Fortean Times, January 2004
The prophet and the
astronomer: A scientific journey to the end of time
WW Norton 2002
HB, $26.95, ppxv+256+32 plates, illus, notes, bibl, index ISBN: 0 393 04984 6
In 1997, Brazilian astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser published his acclaimed 'The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang', examining how modern theories of the universe's origin recall ancient creation myths. In this semi-sequel, he addresses the other end of the story, from mythological apocalypses to current scientific thought on the ultimate fate of the universe.
Gleiser kicks off the eschatological adventure with an overview of astrological and meteorological portents and legends of destruction from the sky, taking in highlights of Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and other mythoi. A more scientific consideration of the world and its fate gradually emerged with Newton's studies of the heavens motivated, in part, in an attempt to precisely date biblical events and to work out how long we had to wait until Judgment Day. Gleiser also includes a run through of apocalyptic cults, from militant Anabaptists in 16th century Germany to the comet-hitching Heaven's Gate mass suicide of 1997.
The second part of the book looks at the cataclysmic events that have shaped the solar system and the evolution of life on Earth, although some readers may be disgruntled by the lack of any credit to Velikovsky, the arch proponent of 'worlds in collision'. There's a disturbing account of what happens when a major meteorite hits, such as the one at Chicxulub which doomed the dinosaurs, and the worrying note that it's not a matter of whether another serious impact will happen, but when.
Gleiser then considers the same questions of apocalypse and fate on a stellar and galactic level, moving from legends of the sun-worshipping Inca and Shinto cultures to the sun's likely end as a self-devouring red giant. Other stars have more spectacular ends as supernovae, another phenomenon taken as a celestial portent, and then there's that great cosmic bogeyman, the black hole an excuse for Gleiser to provide a painless introduction to the theory of relativity and an idiosyncratic account of the effects of a black hole on an unwary space traveller, presented as a rewriting of Poe's 'A Descent into the Maelstrom'.
The final section turns to the really big question of the ultimate fate of the universe. Cosmologists are now confident that the universe is expanding, but do not yet know whether this expansion will slow, stop and reverse into the inevitability of the Big Crunch; or whether it will continue until entropy takes dominion over all - a cosmic version of Robert Frost's dilemma over the world ending in fire or ice. The key to the ultimate fate of the universe lies in exactly what happened in its first moments, before energy, matter and the fundamental forces separated into their discrete identities. Answering that question will depend on constructing that holy grail of modern physics, the Theory of Everything (TOE) what Gleiser playfully suggests should rather be called the Geometry of Destiny (GOD).
Addressing issues of science and religion and their approaches to these fundamental questions can be a controversial undertaking. While many people, including many scientists, prefer to separate the two, Gleiser argues that science can do more than just provide a rational view of the world which can then be reconciled with religion, but that it can transcend its immediate role of quantifying the workings of nature through the efforts to understand the unknown, the fundamental impulse behind both science and religion. The common element is the anxieties rising from a finite existence in an apparently infinite cosmos. And as he notes in the last pages, the more we know about the universe, the more we seem not to know.
'The Prophet and the Astronomer' is elegantly written throughout, even in this translation from the original Portugese, with eloquent summaries of ancient myth and modern cosmology interspersed with personal reminiscence which helps put the romance back into astrophysics. My only quibble is with the offputtingly New Agey and somewhat misleading title of this English (or rather, American) translation. I would much prefer the original Portugese title, which translates as something like 'The end of the Earth and the Sky: the apocalypse in science and religion'.