Summary of The Big Picture by Sean M. Carroll

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of The Big Picture by Sean M. Carroll

Most of us stop to ponder the meaning of life at some time or the other. Whether it is out of frustration or awe we tend to ask the question ‘What’s the point of it all?”. If you get really drawn into it, you start to wonder why we are here in the first place. The answers we get are not really fulfilling as they never quite seem definite. However, over the centuries, science has tried to provide the information we so desperately seek. 

They have provided some of the information needed that gives us an understanding of the universe and how it all comes together. The search for more knowledge never ends though and it is always great to know how far we have come.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • How physics gave us a greater understanding of the world
  • Causality and the development of modern science
  • Entropy – what the chaos brings
  • The evolution of consciousness

Key lesson one: How physics gave us a greater understanding of the world

Before physics came about, much of the natural phenomena of our world was explained as the will of the Gods. It was only much later that science started to bring rational and logical thinking to the somewhat paranormal. 

The Core Theory put forward by Frank Wilczek describes the fundamental laws of the universe. It explains how all known particles interact with each other and are affected by gravity, electromagnetism and nuclear forces. It also describes the energy field that provides all particles with mass called the Higgs field. The Core Theory has some limits but it essentially describes all processes which play a part in our daily lives. It also has tools that come in handy like crossing symmetry. 

Crossing symmetry enables us to rule out things like telekinesis and telepathy by letting us know that the particle needed for telekinesis does not exist because if it did, it would have been found already. It can easily be deduced that in order to move an object with one’s mind, one would need to produce or manipulate a specific particle. Crossing symmetry dictates if such a particle existed it should be created when a proton collides with an antiproton. However, experiments have shown that no such particle is found during these collisions thus, it does not exist. 

Key lesson two: Causality and the development of modern science

Causality refers to the cause and effect that every action has. It has played an important part in both science and philosophy but this concept, introduced by Aristotle, is now facing much criticism. Well, not criticism but rather just not blind acceptance. You see, Aristotle believed that for anything to move there had to have been a cause but modern science says that this is not correct. Thus causality is not such a big deal overall. 

The step away from causality is mostly because of the law of conservation of momentum. In space, an object moves without being in contact with anything meaning that these objects can be in motion without any cause.  Astronomer Pierre Simon Laplace debated cause and effect by simply offering belief in observations. He used billiard balls to demonstrate his thinking. If one ball strikes another, it causes it to move. However, it happens exactly the same in reverse following the laws of physics. If the formula for this action is the same in reverse, causality played no part in it. Therefore, causality could be explained away by the laws of physics giving scientists a whole new perspective on things.

 They began to examine things on both a microscopic and macroscopic level to gain further understanding of things. Both levels have their value, just consider a gas-filled room for example. On a microscopic or fundamental level, you can study the particles – how they move and their velocity. On a macroscopic or emergent level, you can consider how the gas started off as a liquid with a specific pressure, temperature and density. These things could not be considered when you studied it too closely at the microscopic level. Both views are useful. It just depends on which one you want to take a look at. 

Key lesson three: Entropy – what the chaos brings

Entropy is the measure of randomness or chaos in a system. It increases over time which can be seen in most things. Humans age, our bodies deteriorate and then we die. Entropy only works in one direction meaning it always increases as time passes. It is entropy that gives us the basis of time. Thus there are far more instances of disorder than they are of order. 

However, how are complex structures explained then? If everything is tending to a state of disorder how do such structures have time to evolve? The best way to explain this is to consider the relationship between complexity and entropy as a curved line. The ends are simple but in the middle is where complexity resides. Before the Big Bang, entropy was at its lowest, the universe was simple. Right now, the universe is at its most complex state filled with other complex structures. There are planets, galaxies, living organisms and black holes but it is moving towards simplicity again. 

Living organisms are possibly the most complex structures there are, The thought that entropy is the creation of life has been thrown around for years but many theories have developed as a result. One of them by geochemist Michael Russel theorizes that living organisms, or the very first one at least, was just a way for entropy to enter the earth. His basis for this is that living organisms produce compounds that have high entropy. This means that they help the planet increase its entropy which is the natural order of things. Russell has a reputation for being right about things. In 1988 he theorized that the Earth had underwater hydrothermal vents that provided the ideal conditions for the first lifeforms to have appeared. It was not until 2000 that these vents were found on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. So maybe his theory about entropy and lifeforms is correct as well.

Key lesson four: The evolution of consciousness

What made human beings the most successful and dominant lifeform on earth? Scientists have always said that consciousness is one of the defining traits that led to us being intelligent lifeforms. Malcolm McIver goes on further to theorize that when the first lifeforms moved onto land it was an important step to developing consciousness. 

It’s not that hard to understand considering how life underwater left organisms at a loss. They could not see very far and thus always had to be on high alert in case they needed to react quickly. There is no need for critical thinking in these situations, it is all instinctual. When creatures moved onto land, things had to change. They had to be able to see further to determine if there were any potential threats. They also had to start strategizing which led to cognitive and critical thinking in order to survive. This was the beginning of consciousness.

Deeper meaning has been sought to determine how the atoms of our brain resulted in consciousness but it is yet to be answered. Over time many theories arose which both supported and refuted the idea of dualism. How can the mind and body be separate when they work together so well? This question continues to plague the minds of many scientists but as their work continues, it is likely that we have the answer soon enough.

The key takeaway from The Big Picture is:

Scientific discovery has explained many questions about the meaning of life. Even if it has not given definitive answers, the understanding we gain from the information it provides us with a new way to look at our universe. We have come a long way from the time of our ancestors and we still have a whole lot of time ahead of us for more descriptions and discoveries regarding our planet, its lifeforms and the human mind.

How can I implement the lessons learned in The Big Picture:

Now that you have a brief overview of the big picture that is life, why not delve deeper into the aspects that interest you? Much like a macroscopic versus microscopic view, figure out which one you prefer to know about and begin your journey of discovery. You are as much a part of this planet as it is of you, so in finding out more about the universe you will definitely find out more about yourself.

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