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'Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life'

Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life
(By Paul Davies; Houghton Mifflin; 315 pages; $26 cloth.)

Sounding more like a science-fiction novelist than a professor, distinguished physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies advances some wild ideas in his latest book. He starts from the puzzler that the universe seems surprisingly well suited, "bio-friendly," to the existence of observers who seek to understand it. What fascinates (and maybe frightens) scientists is that even minute variations in the constants of nature would make the universe uninhabitable. It has been called the "Goldilocks factor," because the "universe seems to be 'just' right for existence." One quick and easy answer to this conundrum is intelligent design; at the other end of the spectrum, many scientists see life as a "bizarre and temporary aberration in an absurd and pointless universe." Davies explores the idea of the "multiverse" as a third way. According to this theory, the universe is really "but an infinitesimal fragment of a much larger and more elaborate system," a whole (perhaps infinite) collection of separate "pocket" universes, each different in some random way. Some universes will enjoy the right conditions for life, and when they start studying physics, those life-forms will naturally consider themselves very lucky, winners of the Cosmic Jackpot of the title. And so, chance takes the place of a creator. There's just one problem: No one has yet figured out how to test the theory. Davies admits that no direct evidence of these so-called pocket universes can be collected, because each universe is receding from the others faster than the speed of light. However, he suggests that indirect evidence might be available by studying the fine-tuning of physical laws, although his explanation of this point will leave the lay reader a bit bewildered. Nonetheless, Davies is refreshingly undogmatic and willing to consider a wide range of possibilities in the face of cosmic conundrums. (Paul Davies appears at a booksigning event on Sunday (June 3) at 7:30pm at Kepler's, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park; 650.324.4321.)

Review by Michael S. Gant


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