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Primo Levi and Tullio Regge. Penguin Books. 4.99 [pounds].

Paul Davies is Professor of Theoretical Physics at Adelaide and a prolific author of popular books on the universe, the quantum world, superstrings, gravity waves, the forces of nature and similar subjects. He is passionately interested in fundamental questions, and conveys the excitement of modern science to the reader. Among the questions that he returns to again and again are those concerning the ultimate meaning of creation, and a previous book, God and the New Physics, was devoted to this problem. The Mind of God is a sequel, and its title comes from a quotation from Stephen Hawking to the effect that if we ever find a complete theory everyone should be able to understand it and |this would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would truly know the mind of God'.

To select the title of the book from such a questionable sentiment is hardly an auspicious beginning, but the reader is unlikely to think that it is primarily a work of theology. It is, as one would expect, an excellent account of a wide range of subjects at the very basis of science, including the status of the laws of nature, the relation of mathematics to reality, the universe as a computer, the nature of mathematics, why the world is the way it is, beauty as a guide to truth and in particular the mysteries of the beginning and end of the universe.

He outlines his attitude in the Preface: |I belong to the group of scientists who do not subscribe to a conventional religion but nevertheless deny that the universe is a purposeless accident. Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact. There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation. Whether one wishes to call that deeper level "God" is a matter of taste and definition'.

Concerning the creation, he remarks that |the essence of the origin problem is that the big bang seems to be an event without a physical cause,' and goes on to say that |viewed through the eyes of a quantum physicist, the spontaneous appearance of a universe is not such a surprise, because physical objects are spontaneously appearing all the time -- without well-defined causes -- in the quantum microworld. The quantum physicist need no more appeal to a supernatural act to bring the universe into being than to explain why a radioactive nucleus decayed when it did'.

The underlying argument here is that because we do not know the cause of a particular event therefore it has no cause. It is clear on reflection that we do not actually observe physical objects spontaneously appearing; if we draw such a conclusion it is not a matter of physics but of a particular philosophical belief, and the belief underlying Davies's exposition is that of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is not only philosophically discredited but is harming physics.

Davies goes on to consider modern theories of quantum cosmology, and argues that |given the laws of physics, the universe can create itself'. This again shows philosophical insensitivity to the difference between being and not-being that is fundamental to all metaphysical discourse.

To sum up, this is an excellent survey of many of the most exciting fundamental questions raised by modern physics, but is seriously flawed at the philosophical level. He presents quite extensive summaries of various theological arguments, but the results are somewhat inconclusive.

It was an interesting idea to tape some wide-ranging conversations between the writer Primo Levi and the physicist Tullio Regge. They seem to be interested in practically everything, and talk about the Talmud, the calculus, the war, the periodic table, Oppenheimer, Fermi, the fifth dimension, nuclear accelerators, Dyson's civilisation, Godel's theorem, chemistry, Bach, computers and a hundred other subjects. It makes a fascinating read for a spare hour.
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Author:Hodgson, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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