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Finding a Home in the Cosmos

Local couple launches book that explains our central place in the cosmos

The Center of the Universe

Cosmic Santa Cruz couple examine confluence of spirituality, science


Smithsonian Magazine, July 2006 

Finding a Home in the Cosmos

In a new book written with his wife, Nancy Abrams, cosmologist Joel Primack argues that the universe, far from being a meaningless void, was meant for us. Sort of.

By Jerry Adler
For the past 400 years, says cosmologist Joel Primack, the measure of intellectual sophistication about the universe was acceptance of our own planet's insignificance within it. The Earth, ousted by Copernicus from the center of the heavenly spheres and tamed in its motion by Newton's laws, had shrunk to a speck by the last century, lost in a universe that grew larger each time humans pointed a telescope at it. Most people who don't get their cosmology from the Bible have assimilated this idea into their worldview - which is why it's a little surprising that an impeccably credentialed scientist like Primack has written a book, with his wife, Nancy Ellen Abrams, called The View From the Center of the Universe. The center, they say, is right where you are.

Primack, whose field, cosmology, lies at the intersection of particle physics and astronomy and is at the very margins of human comprehension, was one of the pioneers of the "cold dark matter" theory to account for the invisible mass whose gravity holds galaxies together. He is 60, trim, mild-mannered, with silvery hair and matching mustache. Raised largely in Southern California, he attended Princeton and Stanford before joining the faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a campus in a hillside redwood grove. Abrams is a writer, musician and, by temperament, a philosopher, occupying a privileged position in a thrilling scientific dialogue about the nature of the universe without having to learn integral calculus. Slender, with a dark, piercing gaze, Abrams appears in the guise of a New Age priestess on the cover of her most recent CD, "Alien Wisdom," posed against a backdrop of stars, suspending the Earth between her outstretched hands.

Primack was a particle physicist who became interested in cosmology in the late 1970s, coinciding with the field's transformation by inflation theory and supersymmetry. The former is the idea that for a tiny fraction of a second at the beginning of the Big Bang the universe expanded faster than the speed of light, creating random energy fluctuations that eventually became the large-scale structures of galaxies, galaxy clusters and superclusters. The latter is a theory that relates the properties of particles of force and matter, giving rise to predictions about invisible, or "dark," matter. Primack has lived through, and participated in, what he considers one of the great achievements of human intellect: the unification of experiment, observation and theory in a mathematically consistent account of the 14-billion-year history of the universe. "There are still a lot of unsolved problems, but all the data fits together," Primack says. "We cosmologists have been congratulating ourselves that we finally got the story right. But that's something that the public doesn't appreciate."

Primack has lived through, and participated in, what he considers one of the great achievements of the intellect.

If laypeople don't appreciate it, that's partly because unsolved problems still loom large. The nature of "dark matter," of which there seems to be vastly more than ordinary visible matter, is still conjecture. There is not even a convincing conjecture about the nature of "dark energy," which propels the ongoing expansion of space. But another reason for the incomprehension, Primack and Abrams believe, is that people who can't follow the math have no convenient way to think about these things - no way, that is, to relate these discoveries to the macroscopic, earthbound realm of human perception. The View From the Center of the Universe - a meditation on our place in a universe comprising a hundred billion galaxies of a hundred billion stars - is their attempt to fill that need.

The center of the universe is not, of course, a geometric point in space, but a metaphor for humanity's place in the cosmos. Consider, Primack and Abrams write, that the physical size of human beings is roughly midway on the logarithmic scale between the so-called Planck length - the smallest meaningful increment of distance, about 10 to the minus 33 centimeters, and the distance to the edge of the visible universe, the largest meaningful distance, about 10 to the 28 centimeters. Much smaller creatures than we are could not develop the complexity necessary for intelligence; much larger ones would be limited by the time it takes information to travel across their brains. Earth also happens to occupy a privileged niche of habitability - neither too close to the Sun nor too far, protected by Jupiter's gravity from collisions with comets, locked by the Moon into a stable orientation that provides predictable seasons. If our solar system were very much closer to the center of our galaxy, cosmic rays from nearby stars might have made life impossible; very much farther out on the edge, and the heavy elements that make up the Earth (and living creatures) might have been too sparse. And so on. There are two ways to respond to these observations: you can shrug and say, so what? If any of those things were different, we wouldn't be here to notice anyway, so their apparently miraculous coincidence is an illusion. Or you can find in them a source of wonder and inspiration. "There is no deeper source of meaning for human beings," Primack and Abrams write, "than to experience our own lives as reflecting the nature and origin of the universe.

They denounce the existential, or nihilist, view of live as just a flicker of awareness in an indifferent universe.

Exactly what that meaning consists of is, however, "a tremendous open question," they say, something that can only be apprehended dimly, speculatively, metaphorically. They denounce what they call the existential, or nihilist, view of life as just a flicker of awareness in an indifferent universe. But in their effort to create a philosophy that draws on the entirety of space and time, Primack and Abrams quickly run up against the limits of what human beings can, even in principle, know. We may, as the authors say, be participants in a great cosmic story "as far beyond our imagination as that which atoms and cells are playing for us." But confined to our middling place in the range of possible size scales, how would we know? Primack and Abrams don't even speculate on what that cosmic drama might be. In the final chapter of their book they pose for themselves the straightforward question many readers will be asking: Do they believe in God? The answer takes up several dense paragraphs, ending in the assertion that they "believe in God as nothing less than the process of opening our personal lines of contact with the unknown potential of the universe - a sentence that the word "unknown" transforms from merely insubstantial to, well, empty.

So are they mystics, spiritualists, Buddhists? To be sure, Primack's work is as grounded in empirical results as theoretical physics can be. Physics informs even Abrams' songs, which are really more like poems set to music. Her CD track The Handwriting of God must be the only ballad ever composed about the cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang. In the couple's home, on a hillside overlooking Monterey Bay, there are several telescopes but no healing crystals or pyramids on view. They celebrate New Year's Day with a confection they call the Cosmic Dessert, symbolic of the distribution of mass energy in the universe: 70 percent chocolate cake, representing dark energy; 25 percent chocolate ice cream (for cold dark matter); and the rest other stuff, including a tiny pinch of cinnamon, which stands for the heavy elements forged in stars - in other words, most of what constitutes life. But on Friday nights Abrams lights candles and says a prayer in the ancient fashion of Jewish women since time immemorial. Not, Primack says, because they really believe anyone is listening. Then he catches himself and says: "I'm listening."

Jerry Adler is a senior editor at Newsweek. The photographer William Coupon, making his first appearance in this magazine, is working on a book of his portraits.

link to article on Smithsonian website

Santa Cruz Sentinel, April 8, 2006

Local couple launches book that explains our central place in the cosmos

Click here to download the PDF (96K)
Santa Cruz Sentinel: April 8, 2006

Good Times 

The Center of the Universe

Good Times: Volume 31, No. 48
Written by Chris J. Magyar  
Wednesday, 05 April 2006

Husband and wife help us discover our extraordinary place in the cosmos I’d like to take you on a journey to the center of the universe. Unfortunately, that’s not possible. Not because of technological limitations or impossible distances or lack of information about the center’s whereabouts. The journey is impossible to undertake, you see, because you’re already there.

That’s the premise of husband-and-wife team Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, whose book, “The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos,” is being released this week. The tract, which has no less a lofty aim than to take a place beside Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” and Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” as a revolutionary worldview, posits that humanity occupies a tremendously exceptional place in the universe in several fundamental ways that matter: our physical composition, our perspective from our point in time, our size on the cosmic scale of things, our home within the known universe, our age upon this planet within this solar system and our moment within humanity’s evolution. If these concepts sound too vague, huge, or complex to bother with, don’t worry; the book is both a joy to read and a lucid account of what these concepts are, and why they matter.

The center of the authors’ universe happens to be on a steep hill overlooking the city of Santa Cruz and all of Monterey Bay, very near UC Santa Cruz, where they have co-taught a course on Cosmology and Culture for the better part of the past decade. Cradled by a lush garden containing everything from burgeoning citrus trees to unruly tobacco plants, the home forms a microcosm for the authors’ way of thinking—a cozy and exceptional vantage point from which to consider the known world. Indeed, precisely-oriented maps and compasses dominate the deck area, from which they contemplate and identify local landmarks and geological features. Gazing at and interpreting the world around them is just what they do.

In 1984 Primack was a part of the team that first described the theory of Cold Dark Matter. This was a major step forward in the way astrophysicists could describe the counterintuitive activity of the expanding universe. The theory—with its sister “Double Dark” theory—has been validated by advances in data collection technology since the late ’90s, and now is commonly accepted as the default picture of what our universe is really made of.

Abrams, for her part, worked to develop the procedure of Scientific Mediation, which allows governments to craft intelligent policy decisions in areas where science plays an important role. A published writer and songwriter, she is a recognized leader in the area of communicating science to the culture at large. Even the couple’s daughter, Samara, had a major hand in the project, using her skills as an actress and dramaturg to help craft the non-fiction book’s story arc, making it even more engaging to a general audience. In a way, changing the world is the family business.

“Introducing a new cosmology into a culture is a sacred responsibility,” Abrams says. “When a new cosmology enters a culture, it changes everything: religions change, political systems crash. People have thought in terms of the old worldview so long, it’s like a rug has been pulled out.”

This book absolutely seeks to change the world. That’s not just the publicity materials talking: the book’s underlying premise is that global culture has been adrift without a unifying mythology since the dawning of the scientific revolution in the 18th century. While science has been helpfully churning out principles and theories upon which marvelous technology can be built, it has yet to present humanity with a coherent vision of its place in the universe.

Not only does the book finally present this scientifically accurate vision, it does so with the hope of pulling that rug out. “We are hoping that this acceptance of the new reality happens pretty fast, because we on Earth are at a turning point,” says Primack.

Primack and Abrams argue that advances in cosmology during the past eight to 10 years have finally made real answers about life’s biggest questions scientifically available. All that’s lacking is an accepted mythology to make those answers accessible to anyone without a lifetime of study in quantum physics. If you find yourself scoffing at any of this, know that the authors have anticipated the linguistic limitations to thinking and writing in these terms. They are not seeking to cram some utopian, unassailable scientific truth down the throat of mankind. Nor, by ‘mythology,’ do they mean fabricated stories about soap opera gods. They simply put forth a series of clear and accurate metaphors to describe how the universe works.

“Metaphor is not some optional, decorative way of speaking,” says Abrams. “We simply cannot explain anything abstract without metaphor. We have to describe everything in terms of something else.”

Primack adds, “And we’re trying to explain the universe for everyone. So we do consciously recycle some of these old religious symbols, because these symbols have cultural resonances for everybody.”

The symbols do not favor any particular culture or religion. In this book, the universe is simultaneously described as a Masonic pyramid, a serpent eating its own tail and a Las Vegas casino, depending on the concept they are trying to get across.

The fact that our culture currently operates without any unifying vision is an anomaly. As the authors describe in the first section of the book, the greatest civilizations of our past have all flourished and lasted because of the mythologies we may deem silly with today’s scientific knowledge. A common groundwork may indeed be essential to the survival of the species; the lack of one could go a long way toward explaining the rather daunting geopolitical and environmental pickle we find ourselves in today.

“People are harvesting the powers of the universe without recognizing the universe that they come from,” Abrams says. “We’re like the child who finds the car keys, and goes out and turns on the car.”

Which is partly the point of the closing section, bearing the excellent motto of “Think Cosmically, Act Globally.” Far from leaving life, the universe, and everything to the realm of weekend contemplation, the authors make several good cases for how this worldview can be applied by our communities and cultures to bring about sustainable prosperity, not just for our immediate descendents, but for the humans who will live to ride out the remaining billions of years that the Earth may exist.

“We need to understand time as it really works on the scale of the universe,” Primack says. “The future has already happened. We just can’t see it yet. The light is still on its way.”


j. – the Jewish Newsweekly of Northern California

Cosmic Santa Cruz couple examine confluence of spirituality, science

by Dan Pine, staff writer

Can a Jewish astrophysicist find God at the edge of the universe? Ask Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams and you get no simple answers. But you do get good ones.

The Jewish couple from Santa Cruz tackle many complex questions in their new book "The View From the Center of the Universe," which attempts to reconcile the science of cosmology with the human need for spirituality.

Primack is a renowned scientist and professor of physics at U.C. Santa Cruz. Abrams, his wife, is a lecturer, author and attorney. For 10 years, the two have taught a course together at U.C. Santa Cruz called "Cosmology and Culture."

Their book weaves the latest scientific data with ancient traditions that attempt to explain the universe. Everything from the kabbalists' Tree of Life to the creation myth of Mexico's Huichol Indians figures into their thesis. The bottom line: As human beings -- self-aware stardust -- unravel the deepest secrets of the cosmos, it's time we placed ourselves back in the center of the universe.

Married for 28 years, Primack and Abrams hold their religion in high regard. In fact, Abrams has even composed a couple of songs, "Abraham was Listening" and "The Book of Life," that are frequently used by Chadeish Yameinu, the Renewal community in Santa Cruz whose services she attends.

But that doesn't mean they accept a fundamentalist view of Torah.

"Thinking Jews see very little correspondence with the Bible and the scientific universe," says Abrams. "You can't take it literally."

Adds Primack, "It's clear that the six-day creation story is the story of a flat Earth. This is the reading of most modern scholars, including most Jewish scholars."

In their book, Primack and Abrams re-examine the unfathomable scale of space and time, the Big Bang and the destiny of the universe. Much space phenomena -- from black holes to string theory -- is hard for most people to comprehend. Which is why human societies often turned to religion and myth to explain the unexplainable.

"There's a human need to explain ourselves," says Abrams. "We still have to have a story, but we need one that's believable. So we start with science, but express this story in mythical language and symbol."

The genesis of their book stretches back to the early 1990s. In conversations with clergy and theologians Primack asked if they thought it made a difference that the universe was expanding. "Many would say, 'No,'" he recalls. "And that's pathetic. They were saying, 'Religion governs my life and has nothing to do with reality.'"

Then he met Daniel Matt, the celebrated translator of the Zohar, the classic kabbalistic text, who was then a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. 'I would ask him about Kabbalah and we'd have long discussions, walking in the Berkeley Hills. Nancy and I wrote an article for Tikkun Magazine in 1995 on Kabbalah and cosmology. Now it's fashionable to make comparisons, but ours was the first."

That led to an intellectual inquiry that ultimately resulted in the new book.

Primack's fascination with Kabbalah didn't come out of nowhere. He grew up in a kosher home in Butte, Mont., in the 1950s. "My mother always lit Shabbat candles," he says, but we became more Reform. I've continued to read and study about religion."

He has gone on to chair the Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society, as well as the Committee on Science, Ethics and Religion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "We had to spend half our time every year fighting the creationists," he says. "It was our mission to promote and defend science."

Abrams grew up in in Maplewood, N.J. Though atheists, her parents sent her to Hebrew school anyway. "I was always asking questions teachers were uncomfortable with," she says. "When they taught us about Abraham sacrificing Isaac, I said, 'Who was Isaac supposed to pray to?' I was sent out of the room."

She went on to become a lawyer and worked for the U.S. Congress' Office of Technology Assessment. But over time she and her husband blended their interests, so that nowadays they often work as a team.

As the two ponder the vastness of space on a daily basis, one might expect them to view life on Earth as inconsequential as a grain of pollen. Not so, they say.

"We don't know if there's any more intelligent life," says Primack. "So what happens on Earth in the next few years could affect the whole future. Whether we solve our problems or wipe out life can affect the evolution of our part of the cosmos. We are the pinnacle of complexity in the universe."

That's why the two have faith that humankind just might find its way out of the current global mess. And at least for Primack and Abrams, they have a personal head start thanks to their Jewish origins.

"I have always been intrigued that 'Israel' means 'struggle with God,'" says Abrams. "I love that it is embedded in our religion. The struggle is towards oneness, how we become one with the universe."

"The View from the Center of the Universe" by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams (316 pages, Riverhead Books/Penguin Group, $25.95).

Copyright J., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California

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