Saturday, February 11, 2012

Why did Sean Carroll write 'From Eternity to Here'?

Newt Gingrich has written many Amazon book reviews. One of them was on a physics book I'd read, maybe Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos -- though I don't see the review there now.

I don't remember which book, but I remember Gingrich claimed he'd finished it in a few days of easy reading. Given Gingrich's historical record he's either the world's smartest fool or a master of bull poop. Modern physics books are a hard slog for the non-genius, non-physicist. I've read a few of them, and I'm always impressed by how much work it is to integrate the concept space, and how insane the working scientist authors are to write these complex tomes.

Why, for example, did Sean M. Carroll [1], write From Eternity to Here? The guys an untentured Caltech theoretical physicist -- he's supposed to be cranking out grants and papers. I mean, I love the book, but this isn't survival behavior. His blogging is sinful enough, but the book is another level.

Part of the reason might be getting some of his personal theories more attention. Carroll believes cosmological inflation, while "true", simply "begs the question". That is, while cosmological inflation explains some properties of the observable cosmos, it raises even more questions about the state of the pre-inflationary cosmos. Carroll believes the physics of entropy is a possible key to that puzzle. In today's physics community this seems to be mildly heretical and probably not a great way to get tenure. [3]

So frustration with the establishment is probably a part of his compulsion, but it's not all. There's a clue to the rest buried in the footnotes [2] ...

273. What would be even better is if some young person read this book, became convinced this was a serious problem worthy of our attention, and went on to solve it.... if you end up finding an explanation for the arrow of time that becomes widely accepted within the physics community, please let me know if this book had anything to do with it.

The work of puzzle solving goes on, from one mortal generation to the next. That's our little way of poking a stick in the Eye of Entropy.

[1] The unrelated Sean B. Carroll is another working scientist author of popular biology books.
[2]  Consecutively numbered - brilliant. Wish everyone did this instead of renumbering each chapter. After reading the core book, go back and read the footnotes. I made the mistake of borrowing this book from the library -- and blowing through multiple renewal periods and fines and so on. Finally, with 30 pages to go, I gave up and bought the sucker. If Carroll ever does another edition though, he ought to include a concept glossary as well.
[3] Most serious books of lay physics, including Greene's work, has this element. Like Greene and other working physicists, Carroll sticks with establishment physics for 90% of the book, then lays out his own ideas with clear warnings that "dragons are here". It's a good practice and it's part of what distinguishes books by reality-based physicists from the flaky side of the cosmos.  Of course in modern physics "reality" is profoundly unreal.

See also:


Anonymous said...

There's not much mystery. What you have to understand is that Carroll isn't just untenured, he's untenurable. The U of Chicago denied his tenure years ago, and that makes him damaged goods in the academic world. His paths to tenure are: win Nobel, settle for 3rd rate state school, or go Hollywood. Most people in his position start looking into investment banking or management consulting. His contract gig at Caltech puts him conveniently close to Hollywood, and most people don't know the difference between a "research physicist" and a real professor, so there's that.

John Gordon said...

That makes sense, though "3rd rate state school" sounds a bit harsh. (First rate would be Berkeley, so would UMN be 3rd?). It suggests Sean C. might have another book in him, which I'd be looking forward to.

Life is highly contingent, the trick is to play the hand we've got. After all, in every other timeline we're hit by a truck.

(I did my undergrad at Caltech, but never felt the Hollywood connection. Musts be a faculty thing.)