Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search For Meaning in an Evolving Universe, by Brian Greene

"Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search For Meaning in an Evolving Universe," by Brian Greene, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York) 2020, $30.00, 326 pages. 

Brian Greene is another in a long line of physicists whose books explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the importance of the Higgs Boson, the phenomenon of black holes, and the myriad other wonders of contemporary physics. His predecessors include such notables as Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson, Murray Gell-Mann and, arguably, the most widely known of all, Stephen Hawking.

Greene is professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. His previous works include “The Elegant Universe,” “The Fabric of the Cosmos” and “The Hidden Reality." One reviewer has said about him, “Perhaps the best explainer of science in the world today.” 

“Until The End Of Time” is not an easy book to read. Early on, for example, Greene introduces two of the most difficult concepts in physics, the second law of thermodynamics, and entropy. Then, just as you are becoming somewhat comfortable with a concept called “the entropy two-step,” you are confronted with the DNA double helix, and the role of RNA in cell replication.

As the title suggests, this book is about the evolutionary process. An absolute requisite for this process is, of course, time. There is first and foremost the 15.5 billion years since the big bang. From that singular event to the time when a particular molecule found a way to replicate itself then took billions of years. Why is the second law of thermodynamics relevant to all of this? Brian Greene will tell you.

In their book, “The Lessons of History,” Will and Ariel Durant say this in the chapter “Religion and History”: “Even skeptical historians develop humble respect for religion since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensible in every land and age.” Greene follows the evolution of religious beliefs and practices from the ritualistic burial of a young girl some 100,000 years ago, to today’s world religions.

From the quite remarkable record of the ancient Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh,” to the God worshipped today by billions of people, religion, in its varied forms, was/is a relevant part of the evolutionary process. Interestingly, Greene goes on to say, “... my confidence in the existence of God is low because of the paucity of rigorous supporting data.”

He, nevertheless, recognizes the importance of and the role of religion in the evolutionary process.

When philosophers, scientists, and people contemplate life and its meaning — or in the so very well-known words of Descartes, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) — all are confronted with consciousness, how to define it, to describe it, what does it mean? It is who we are.

Further, how are we to understand creativity and the sublime in all of us? Greene illustrates with an example many of us are quite familiar with. On May 7, 1884, Beethoven himself conducted the first performance of his recently completed Ninth Symphony which concludes with the chorale based on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy." Beethoven was quite deaf by this time, and as the symphony ended, he was still conducting, having gotten several measures behind the score.

One of the soloists had to take his sleeve and turn him to see the reaction of the audience, all standing, cheering wildly in appreciation for what they had just heard. The journey from a single molecule replicating itself, to a concert hall in Vienna in 1884, required billions of years, and that is the evolutionary process – “an Evolving Universe”.

The evolutionary process is on-going and continuous. The galaxy of which Earth is a part is evolving even now. Our solar system, our galaxy, and all the galaxies near and far are speeding through space at speeds which are quite near the speed of light. Black holes are being born and are dying, stars are being born and are dying. When will it all end — will it end?

None of us will see the death of our sun. For that matter, will there be anyone to witness the spectacular demise of one relatively insignificant star in a relatively insignificant galaxy in the vastness of space? Greene concludes this work with what he and his fellow physicists believe will eventually be the fate of our sun, our galaxy, all suns, all galaxies, of the universe. This process will require time being expressed in exponents to exponential powers — 10 followed by 100 0’s, and the speed of galaxies to eventually exceed the speed of light. Just as there was a beginning with the big bang, there will be an end.

For someone interested in more information about the science, the people, the events, and the ideas about which he writes, Greene has provided 57 pages of notes, and 16 pages of bibliography. “Until The End Of Time” is a well-researched, and well-written work. It will reward the reader with a plethora of new knowledge, and thought-provoking ideas.

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