In a book about the history of the universe, an Italian physicist defends the idea of ​​”cosmic chaos” – 06/08/2021 – science

The Italian Guido Tonelli was at the forefront of one of the most important discoveries in physics of this century: the discovery of the Higgs boson, a particle that gives mass to the other components of matter we know. In “Genesis: The History of the Universe in Seven Days” he tries to fit these and other recent findings into a narrative about cosmic origins that could play a role similar to that of pre-scientific myths.

Of course, this is not a new ambition among scientists speaking about modern physics in public. From the original version of the TV series “Cosmos”, presented by the American Carl Sagan (1934-1996), to the new edition of the series under the direction of astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, to bestsellers such as those by Brazilian researcher Marcelo Gleiser, there is potential the science of turning what we know about the cosmos into a grandiose saga, something of a matter of course.

Tonelli slips into these platitudes with sentences like this: “We are going to embark on a journey that is guided only by the imagination, resorting to concepts so daring that the most imaginative science fiction narratives seem mundane by comparison.” (It’s hard to hear this type of statement without concluding that the author is not very familiar with the science fiction genre.)

Fortunately for the reader, the physicist from the University of Pisa succeeds in compensating for the taste of “more of the same” in such a program, highlighting an aspect that is much less present in other works of the genre. While most books and television series alike emphasize the supposed unstoppable beauty of the universal order, the fact that abstract and eternal laws seem to rule everything that exists, Tonelli argues that the right way to see the world around us is like “cosmic chaos “Is. .

That is, an “orderly order” (perhaps the best way to translate the original meaning of the Greek word “kôsmos”) that arises from an underlying reality teeming with possibility and difficult to understand. As in some premodern creation myths – especially those of ancient Greece that physicists frequently quote – chaos is a kind of primordial void. But the great paradox of this primeval emptiness is the fact that it does not amount to absolute “nothing”.

As Tonelli explains, countless observations and experiments have shown that even the most absolute vacuum, which is supposedly free of all matter and energy, is “fruitful”. On a sub-microscopic scale, the void houses a zoo of so-called virtual particles that arise out of nowhere and destroy in unimaginably short fractions of a second.

According to the prevailing view of modern cosmology, small instabilities in this type of void would have triggered the expansion we know as the Big Bang – which, in this view, was nothing more than a tiny region of chaos that began to expand and gain. Cosmos functions.

The mechanisms that made this beginning possible are still unclear, but there is an immense amount of reliable information about what came after, and on this basis the Italian physicist structures his “Seven Days” of Genesis analogously to the similar period. in the first book of the Bible.

However, it is a metaphorical week that is much less anthropocentric (and geocentric) than that of the biblical text: the first three days (or ten seconds after the Big Bang) deal only with the origins of atomic nuclei; the first stars do not appear until the fifth day; and our sun is a newcomer on the seventh day (4.5 billion years ago).

Would humanity be just a footnote in such a grand and ancient setting? Tonelli offers no straightforward answer to these types of questions, and the book’s final binding is quite abrupt. Nevertheless, for those who have not yet had contact with the scientific narrative of our origins, the work offers a reasonably clear map of our path so far.

Genesis: The History of the Universe in Seven Days
Guido Tonelli; Translation by Federico Carotti; Editor Zahar; BRL 39.90 (e-book); 240 pages

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