The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design

The universe, why does she purr and growl and spit and coo the way she does? “Like the eye,” Leonard Susskind writes in The Cosmic Landscape, “the special properties of the physical universe are so surprisingly fine-tuned that they demand explanation.”

The eye, of course, was supposed to be the trump card of the cadre of crypto-creationists known as the intelligent design underground. The plan, as outlined in the infamous Wedge document, was to stealthily sow doubt and infiltrate key positions in order to get creationism taught in schools, along with morning prayers and the ten commandments mowed into the lawns of every courtroom in the U.S. Alas, the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania (a case fondly, if very unofficially, remembered as A Couple Dumb Cluck School Board Members and Their Discovery Institute Allies vs. Common Sense) out the kybosh on intelligent design.

Which might mean that Susskind’s 2006 book is passé and no longer useful. The influential and admired theoretical physicist wrote it, he says in his introduction, because he thinks the universe — quirky, special, and weirdly tuned as she is — can be explained without recourse to “supernatural agents.”

In fact, though, and expect in the introduction, Susskind has way too much fun ogling the universe’s sexy features to really spend much time bashing creationists. He’s got “branes” on the brain while luxuriating in “a bubble bath universe” washing off the mud (or whatever that stuff is) being slung in “the black hole wars.” Creationism be damned, let’s do math! 

Or, since there aren’t any actual equations in The Cosmic Landscape, let’s do the diagram rumba and follow the squiggly lines that compose a Feynman diagram — but watch out! The dance floor is folding according to the weird rules of its own private geometry. And: energy is mass with no clothes on so, parents, shield your children from the wonders of the universe. 

But that, ultimately, is Susskind’s point: you don’t need to bring in supernatural intelligence to explain the weird goings on in the universe; you don’t need “intelligent design” or, as brainy physicists with a metaphysical bent like to call it, the “anthropic principle.” The anthropic principle is the idea that the universe is designed just so, so that — guess who — humans can thrive in it. Things are neither too hot nor too cold; neither too inflationary nor too contractionary. It is kind of spooky. Better, though, Susskind says, to take a look at what he called “the physicist’s Darwinism.”

Survival of the fittest, that is, only as it applies to the laws of physics. Just as with biology, where you get highly adapted and complex things like eyes and duck billed platypuses, the universe has strings, and branes and black holes. The laws that work, continue to work. The ones that don’t, stop being laws, either dying out or changing. There is, Susskind claims, a “landscape of possibilities” Out There – and The Cosmic Landscape is his delightful tour of it.

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