Most people have never heard the phrase "the human universe," so it got a major boost from British physicist Brian Cox. A popular science presenter in the UK and physics professor at the University of Manchester, Cox called his latest BBC series by that name. (The amplified text is available in a lavishly illustrated book, Human Universe, written with producer Andrew Cohen, just out in paperback.) Cox covers the biggest unanswered questions, not just in physics but in science: Where are we? Are we alone? Who are we? Why are we here? What is our future?
By using "we" in each case, he centers the big questions on human beings. The science that Cox relies upon is orthodox. That is, he views the universe as a huge physical mechanism, with countless objects existing "out there" for scientists to examine. Contemporary physics is extremely complex--the book does a good job simplifying it for us laymen--but the basic foundation for all the billion-dollar radio telescopes and high-energy particle accelerators has been dubbed "naive realism." This view doesn't question Nature as it appears. There may be mysteries lying behind a phenomenon like the Big Bang, but that event, like the existence of stars, galaxies, molecules, and atoms, is a given.
The challenge to naive realism, strangely enough, also comes from modern physics. It is based on several grounds. First comes fine tuning, the name given to the extraordinary way that all the working parts of the cosmos, including the laws of nature that govern everything, mesh together. Over a dozen constants must be perfectly entrained for the present universe to exist. Fine tuning has been argued over for five or six decades at least, and it poses a huge dilemma for anyone who claims that creation in physical terms is completely random. As the British astronomer Fred Hoyle famously wrote,
"A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing 747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? So small as to be negligible, even if a tornado were to blow through enough junkyards to fill the whole Universe."
Cox doesn't mention Hoyle except as the inventor of the term Big Bang. The index to his book doesn't list fine-turning, and there is no significant treatment of the challenge to randomness. This is in keeping with the interest orthodox science has in seeming to be correct rather than just a choice among several other choices. (In the same vein Cox is amused by philosophers, whose arguments against naive realism are not presented at all.) But in reality the existence of fine-tuning is absolutely critical to the existence of human life, since one can argue that not a single factor in the makeup of the universe can be changed or deleted without eliminating the appearance of human beings on Earth.
The second huge issue raised by the phrase "human universe" is our interaction with objects "out there." Are we observers staring at Nature like children with their noses pressed against a bakery shop window? That has been the standard view in science, in the name of objectivity. Only by being detached and rational, taking precise measurements and collecting data that isn't tainted by all the whims and uncertainties of our inner life can we hope to discover how reality works. This split between objective and subjective, however, was undermined by a phenomenon known in quantum physics as the observer effect, according to which the act of observing a particle like a photon or electron isn't passive at all. Instead, the observer influences what he observes.
At first the observer effect was chiefly related to the position of a particle. Where a photon is in time and space depends on how and when it is observed. This is a major attack on naive realism, because elementary particles apparently have two diametrically opposed aspects, known as wave and particle. When behaving like a wave, a photon exists as a "smear" extending infinitely in all directions; when behaving like a particle, it has a pinpoint location. What makes the difference, known as the collapse of the wave function, depends on an observer.
One of the greatest quantum pioneers, Werner Heisenberg, declared something truly radical: "The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts." Other seminal thinkers like Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger agreed; they saw that naive realism was a dodo more than a century ago, even though a belief in "things" being physically a given is the mainstay of Cox's book. He quotes no other viewpoint and comes nowhere close to revealing just how important the observer effect may be, as when Heisenberg makes another explosive statement: "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."
The third huge issue in the human universe is the role of consciousness. Max Planck, who originated quantum physics, believed that consciousness was impossible to get around; the human mind only knows reality through consciousness. Yet we have no idea what consciousness actually is, only that we possess it. A number of quantum thinkers, including Schrödinger, held that the human mind can't be unique. They posed the possibility that we live in a conscious universe, and that idea continues to be explored in conferences, books, and articles. Cox presents nothing on the issue, even though a widely respected theorist, the late John Archibald Wheeler, spoke of the "participatory" universe, one is which human beings are inexorably entwined. Wheeler isn't cited in Cox's book, nor is "consciousness" an entry in the index.
The bottom line for Cox is contained in the statement, "Our universe appears to be made for us." But instead of endorsing this view, which would be the beginning of the human universe, he calls it "content-free whimsy." To him, the mystery of how human life arose is simply the wrong question. We should be asking instead how we fit the laws of nature, not the other way around. Even though he concedes that the constants of nature are "with no known rhyme or reason to them," he believes that inside these constants are hidden potentials that will fully explain, often through computer modeling, how human beings came to exist.
In the end, it's a matter of perspective, with naive realism on one side, backed by the immense apparatus of modern research and technology, and other-minded thinkers who see that this block of cheese has many holes in it. Every argument for calling humans a cosmic accident--and Cox presents many of them, can be countered by arguments that view the same facts through a different theory--Cox presents none of those. Knowledge is now in a state where some like Cox believe that modern physics is marching ahead triumphantly while others see physics at a crossroads of turbulent, confused crisis. Even beyond the biggest questions posed in Human Universe, science has been forced to ask itself what is real and what is true--two issues that haven't been resolved since ancient times and have now returned to challenge us.