, Ireland. Paperback Ed., 2016.

This newly published paperback edition is a most attractive and interesting piece of work. The first impression I had when opening the book at random in various places, as one usually does with a new book, is the abundance and quality of the colour photographs and the paper on which they are printed. In this modern age of advanced technology it is easy to take such things for granted. Quite simply the technical quality of this book is stunning. At almost every opening one finds vibrant colour photographs of ultra-high definition that show every tiny detail.

Patches of lichen and moss come to life on images of ancient stones, some of which have been in place for many thousands of years. Shining blades of grass, ferns and ivy leaves beautifully adorn the surroundings. Many of the photographs have background scenes which could only be Ireland, misty mountain ranges, wild open fields and rugged countryside, jagged rocky coastline, and everywhere the many shades of green for which the Emerald Isle is so famous. In short, this is a book which will delight anyone who delves into it, whether they be armchair travellers who have never been to Ireland or those who know and love Ireland well and would wish to know more of her ancient history and heritage.

A great feature of Sacred Stones of Ireland, for which the author and publishers deserve praise, is that almost every picture carries with it enough self-explanatory text to make it complete in itself. There is no need to go searching in the main body of text for the story behind the images, as often happens with some illustrated books. It would therefore be perfectly possible to gain great pleasure and a good deal of knowledge from browsing and surveying only the pictures with their own text. In addition to the vivid colour photographs there are many superb line drawings which add even greater interest and variation. Where further information is required, it can be accessed in the main text. At the end of the book there are further notes and references, an index, and an extensive bibliography, to research any particular topic or location. Whether one comes to the main text indirectly, from the pictures, or directly by reading straight through from the introduction to the end, it is all arranged in a methodical and very readable style.

This book has appeared at a time of growing interest in traditional folklore, natural remedies for ailments, and alternative spiritual practices. Sacred stones provide a tangible link with the ancient past of magic and miracles. Here are stones that were reputed to have the gift of speech to answer questions, to give justice, to proclaim a king, to give healing, or to enable transformation. As the author says, "some stone monuments are considered the abodes of deities or otherworld ladies, some are memorials to mythical heroes and historical kings, others reminders of the miracles of early saints."

Some of these monuments containing human remains are very ancient indeed, dating from as far back as 3800 BC. They became centres of ceremonial ritual and celebration. Fertility rites and veneration of the earth goddess are strongly associated with such sites. This tradition continued with stone carvings of 'Sheela-na-Gigs', which appear all over Ireland. They represent the duality of the goddess, the combination of venerable old age and regeneration from within herself.

One of the most fascinating and mysterious stones of all is the 'Stone Navel of Ireland' on the Hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath. This stone is said to be the centre of Ireland, as it were, placed right in the middle of the land. It is truly massive, 20 feet high and estimated to weigh over 30 tons. A sixth-century poem suggests that it dates back to the earliest human activity in Ireland. Another history says that it marked the meeting point of the five ancient provinces of Ireland. The principle of a navel stone predates the arrival of the Celtic peoples in Ireland, and harks back to the 'omphalos' or 'Navel of the World' at Delphi.

Of all the stones in Ireland the most famous by far, known to people all over the world, is the Blarney Stone, found at Blarney Castle, Cork, and visited by literally hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. It is one of Ireland's major tourist attractions. The author places this stone in the category of "wishing stones". Difficult or daring tasks are often essential parts of the wishing ritual. Kissing the Blarney Stone is certainly not achieved easily, as I and millions of others know from experience. The stone is located in the outside wall at the top of the castle, and to touch it with one's lips involves leaning backwards over the parapet. It would be almost impossible to achieve without the assistance of a helper holding the ankles, and wrought iron guide rails to grasp with the hands. To fall from that height would result in certain death, so protective metal crossbars prevent that possibility. However, it can still be a scary experience, so the reward is greater for those who overcome their fear to accomplish the feat. The sought-for reward is, of course, to acquire the gift of eloquence and a touch of the renowned 'luck of the Irish'. Whether or not the Blarney Stone has any intrinsic magical properties is impossible to prove. The author spends little time on it, pointing out that the whole idea of kissing the stone for the gift of eloquence was created by the castle's owner in the late eighteenth century. It all smacks of tall tales and entertaining exaggeration, but that is the very nature of 'Blarney', is it not?

I suspect that some of the most sacred stones are off the beaten track and may be difficult to reach. Clearly the author spent a great deal of time, effort and care in researching and preparing the material for this fine book. In her opening acknowledgements, she says: "During my years of fieldwork, I have knocked on uncountable doors and asked for directions, information and permission to access stones that lie on private lands. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and helpfulness that I met throughout the country, and by the willingness of people to give their time and their stories."

As the son of a man born and raised on a farm in County Kerry, I went across to Ireland from England with my family every year for our summer holidays, and since then have been there many times to explore different parts of this beloved country. For that reason I was greatly interested to read and research the material presented in Sacred Stones of Ireland. But I have to admit that I was not aware of there being so many of these extraordinary stones, and of so many different kinds and purposes. This book has been a revelation of a most important yet little known aspect of Irish heritage. -- Kevin Murphy


30.7.16

SKATING ON THIN ICE

Bernard Heuvelmans.   Neanderthal: The Strange Story of the Minnesota Iceman. Translated by Paul LeBlond, afterword by Loren Coleman.  Anomalist Books, 2016.

The story of the “Minnesota Iceman”, an alleged hairy humanoid displayed in a block of ice by a carnival grafter Frank Hansen in 1968 is perhaps one of the oddest in cryptozoology, not least because the overwhelming probability that the thing was a fake. One would have thought that the very facts that a carnival showman was displaying the thing, that no-one was ever allowed to see it outside the block of ice, and that the moment it looked as though scientists were taking an interest in it the individual displaying it claimed it had been replaced by a replica indicated that. The stories of how he got hold of it were constantly changing and above all it doesn’t actually resemble anything from bush of human evolution as understood by modern evolutionary biologists.

Despite this Bernard Heuvelmans, the Belgian pioneer of cryptozoology insisted that it was genuine, and that it was a surviving Neanderthal. Even at the time, paleoanthropologists considered this to be an incredibly grotesque insult to the poor old Neanderthals. Not even artists like Zdenek Burian, who portrayed them as shambling brutes, ever showed the Neanderthals as the hairy ape-like things that Ice Ma appeared to be. Today, as Loren Coleman acknowledges in his afterword, we know from genetic analysis that many Neanderthals had pale skins and fair or red hair and increasingly they are seen as people by no means as different from us as once thought, who interbred with incomers peoples from Africa, our majority ancestors.

For younger people who have read up on human evolution Heuvelmans’ text will be not just weird but actually incomprehensible. We now know he was wrong about everything, dates, lineages and the macroscopic view of human evolution. Even by the standards of the late 1960s and early 1970s his views were antique and eccentric and in good measure appear to have been strongly influenced by pre-Second World War texts.

To add to this, Heuvelmans emerges from this book, first written in French in 1974, as a classic crank, complaining constantly about the establishment suppressing inconvenient information and ganging up on him. Of course when paleoanthropologists were presented with a genuine major anomaly, the Flores “hobbit”, the response of the vast majority was quite different.

In his afterword Loren Coleman tries to shift the iceman back to Homo erectus, but again that won’t do. Homo ergaster, the ancestor of Homo erectus had already developed a modern human body shape below the neck and had shed its body hair in adapting to a fast paced savannah existence about two million years ago. To sind something rather resembling iceman you have to go back to the Australopithecines at least.

This strikes me as a sad book, and in selecting it as the work of Heuvelmans to republish it does him no favours, rather it does him a considerable disservice. -- Peter Rogerson.


26.7.16

THE GODDESS THAT DARE NOT SPEAK HER NAME

Chris Morgan. Isis; Goddess of Egypt and India. Mandrake of Oxford, 2016.

The authors’ subject has brought about an unexpected problem. “Because of certain events happening in the political sphere just now, it has become difficult to use her name without risking confusion with a terrorist group, which uses a similar acronym. As always I think the goddess will outlive these ephemeral worldly events.”

We are often told that the Roman empire extended its influence all the way to India, and regularly traded there, but we are never given any details. I realise from this book that this is because so little is known. This account of how some aspects of Egyptian religion thereby found their way to the subcontinent is, necessarily, largely speculative.

“Although Roman speculators usually bankrolled the ancient maritime trade, Greek seamen almost invariably navigated the ships. Those Greek mariners, often natives of Alexandria, invariably worshipped the Egyptian goddess Isis.”

The Tabula Peutingeriana is a Roman world map painted on a scroll seven metres long. In south India is a picture of a temple marked “Templi Augusti”. It is well known that the Emperor Augustus was worshipped as a God, but it is surprising to find that he had a temple so far away. Morgan gives in some detail the principles of Roman temple design, which was explained by Vitruvius. He concludes that the contemporary Hindu temple of Kurumba Bhagavathy Devi in those parts might be built on the foundations of the Augustus temple – this seems a bit desperate, but clearly he is doing his best with limited material.

His search led him to Kotunkolur. There is a spring festival here which in recent years has provoked letters of complaint to the newspapers, as the worshippers sing verses like this:

If you want to fuck the goddess of Kotunkolur
You must have a penis the size of a Palmyra tree.

Finding the Goddess Isis is not easy, but one clue comes from the fact that the ancients often identified her with the zodiacal sign of Virgo. In a rare Sanskrit astrological text, the Yananaj Ataka, ‘the Greek Story’, “Virgo is described as a goddess holding a torch while standing on a boat. This is precisely the same as Isis Pelagia 'mistress of seafarers'.”

One remarkable tale is that of Pattini, a Goddess who took on human birth and married a mortal, and whose legend is still acted out at festivals; Morgan gives the complete text of one. Her husband, Palanga, cheated on her with a courtesan named Madhavi, who quarrelled with him after spending his money and leaving him penniless. The long suffering Pattini agreed to allow him to sell a piece of her jewellery, a golden anklet. Unfortunately, a goldsmith in Madurai he approached accused him of stealing it, the local king believed him, Palanga was put to death, and cut into fourteen pieces. Pattini came looking for him, and cursed the city of Madurai so that most of it was destroyed by fire. Eventually: “The other gods have intervened and successfully appeal to her to stop the destruction. In return Pattini is promised that after fourteen days she will again see Palanga, resurrected in astral form.” Apparently the Hindus do not realise that they are performing the story of Isis and Osiris.

The book is well illustrated, with many in colour  -- Gareth J. Medway.

23.7.16

HOLD ON TIGHT...

Frank Bures. The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death and the Search for the Meaning of the World's Strangest Syndromes. Melville House. 2016

Frank Bures was inspired to begin his investigations into the effects of culture in different parts of the world when he left his home in the American Midwest to spend a year in Italy as an exchange student. He writes: "After one short year immersed in Italian society I felt like a different person, and I was disturbed by the depth of this change".

He starts his description of his investigations by describing how he followed up a newspaper report headlined: 'Court Remands Man over False Alarm on Genital Organ Disappearance'. The young man was on a bus in Lagos, Nigeria, when he cried out that his penis had disappeared and accused the woman sitting next to him of having stolen it.

For several years, Bures had followed reports of similar cases from Nigeria, after reading an article on the BBC website describing an incident in which at least twelve people had been killed by an angry crowd in souhwestern Nigeria after having been accused of "making people's genital organs disappear". These people had been burnt alive.

Bures investigated similar incidents in ther countries, including China and Hong Kong, and in the course of his travels came to realise that the key to understanding different peoples was not only to study their languages but also their cultures. He made the main theme of his investigations, at least as described in this book, his studies of strange panics about allegedly disappearing penises, known to Chinese-speaking people as koro. In such cases the victims of these panics usually had the impression that their penises were retracting into their abdomens, which they believed would prove fatal.

A particularly interesting case occurred in 1967 when "in one of the best-documented cases of koro ever, hundreds of people rushed to hospitals in the city-state of Singapore, deathly afraid that of they loosened their grip, they would die". Bures wanted to find out if the people of Singapore were still susceptible to such panics. He discussed this with a psychiatrist named Paul Ngui,who had researched the 1967 epidemic. This started when a 16-year-old boy heard rumours that pork from pigs that had been inoculated against swine fever could cause koro, and that he had the symptoms, as he had eaten a bun with pork in it that morning. Eventually the panic died down after medical authorities, using radio and television, assured people that koro was a purerly psychological condition.

Bures started by having the impression that his native America was the norm, while other parts of the world had strange cultures. But on travelling to foreign parts and returning to America, he became much more aware of the distinctivenes of its culture. He also learned much about the extent to which various illnesses, both mental and physical, were sometimes apparently related to cultural differences.

This book is rather autobiographical in style, containing much material which the appropriate experts will want to follow up in their own investigations. Bures hopes that we will "come to see the part we all play in creating worlds that look strange from outside but that make perfect sense from within..." -- John Harney

18.7.16

WAKING THE DEAD

John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin. Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Near-death experiences have been hailed, especially in the United States, as evidence of an afterlife, and in some recent works as evidence of a specifically Christian one.

The authors of this book are philosophy professors, Fischer the Leader and Mitchell-Yellin a Fellow at The Immortality Project (2012-2015). They take a critical look at these claims and conclude that near-death experiences can be best explained in terms of brain function and the role of memory. In particular they challenge the view that these experiences occurred when people thought they did; rather, they argue they may occur when the brain is rebooting or perhaps even later. They also question how such narratives are compiled and, for example, they note that THE so-called experiences of children are always narrated through adult filters.

Much of their critique is directed against what they call “supernaturalist” explanations, pointing out that we do not have a complete knowledge of how the brain works. Of course the term “supernaturalist” is something of a misnomer, for if there were an afterlife it would still be part of “unitary nature”, but their point about lack of knowledge about the brain’s function is well taken.

Paranormalist explanations, to use a better word, are often seen as simpler, but the authors argue, when closely examined they turn out to be just as complex, for example how would a “non -physical” entity gather information about the physical world, store it and then transmit it to the brain, or indeed whether the notion of a “non-physical entity” makes any sense at all, (or indeed whether it makes any sense to talk of anything non- physical as having any special location at all, in or out of the body),

I wish the authors had developed some of those points at greater length, for, though I am basically in agreement with their position, their style of argument is all too often less than persuasive and I doubt they will be changing many “believers” minds. They are also hampered I suspect, by their unwillingness to question the honesty of the reporting of a number of well publicised cases, I can understand this, but one should bear in mind that two of the chief reasons that people lie are religion or ideology and money and when these are united together there are grave temptations.

The book would also have benefited from the authors having a much wider knowledge of the range of literature on near-death experiences, the paranormal in general, and of the range of philosophical discussion of life after death. -- Peter Rogerson.


15.7.16

HEART OF DARKNESS

Jean La Fontaine. Witches and Demons: A Comparative Perspective on Witchcraft and Satanism. Berghahn, 2016. 

This book is not, as its title might suggest, a comparison between the modern 'Witchcraft' and 'Satanism' religions, rather it is a series of essays/articles which explore the roots of belief in magical evil and how these impact in different ways on contemporary British culture.The first two of these articles reprise Professor La Fontaine’s study of the satanic ritual abuse panic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, noting how these arose from more general transcultural beliefs in a secret conspiracy of others who violate the most sacred taboos of humanity, or at least of their culture. The particular form that these beliefs took in this case was heavily influenced by images from fundamentalist and charismatic Christianity, but was also taken up by secular groups.

From these chapters La Fontaine moves on to a discussion of the role of witch beliefs in African immigrant communities in Britain. There is an article on the alleged murder of an African boy given the name Adam, whose headless torso was found in the Thames in 2001 and the claims that this was an example of human sacrifice. La Fontaine suggests that it might have been a case of murder for 'corpse medicine', a concept which she notes is by no means limited to Africa.

The second half of this book is given over to articles on 'child witches', those children who have been accused of witchcraft and as a result are beaten, maltreated, abandoned, or even murdered by their parents or carers. La Fontaine argues that though belief in witchcraft was part of many African traditional cultures, this did not include the belief that children could be witches, which was an idea imposed by Western charismatic churches that held the belief that children are born corrupted by original sin, which must then be beaten out them. These beliefs are given impetus by social collapse in the home countries, where there are large numbers of abandoned feral children, child soldiers and the like.

La Fontaine argues that for many immigrants western societies are seen as dangerous and ill disciplined, almost literally a wilderness, the wild spirits of which might corrupt their children. These influences are not necessarily traditional African beliefs but are beliefs imported by western missionaries who infected the societies they imposed upon. Ironically these immigrant communities and their home countries are haunted by the ghosts of old European fears and prejudices and are now coming to haunt us.


It is striking that in many ways the labelling of children as witches bares close similarity to the manner in which traditional European societies branded of children as changelings. Both of these labels seek to provide an alibi for the failure of parents to bond with children, particularly those with developmental, emotional or behavioural problems. Beyond these fears it is hard not see that they reflect more general fears of young people, often regarded as wild or hooligan, and were the subject of a number of moral panics back in the early 1970s. Our society today has very ambivalent views about young people aged 14-17, and now tends to defuse these fears by imagining childrea as being weak and vulnerable, with no will or mind of their own, unless we wish to either sanctify or demonise. In the latter case La Fontaine points out how society demonised the killers of James Bulger.

This book clearly shows how radical forms of Christianity can have the potential to become as dangerous as radical forms of Islam. In both cases it would appear that a significant source of problems is the existence of a kind of free market in religion in which anyone can set up as pastor or preacher of one sort or another and that this can be a real career option for those having difficulty finding employment. Exorcising witches can be one way that these people can compete with each other in the market place of religion. In mainstream western society that role now seems to be taken by a vast variety of so-called therapists of one kind or another, who perform very similar functions. The finding of witches by pastors and satanic abuse victims run parallel to each other.

The beliefs in witchcraft are not, as has sometimes been implied, confined to peasants in the bush; on the contrary most of those holding these beliefs are members of the international cosmopolitan bourgeoisie, fully linked to the internet world. The western bourgeoisie, though not overtly professing belief in witchcraft often professes beliefs that are only semantically different.

This is a dark and disturbing book on a dark and disturbing topic and definitely not one for the light read, but I would argue essential reading for police officers, social workers and others involved in child protection. -- Peter Rogerson


11.7.16

SPACE: THERE'S A LOT OF IT ABOUT

J Richard Gott. The Cosmic Web - Mysterious Architecture of the Universe. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Space: there's a lot of it about. It's all around us, and even inside us. It seems to go on forever, absolutely infinite. But what exactly is it?

We naturally tend to think of Space as nothing, emptiness, void or vacuum. However, it is an established scientific fact that a totally empty vacuum is an impossibility. 'Nature abhors a vacuum' is the principle first enunciated by the philosopher Aristotle and now confirmed by modern science. Quantum mechanics shows that the void is constantly bubbling with energy particles coming into existence and disappearing almost instantly. Perhaps the most amazing fact of all is that everything comes from nothing, literally.

Current thinking is that for every billion packets of energy or 'matter' coming into existence, only one remains while all the rest are cancelled out by packets of 'antimatter'. As if all that were not mind-boggling enough, it is now orthodox science to believe that the entire universe exploded from a point very much smaller than a single atom, about 13.8 billion years ago. In this book J. Richard Gott attempts to show how random fluctuations on the sub-atomic micro level at the time of the 'Big Bang' gave rise to the uneven distribution of matter in the form of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. His approach to this highly complex subject is shown in the first sentence of his Preface: "Galileo once said: 'Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book which ever is before our eyes - I mean the universe...The book is written in mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures.' So it proved to be with the arrangement of galaxies in the universe. To understand it would require geometrical language." 

That language is 'topology', defined as 'the study of geometric properties and spatial relations unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures.' There can be no doubt that the author was born with a brilliant brain and a propensity for topology and mathematics. Gott describes how, when only 18 years old, he discovered a group of "intricate, sponge-like structures made of triangles, squares, pentagons, or hexagons – some of which neatly divided space into two equal and completely interlocking regions." This became his high-school science project, which he presented at a local science fair in his home city of Louisville, Kentucky. "Surprisingly," he says, "this would later play a role in my own path to understanding the arrangement of galaxies in the universe." And so it proved to be, as "Great clusters of galaxies are connected by filaments, or chains of galaxies, in a sponge-like geometry, while the low-density voids are connected to each other by low-density tunnels; this entire structure is now called the cosmic web."

One thing Gott cannot do, nor anyone else for that matter, is to explain how the Big Bang occurred in the first place. Despite the quirk that Gott's name means 'God' in German, he does not possess supernatural knowledge, despite his brilliance. The riddle of that First Cause, and its nature, may be beyond the reach of any kind of scientific instrument and measurement. Having said that, I must admit that Gott has a great mind, perhaps one of the greatest in the field of cosmology for over thirty years. He excels at higher mathematics and parts of his book are completely baffling. You know that this book is written by a hands-on scientist and not a science writer. It is not that he appears in certain places to deliberately obfuscate the subject, but rather that the complexity of the concept itself results in challenging sentence structures. Take this sentence, for example, on the subject of inflation immediately following the Big Bang: "These effects create a small tip in the fluctuation spectrum as a function of scale relative to the constant value predicted by Zeldovitch." And then, a few sentences later: "In principle, inflation gave us both the ham and the eggs."



While not quite sure about the ham and eggs, I do like Gott's analogies of meatballs, Swiss cheese, and sponges, in relation to the agglomeration and distribution of matter in the universe. It is natural for the human mind to perceive patterns that correlate impressions of the micro world and the macro universe. My own casual observations have been similar, for example to see the shape of a revolving spiral galaxy in the froth on the surface of a cup of coffee and clusters of galaxies in the foam on a bubble-bath. Sure enough, Gott also discusses 'Bubble Universes': "I proposed that we lived inside a bubble universe and that our universe was just one of many bubbles. Our bubble universe would continue to expand forever. Meanwhile, outside our universe, other bubble universes would continue to form in the endlessly inflating, high-density sea." But what about the Big Bang? How could this notion of bubble universes, in a truly infinite 'multiverse', be reconciled with that? "The bubble looked like an ever-expanding, inflationary Big Bang universe. We, looking out in space and back in time, could see only our own bubble and the smooth inflating sea that produced it. We could not see the other bubbles."

It is worth mentioning that Gott is a Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. He is quite well known for proposing how a time machine might be constructed using hypothetical cosmic strings. In a previous book, Time Travel in Einstein's Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel through Time (2002) Gott grapples with the knotty philosophical problem of whether it is possible to go back in time. The difficulties are obvious, as shown in the 'Grandfather paradox'. If a man could go back in time and killed his grandfather, would that not wipe out his future existence? In that case, how could he ever have existed at all?

Questions such as these show how Physics at the highest levels becomes Metaphysics, and then Philosophy. Through thought-experiments Einstein famously worked out his General Theory of Relativity, in which space and time are directly related. Gott says : "This theory explained gravity in a revolutionary way, as the result of curved spacetime. Einstein's equation showed how the 'stuff' of the universe (matter, energy and pressure) cause spacetime to curve." Gravity is, of course, vital to any cosmological theory of "the architecture of the universe" as the force that holds everything together. However, we now know that there is a repulsive energy that counteracts the effects of gravity. 'Dark energy' is the name given to this remarkable substance that has a repulsive effect. Incredibly, it is estimated to comprise 70% of the energy content of the universe, and 'dark matter' accounts for about 25%, yet what they are made of is still a mystery.

Remarkably, only 5% of the known universe is made up of ordinary matter. Nothing in cosmology rightly deserves the adjective 'ordinary', and so it is with the kind of matter that we are familiar with. To our senses it is definitely solid, but in the quantum world it is virtually empty space. Above our heads the stars and constellations seem fixed. Yet, as Gott explains, it appears that the universe is in a stage of accelerated expansion, doubling in size every 12.2 billion years. This creates what is known as an 'event horizon', beyond which we cannot see.

All of this knowledge is relatively recent. It was less than a hundred years ago that Harlow Shapley discovered that our solar system's location is in an outer arm of a galaxy that we call the Milky Way, but we still knew nothing of other galaxies. Some, such as Andromeda, had in fact been observed as fuzzy images, and were interpreted as 'nebula', clouds of dust and gas. Then Edwin Hubble discovered that there were countless other galaxies and that the whole observable universe was expanding. By 'red shift' comparison of light sources we could see that the further away they were, both in space and time, the faster they were accelerating outwards. Knowledge has continued to grow at an exponential rate until now. As new discoveries are made, new questions arise.

In his final chapter ‘Dark Energy and the Fate of the Universe’ Professor Gott speculates on the ultimate end-time. After an unimaginably vast period of time, the stars will all have burnt out. Beyond that, "galactic-mass black holes will evaporate by Hawking radiation and blink out in a burst of glory". If you happen to be still around, "it would be like watching static on your television" as you watch thermal radiation from the event horizon.

While all of this speculation is interesting, it is as much use as science fiction. The most bizarre theory within the final chapter is that of ‘Boltzmann Brains’. Here is how Gott introduces the concept: "Once in a great while – once in every 10^10^70 years - you will see something called a Boltzmann brain; that is, something as complicated as the human brain will appear at random from the thermal radiation. I have argued (Gott 2008) that although you may see such a brain in the distance if you wait long enough, it would not be a self-conscious intelligent observer – because the thermal radiation is observer dependent."




Notice that Gott makes an impossible assertion as if it were fact. The fancy term, named after a German physicist's exotic theory, and an impressive-looking specific number (very, very big), are presented as if solving the greatest riddle of existence. It does nothing of the kind. If anything, it proves one thing, particularly with the author's self-reference, that there is another kind of 'inflation' in process: Gott's ego. He really must stop pretending that he knows everything and has the formula to solve any problem. His self-importance runs right through this book. Did you know he's in the Guinness Book of Records? He claims credit, with a few others, for discovering in 2003 the 'largest structure in the universe'. This is the 'Sloan Great Wall', a filament of galaxies approximately 1.38 billion light-years in length. Other apparently larger 'structures' have since been found.

Murphy (2016) would argue that the question of how consciousness and self-awareness arose in the cosmos is the ultimate mystery that physics will never solve. Possibly we can find it by looking within, exploring our own consciousness and spirit. Maybe that is the God-essence that has no beginning and no end. By all means check out 'Boltzmann brains' for yourself. See if it makes any sense to propose that intelligence, or self-awareness, can spontaneously arise out of chaos. But then again I did set out at the beginning of this review by asserting the truth that everything comes out of nothing. What do we really know? I agree with Socrates: 'True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing'.

Gott only knows. – Kevin Murphy

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