Rating: 8 for Pros, 6.5 for Laymen
Still, it’s Recommended Reading for Armchair Physicists Everywhere
If MC Escher were God, conformal infinity would be all around us, but we wouldn’t notice. When everything scales, nothing scales. Ok, google his drawings, and get one of those where the birds or fish get smaller toward the edges, and study it. You’ll have the basics of conformal scaling geometry right there, whether you knew it or not. Now imagine it on a sphere, rolling this way and that, revealing that none of the fish/birds are any larger or smaller than any others. This is the fractal nature of conformal infinity, and the most essential logical piece of Conformal Cyclic Cosmology, or CCC, as presented by the brilliant mathematician/physicist Roger Penrose, in his book Cycles of Time.
Now I say he’s brilliant, but that doesn’t mean he’s right. I’m left with numerous questions after finishing the book, that I probably couldn’t answer without spending years studying the math and history of the hundred or so other mathematicians and physicists he cites along the way.
Think about a road trip through the Rocky Mountains. Do you need to understand the equations of their rocky geometry to appreciate the peaks and valleys? Of course not. Or imagine yourself sitting down for tea with Einstein. Would you understand every point he made? Probably not, but you’d be hard pressed to not get just a little smarter, for having sat with him.
Still, most people are put off by equations, and this book has a ton of them. Too many. Here’s a link where you can follow his lecture, sans math. At times it seems Penrose has a hard time deciding who he is writing for. If his audience is capable of understanding all of these equations, they probably don’t need half of them, being as each has a book-length history to itself, generally. And if they aren’t at that level, the equations will be lost anyway, for the same reason. It seems, in a popular-targeted physics study, that equations and names of other scientists are used to lend an official air to the work, to justify what the conceptual logic itself can’t. As such, I admit I skipped most of them. It would take a dual doctorate in math and physics to do it any other way.
Penrose essentially spends the entirety of his book trying to convince us that it’s physically and mathematically sound to ignore material physics at the beginning and ending of the universe, that the birds/fish at the edge of Escher’s conformal drawing are actually the same size as those in the center, or better yet that size doesn’t actually exist in any absolute sense anyway. At the extreme edges of reality, Einstein’s E=MC2 takes over, and everything is energy, causing material physics to cease, as one universe becomes the next without any big bang OR big crunch. Instead he imagines a fatal scattering and then regenerative coalescing of photons, basically. Just so, we can discard the math of material physics when approaching our understanding of his theory, and do away with at least 2/3 of the equations in the book.
What is entropy? Why doesn’t an egg unbreak and reform in your hand, ever, no matter how many eggs you cook? Physics is still trying to understand it, in more or less convoluted ways, and Penrose does a better job than most, but I’m honestly not entirely convinced that anyone knows. A lot of the book goes there, because in order for a conformal cyclic universe to exist, it needs to reconcile with the 2nd law of thermodynamics. At least we’re pretty sure it does. Certainly to be accepted by physicists of our time it must. Put simply, if chaos always increases, how did it start and how will it end? Penrose says it didn’t and it doesn’t. If the universe is a bell of growth, with a tiny point at the tip where you would put the big bang, Penrose says no, zoom in with a magnifying glass and you’ll see there’s just another bell there, just a factor smaller, and that what looks like the point at the beginning of that 2nd bell (zoom in) is actually just another bell, until you realize that the whole thing is fractal and never began, or never ended. The curve of the graph for entropy didn’t begin at the beginning of our universe, it just continued from the exponentially small curve of the previous one, that looked basically the same. Then imagine that the magnifying glass doesn’t exist, and doesn’t need to, because in between these bells, size itself simply ceases to exist, because everything is energy, and energy has no size! The egg never unbreaks, but black holes and universes come and go, from energy to mass to energy again.
See, I explained it without a single equation! I understand that’s not proof, but the thing is, neither are the equations. Sure they may support it, but come on, are we really convinced that math alone will tell us how the universe began or will end? Map the house next door, without looking at it, using math. If you can’t do that, but you think you can map the big bang with it, I’m just going to suggest that the odds of you being wrong are way higher than the odds of you being right. Is it coincidence that you are most convinced of the things you can’t possibly test for accuracy?
We can make educated guesses. I’m going to assume the relative accuracy of the sources he cites, as well as the relative brilliance of his mind, as nearly a peer to Einstein or Feynman, yet I’ll still come away uncertain of CCC’s accuracy as a model of our universe. Thing is, that’s not the point, or the real merit of the book. Relativity changed the conceptual framework with which we look at everyday physics all around us, in real life – and very few of us ever read the book! But even Einstein couldn’t shake ol’ Lambda, the Cosmological Constant, what you probably know today as Dark Energy. Nobody can figure out why the universe has waaaay less material to it than it should, given our fundamentally reliable understanding of gravity and how it is acting on what we CAN see. So we call it this or that, but nobody still has any real solid idea just what Dark Matter and Dark Energy is. Lambda. Honestly, I’ve yet to see compelling arguments to suggest it’s anything exotic. There’s no reason that the vast material of the universe can’t simply be lightless, from here. We can’t see it from our tiny rock, but that doesn’t mean it’s anti-matter, imho. Ok that’s a tangent.
The point is that Relativity, in one of its most basic senses, is unproven and still not understood by the greatest minds alive in 2020. Lambda is still every bit the mystery it was 50 years ago. So if a more fringe theory like CCC, about much more distant events at the beginning and end of the universe, still comes in a mile short of proof, despite all the paper trail you could ever imagine on Earth, don’t let that keep you from grappling with it, mentally. It’s an important reminder that the Big Bang is only one of our current theories, and not necessarily the best one – that other possibilities can actually meet the theoretical thresholds, matching our more widely proven sciences every bit as well. It’s not about knowing. Nobody knows how the universe began or will end, not today, not on this tiny rock. Read Cycles of Time not to know, but to open your mind. You see, just being in the same room with Roger Penrose for a few hours is going to make you smarter.