Brain Pickings

The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time


What the second law of thermodynamics has to do with the meaning of life.

Several weeks ago, we took at look at What Is Time? — Michiu Kaku’s BBC documentary, exploring the nature and origin of the all-permeating phenomenon, and earlier this week Stephen Hawking’s iconic A Brief History of Time joined this list of 10 essential primers on (almost) everything. But the world might be ready for a compelling new voice to unravel and synthesize the fundamental fabric of existence, and hardly anyone is better poised to fill these giant shoes than Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll.

In From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, Carroll — who might just be one of the most compelling popular science writers of our time — straddles the arrow of time and rides it through an ebbing cross-disciplinary landscape of insight, inquiry and intense interest in its origin, nature and ultimate purpose.

This book is about the nature of time, the beginning o the universe, and the underlying structure of physical reality. We’re not thinking small here. The questions we’re tackling are ancient and honorable ones: Where did time and space come from? Is the universe we see all there is, or are there other ‘universes’ beyond what we can observe? How is the future different from the past?” ~ Sean Carroll

Sample Carroll’s entertaining and enlightening storytellng with his excellent talk from TEDxCaltech. (And, on a related note, don’t miss TED’s freshly launched platform for TEDx talks, showcasing over 2,000 talks by some of the world’s greatest thinkers and doers.)

From entropy and the second law of thermodynamics to the Big Bang theory and the origins of the universe to quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, Carroll weaves a lucid, enthusiastic, illuminating and refreshingly accessible story of the universe, and our place in it, underpinning which is the profound quest for understanding the purpose and meaning of our lives.

We find ourselves, not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon, flourishing for a brief moment as we ride a wave of increasing entropy. [P]urpose and meaning are not to be found in the laws of nature, or in the plans of any external agent. [I]t is our job to create them. One of those purposes — among many — stems from our urge to explain the world around us the best we can. If our lives are brief and undirected, at least we can take pride in our mutual courage as we struggle to understand things much greater than ourselves.” ~ Sean Carroll

Sitting at the relentlessly fascinating intersection of cosmology, theoretical physics, information theory and philosophy, From Eternity to Here comes as a fine addition to this running reading list of must-read books by some of this year’s TED speakers.

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