My dream has always been to dive deep into the mysteries of the universe. Deciphering nature's hidden secrets always seemed magical to me and gave me a feeling of mystical communion with the unknown, notions that I knew would make most scientists very uncomfortable. Unlike my fellow physics scholars I was interested in philosophy and history as well as math.
I've spent the past 25 years investigating the relationship between the physics of the very small — atoms and subatomic particles — and of the very large — stars, black holes, and the universe as a whole. As a theoretical physicist, I blend high-level math with simulations in the world's fastest computers to address some of the deepest questions about the cosmos and our place in it: a search for the fundamental laws of nature, never neglecting the human element in this grand epic we call science. Central to my research are questions of origins — of the universe, of matter, and of life — all of which are, of course, older than science itself. It is precisely the deep nature of these questions, how they branch into many aspects of knowledge and culture and how they ultimately define what it means to be human, that drew me to this career. Modern science provides our best chance to answer these questions. What we are finding promises to shake the very foundations of 25 centuries of Western thought.
Following in the noble footsteps of the science giants Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Planck, and Einstein, I grew up a Platonist, fascinated with the idea of unification: the idea that all the forces of nature are but different expressions of a single force. Ideas had to be tested as prescribed by the scientific method. But that was almost an afterthought. There had to be a single description of the laws of nature, a mathematical realization of the mind of God, hiding behind reality. I went to graduate school in England to pursue this intellectual Holy Grail.
I earned my Ph.D. working on superstring theories, the epitome of the unification dream. Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life looking for the unifying force, as did the brilliant pioneers of atomic physics: Heisenberg, Pauli, and Schrödinger. Surely, I believed, this was the way. Time passed. I published more than 60 papers, went to countless conferences across the world, gave hundreds of talks, and spent a decade working on the rarefied strata of higher dimensional theories and unification. But as the years passed I watched with growing apprehension as hundreds of my colleagues published papers on ideas so far removed from reality that they couldn't (and still can't) be tested: papers proposing six invisible dimensions of space curled up in a ball a trillionth of a trillionth of a billionth of an inch; papers proposing that there are an infinitude of universes out there popping in and out of existence throughout eternity, ours being only one of them; papers suggesting that whenever a measurement is made, reality forks into separate paths, each a different universe. The list was long. Were they playing intellectual games? Were they delusional, pursuing a fantasy? Had they lost their sense of commitment to their true vocation, the description of natural phenomena? Were they even physicists?
Then in 2002 my wife and I built a house in the middle of the woods about 18 miles south of Dartmouth: no human neighbors, only solemn Mount Ascutney in the distance and the mighty Connecticut flowing underneath, impervious to our questioning. Nature peered in through the vast glass windowpanes, impossible to ignore. For the first time in my life, I truly looked at the world. I saw that trees never fork perfectly, clouds are never perfect spheres, and stars are scattered in the skies without any apparent pattern. I realized that the order we see in nature is the order we seek in ourselves. Surely, there are natural laws, and they reflect observed patterns of organized behavior. But are these laws the true blueprints of physical reality? Or are they logical descriptions that we create to represent it? What have we learned in the past decades about our origins? That the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate, that time had a beginning, that the reason we exist at all can be traced back to a fundamental imbalance in the way the particles of matter interact with each other, that only due to random mutations can life thrive and adapt. We have learned that nature relies on imperfections in order for atoms, people, and galaxies to exist.
That winter it became clear to me that scientists — and seekers of perfection from all walks of life — have been courting the wrong muse. Neither symmetry nor perfection should be our guiding principle, as they have been for millennia. We don't have to look for the mind of God in nature and try to express it through our equations. Imperfect nature has plenty to offer, if we are willing to embrace its message.
A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe is my attempt to dismantle what is arguably the most deeply-ingrained myth of science and Western philosophy. In its place, I offer a new way of thinking about nature, based on the latest findings of modern physics, astronomy, and biology, some of them my own. I argue that the search for an all-embracing theory of nature inspired by beauty and perfection is misguided, rooted in the monotheistic culture that has for so long dominated Western thought. In doing so, I challenge superstring theory and the widespread belief that it represents the truth of all existence. Such a "theory of everything" is the scientific equivalent of a Jewish-Christian-Muslim God that designed the cosmos, a theory based on mathematical symmetry as an expression of nature's perfection. Even if God is hidden from the equations (and He certainly is), the mythic equivalent of "all is one" persists.
The time has come to shift our focus. During the past few decades, a new way of thinking about the natural world has emerged that emphasizes change and transformation rather than stasis and perfection. This new thinking, along with its social and cultural ramifications, is the main theme of A Tear at the Edge of Creation. Over a century ago, after examining the spatial structure of biomolecules, the building blocks of living matter, Louis Pasteur exclaimed, "The Universe is asymmetric!" Modern particle physics and cosmology have corroborated this view, proving that the matter comprising all that exists, from atoms and galaxies to people, arises from fundamental asymmetries in nature. Understanding the origin of these asymmetries has been the central focus of my research. We have found that without asymmetries and imperfections the universe would contain only smooth radiation — nothing more. Stars, people, and everything else emerge from fundamental imperfections writ deep into nature's code. A Tear at the Edge of Creation explains why this is so.
History has taught us that any radical shift in our cosmic view comes with consequences for society. Apart from presenting this new science, I explain why it will have a liberating effect, freeing us from old-fashioned and vile "wars" between science and religion. People must understand science for what it truly is: a very human narrative that evolves as we discover more about the physical world. There is nothing god-like about it. What science does offer, however, is a spiritual path toward embracing this nature to which we are inextricably bound: we are creatures of the cosmos, a cosmos that has no particular plan for us. We have probed into other worlds in our cosmic neighborhood, only to realize how rare and precious life is. Accepting this will elevate us to a new moral plane that celebrates and protects what we have, while we still have it.