ZOOM ZoNE – Julian Gough

Julian Gough – The Egg and the Rock
27 April 2023

THE ZoNE sits down with writer and philosopher Julian Gough to discuss his project called “The Egg and the Rock”, the End Poem in Minecraft, and how to navigate that space between arts and science.

With “The Egg and the Rock,” Julian is arguing that our universe is more like an evolving organism than a dead machine. He’s backing up this seemingly outrageous claim with physicist Lee Smolin’s theory of cosmological natural selection, and a whole number of predictions about what the James Webb telescope will see when it turns its eye on the first million years after the Big Bang. Several of these predictions have already come true, to the surprise of everyone except Julian.

When he is not turning our view of the world upside down, Julian writes children’s books and science fiction novels. In the past, Julian was a rock star. He is known as the comedian who kidnapped a pig. The pignapping video is here.

Books, papers, and other resources mentioned in the discussion:

* Julian Gough (2018). Connect: A Novel.
* Mary Shelley (1818). Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
* P.W. Anderson (1972). More is different. Science 177: 393-6.
* J.S.G. Chu & J.A. Evans (2021). Slowed canonical progress in large fields of science.
* S. Fortunato et. al. (2018). Science of science. Science 359: eaao0185.
* Peter Higgs (2013). I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system.
* Douglas Hofstadter (2009). Analogy as the core of cognition.
* J. Vervaeke et. al. (2012). Relevance realization and the emerging framework in cognitive science. J of Logic and Computation 22: 79-99.
* T.F. Gieryn (1999). Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line.
* D.D. Bourland (1965). A linguistic note: writing in E-prime. General Semantics Bulletin 32/33.
  (Bourland was a student of “the Polish guy”: Alfred Korzybski)
* Lee Smolin (1992). Did the universe evolve? Classical & Quantum Gravity 9: 173-191.
* Lee Smolin (1997). The Life of the Cosmos.
* Lee Smolin (2013). Time Reborn.
* Leonard Susskind (2004). Cosmic natural selection.
  (see also: https://www.edge.org/conversation/lee_smolin-leonard_susskind-smolin-vs-susskind-the-anthropic-principle)
* Charles Darwin (1859). On the Origin of Species.
* A. Loeb & S.R. Furlanetto (2013). The First Galaxies in the Universe.
* Adam Mastroianni. Experimental History (blog).
* Erik Hoel. The intrinsic perspective (blog)
* Matt Clancy. New things under the sun (blog).
* C.H. Waddington (1970). Behind Appearances.
* L. Crane & S. Westmoreland (2009). Are black hole starships possible?
* John Vervaeke. The religion that is not a religion.
* Jonathan Rowson (2021). Tasting the pickle: ten flavours of meta-crisis and the appetite for a new civilization.

Julian Gough’s reading suggestions:

The Life of the Cosmos, by Lee Smolin (Oxford University Press, 1997)

A profoundly important book that was overlooked at the time, partly for sociological reasons (a scientific world comprising thousands of specialised silos could provide no audience for a book with such extraordinarily broad implications); and partly because it spends a hundred pages clearing its throat before hitting you with its big ideas. Feel free to skip to the second half, which provides a plausible mechanism for the life-cycle of universes, and how and why they might evolve. It’s a tremendously fruitful theory, with enormous explanatory power – and with astonishing implications, that cascade through field after field. (Though those implications are not spelt out here: Smolin is very much a theoretical physicist.)

Smolin’s brilliant extension of Darwin came, tragically but unavoidably, a century or so too late for easy acceptance: to integrate it would be to rethink – to demolish and rebuild elsewhere – the foundations of a dozen disciplines, and hundreds of subdisciplines. It couldn’t be done at the time; but I believe, ultimately, it will succeed in reshaping both science, and our relationship to the universe.

Ignorance: How It Drives Science, by Stuart Firestein (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Ignorance, by the distinguished American neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein, is one of those wonderful little books that illuminates an astonishingly, unfeasibly wide area that previously seemed confusing, irritating, and opaque… The book is a kind of marvellous all-purpose tool for thinking more clearly about problem after scientific problem, in field after field. Particularly useful for thinking about those areas where science has been unable to value and live with its ignorance, and has instead hurriedly installed a placeholder, which then blocks further progress. (Epicycles, the ether, phlogiston… dark matter?) You simply will not see science (or indeed the world) in the same way again after reading it. As Firestein says, “Knowledge is a big subject, but ignorance is a bigger one. And it is ignorance – not knowledge – that is the true engine of science.”

A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life, by Ben McFarland.

A World from Dust explores the subtle logic of chemistry, as it has unfolded here on earth since our planet’s formation from an initial, chemically uncomplicated, cloud of gas and dust. It is the story of a relentlessly elegant process of complexification, with geochemistry smoothly transitioning to biochemistry in one long, complex, flexible, robust, magnificently choreographed process. I suspect that McFarland sees the hand of God behind this chemical logic, whereas I see the hand of evolution at the level of universes, evolving the very elements, and thus evolving evolution itself;  but both of us agree on the need to explain something so magnificently unlikely.

 (If you have a chemistry background and want to dive even deeper, try the more technical The Natural Selection of the Chemical Elements, by R. J. P. Williams and J. J. R Fraústo da Silva, Oxford University Press 1997, and The Chemistry of Evolution: The Development of our Ecosystem, also by R. J. P. Williams and J. J. R Fraústo da Silva, Elsevier Science, 2006.)

On Growth and Form, by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (Cambridge University Press, 1917)

This book, originally written a century before A World From Dust, and updated in the 1940s, makes a great companion piece. D’Arcy Thompson’s ideas – on the physical limitations on the forms life can take, limitations that come from the physical qualities of matter, and the physical laws of nature – combine beautifully with McFarland’s ideas on the chemical constraints on matter and thus on life. Between the two, it becomes clear how all these constraints, which shape matter and life, are built into nature from the very start, by the attributes of the fundamental forces and particles: they are implicit, have an evolved logic, and cause the complexification of matter to unfold in an orderly, directional, developmental process.

The book is in many respects, of course, completely bananas; Thompson almost ignores evolution, particularly natural selection, leaves out thermodynamics, and never refers to genetics. But its vision of the forms of living things as, in the words of Beesley and Bonnemaison, “a product of dynamic forces… shaped by flows of energy and stages of growth,” is still beautiful and, to a surprising extent, true and useful, even today.

Science Since Babylon (Enlarged Edition), by Derek de Solla Price (Yale University Press, original edition 1961, enlarged edition, 1975)

De Solla Price basically invented scientometrics, or the science of science. This book, too, has aged remarkably well; many of the problems he describes here have only gotten worse, particularly that of scientific over-production and over-specialisation (and the resulting paradoxical slowdown in major breakthroughs – which almost always require lots of seemingly unproductive thinking time, and much creative communication between disciplines).

Plus it is full of snappy lines like this: “What has happened is that society has made science fairly safe for relatively normal people. The older scientists, so to speak, were nuts…”

The book’s a mind-and-soul-expanding delight.