The Cosmic Code

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

“I think that the universe is a message written in code, a cosmic code, and the scientist’s job is to decipher that code.” That is Heinz Pagels’ answer to the question “What is the universe?” and in this book, Pagels takes his readers on a cryptographer’s quest into the basic structure of the universe.

The book is divided into three parts, or rather two parts and a short coda. The first part, “The Road to Quantum Reality,” traces the development of the quantum theory of the atom from 1900 to 1982; the second part of the book, “The Voyage into Matter,” takes the reader from molecules to atoms to nuclei to hadrons and leptons and on to quarks and gluons, which, for the present at least, are the components of ultimate reality. In the concluding section entitled, “The Cosmic Code,” Pagels philosophizes on the nature of the search and lays down the rules for “Laying down the Law.” This ambitious undertaking is carried out with such clarity, enthusiasm, and conviction that the reader is carried along through the maze of difficult concepts without hesitation. Pagels is clearly delighted to be a participant in the recent triumphs of quantum physicists in understanding the code.

The year 1905 was a remarkable one for the development of physics. In that year, in Annalen der Physik, Albert Einstein published three papers which were to revolutionize physics. One was on the special theory of relativity; one was on statistical mechanics—an explanation of Brownian motion, the random movements of pollen grains observed under a microscope when they are suspended in a liquid or gas, resulting from the impact of the randomly moving atoms or molecules in the fluid. This explanation convinced a few diehard opponents of the atomic theory. The third, and the only one which Einstein himself thought revolutionary, was on the photoelectric effect. In it, Einstein used Planck’s quantum hypothesis of 1900, but went beyond it to hypothesize that light itself was quantized into particles.

It is ironic that, although he himself in one of these papers provided an important contribution to a field of physics which depends on statistical interpretation and in another originated a quantum theory which would lead to a description of the world in nondeterministic terms, Einstein was never able to give up a belief in a causally determined universe. Einstein said, “I cannot believe that God plays dice.” Pagels characterizes Einstein as “The Last Classical Physicist,” and throughout the book shows how modern theories are not concerned with whether God plays dice, but with how the dice-playing God plays the game.

Relativity theory is not a threat to a causally deterministic universe, and Einstein spent his later years searching unsuccessfully for a unified field theory which would link gravitation, which is explained by the theory of general relativity, with the other physical forces. There is further irony in the fact that in recent years, theoreticians have had some success with field theories which unify three of the four fundamental interactions—the electromagnetic, the weak, and the strong interactions—although not gravitation, but these theories are firmly rooted in the quantum indeterminism which Einstein could not accept.

After devoting his first two chapters to Einstein and relativity, Pagels turns his attention to a more or less historical account of what he calls “The Road to Quantum Reality.” The phenomena of the subatomic world can only be explained in terms which seem bizarre, exhibiting what Pagels calls “quantum weirdness,” to the everyday sensibility. Similar difficulties, though perhaps not to the same extent, attend an understanding of the world of enormous speeds and great distances where the theory of relativity, with its own kind of weirdness, holds sway. This is not really surprising. Both relativity and quantum physics predict classical results for phenomena on a human scale, a scale with distances ranging only from about a tenth of a millimeter to a few thousand kilometers and speeds of up to a few hundred kilometers per hour. Man’s direct perceptual experience is limited to this range, so that there is no real reason to be astonished at the quantum weirdness on the subatomic scale. Yet such astonishment persists, and perhaps this makes the quantum reality all the more fascinating.

The author does not gloss over difficulties in this account of the development of quantum theory, and he presents quite detailed nonmathematical descriptions of the mathematics involved. These descriptions, for example that of the development of the matrix mechanics of Max Born, Camille Jordan, Werner Karl Heisenberg, and Paul Dirac, seem elegant to one who is familiar with the mathematics. It is, however, hard to estimate how much will be conveyed to the intelligent reader who has no knowledge whatsoever of matrix algebra.

Pagels leads his readers through Schrödinger’s...

(The entire section is 2035 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Antioch Review. XL, Summer, 1982, p. 371.

Choice. XX, November, 1982, p. 464.

Library Journal. CVII, February 15, 1982, p. 442.

Nature. CCXCVI, April 8, 1982, p. 503.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, March 7, 1982, p. 6.

Saturday Review. IX, March, 1982, p. 65.

Scientific American. CCXLVII, September, 1982, p. 53.

Sky and Telescope. LXIII, May, 1982, p. 481.