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The Number of the Heavens: A History of the Multiverse and the Quest to Understand the Cosmos

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The award-winning former editor of Science News shows that one of the most fascinating and controversial ideas in contemporary cosmology--the existence of multiple parallel universes--has a long and divisive history that continues to this day. We often consider the universe to encompass everything that exists, but some scientists have come to believe that the vast, expandin The award-winning former editor of Science News shows that one of the most fascinating and controversial ideas in contemporary cosmology--the existence of multiple parallel universes--has a long and divisive history that continues to this day. We often consider the universe to encompass everything that exists, but some scientists have come to believe that the vast, expanding universe we inhabit may be just one of many. The totality of those parallel universes, still for some the stuff of science fiction, has come to be known as the multiverse. The concept of the multiverse, exotic as it may be, isn't actually new. In The Number of the Heavens, veteran science journalist Tom Siegfried traces the history of this controversial idea from antiquity to the present. Ancient Greek philosophers first raised the possibility of multiple universes, but Aristotle insisted on one and only one cosmos. Then in 1277 the bishop of Paris declared it heresy to teach that God could not create as many universes as he pleased, unleashing fervent philosophical debate about whether there might exist a "plurality of worlds." As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, the philosophical debates became more scientific. Ren� Descartes declared "the number of the heavens" to be indefinitely large, and as notions of the known universe expanded from our solar system to our galaxy, the debate about its multiplicity was repeatedly recast. In the 1980s, new theories about the big bang reignited interest in the multiverse. Today the controversy continues, as cosmologists and physicists explore the possibility of many big bangs, extra dimensions of space, and a set of branching, parallel universes. This engrossing story offers deep lessons about the nature of science and the quest to understand the universe.


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The award-winning former editor of Science News shows that one of the most fascinating and controversial ideas in contemporary cosmology--the existence of multiple parallel universes--has a long and divisive history that continues to this day. We often consider the universe to encompass everything that exists, but some scientists have come to believe that the vast, expandin The award-winning former editor of Science News shows that one of the most fascinating and controversial ideas in contemporary cosmology--the existence of multiple parallel universes--has a long and divisive history that continues to this day. We often consider the universe to encompass everything that exists, but some scientists have come to believe that the vast, expanding universe we inhabit may be just one of many. The totality of those parallel universes, still for some the stuff of science fiction, has come to be known as the multiverse. The concept of the multiverse, exotic as it may be, isn't actually new. In The Number of the Heavens, veteran science journalist Tom Siegfried traces the history of this controversial idea from antiquity to the present. Ancient Greek philosophers first raised the possibility of multiple universes, but Aristotle insisted on one and only one cosmos. Then in 1277 the bishop of Paris declared it heresy to teach that God could not create as many universes as he pleased, unleashing fervent philosophical debate about whether there might exist a "plurality of worlds." As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, the philosophical debates became more scientific. Ren� Descartes declared "the number of the heavens" to be indefinitely large, and as notions of the known universe expanded from our solar system to our galaxy, the debate about its multiplicity was repeatedly recast. In the 1980s, new theories about the big bang reignited interest in the multiverse. Today the controversy continues, as cosmologists and physicists explore the possibility of many big bangs, extra dimensions of space, and a set of branching, parallel universes. This engrossing story offers deep lessons about the nature of science and the quest to understand the universe.

44 review for The Number of the Heavens: A History of the Multiverse and the Quest to Understand the Cosmos

  1. 4 out of 5

    Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin

    I didn't know a history of the multiverse would include the condemnation of 1277 but apparently the Catholic Church was ok with God creating multiple universes that year sorry Aristotle. This wide-ranging intellectual history covers the ideas of many worlds from Epicureans in the classical world, through Medieval Scholastics, to the Copernican Revolution, Newtons time, thinkers like Kant and his island universes (galaxies), To Einstein and Hubble, to Hugh Everett III and Many worlds of quantum I didn't know a history of the multiverse would include the condemnation of 1277 but apparently the Catholic Church was ok with God creating multiple universes that year sorry Aristotle. This wide-ranging intellectual history covers the ideas of many worlds from Epicureans in the classical world, through Medieval Scholastics, to the Copernican Revolution, Newtons time, thinkers like Kant and his island universes (galaxies), To Einstein and Hubble, to Hugh Everett III and Many worlds of quantum mechanics, to Andre Linde and Alan Guth and just about everyone who has a speculation on what is outside of our tiny pocket world. Everything but the kitchen sink.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mansoor

    It's a shame that Harvard University Press published this piece of propaganda. I mean there is a section titled "MULTIVERSE DENIERS!" 🤣 (Famed Iranian theoretical physicist Cumrun Vafa is one of those "deniers" not mentioned in the book, btw.) In chap. 11 Siegfried somehow manages to acknowledge that the multiverse idea has nothing to do with many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics: "The atomists’ dreams of many universes have been fulfilled not by quantum mechanics, but by inflationary It's a shame that Harvard University Press published this piece of propaganda. I mean there is a section titled "MULTIVERSE DENIERS!" 🤣 (Famed Iranian theoretical physicist Cumrun Vafa is one of those "deniers" not mentioned in the book, btw.) In chap. 11 Siegfried somehow manages to acknowledge that the multiverse idea has nothing to do with many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics: "The atomists’ dreams of many universes have been fulfilled not by quantum mechanics, but by inflationary cosmology." I only have one question: why doesn't Siegfried mention the negative results from the LHC run-ups? PS If you're a fan of hardcore SF, you might want to take a look a this book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Chris Jaffe

    This is an engaging and (usually) easy to read history of how our understand of the nature of the universe has changed over the years. There's a theme through all of humanity's debates on the nature of the universe: it keeps getting bigger. Just when we think we've got one layer understood, turns out there's another layer beyond that even. At first, the word "Universe" was essentially interchangeable with the world. Oh sure, there were the stars and moon and sun around the world - but the world w This is an engaging and (usually) easy to read history of how our understand of the nature of the universe has changed over the years. There's a theme through all of humanity's debates on the nature of the universe: it keeps getting bigger. Just when we think we've got one layer understood, turns out there's another layer beyond that even. At first, the word "Universe" was essentially interchangeable with the world. Oh sure, there were the stars and moon and sun around the world - but the world was the center of all things, and those things were just lights circling the world we inhabit. So that's everything. The Bible said so. Aristotle said so. So it was. In 1277, a Catholic Cardinal in France decreed that scholars couldn't rely on Aristotle as a definitive source. Normally religious edicts on world set science back, but this was the exception to the world. This helped spur on creative thought. Aristotle said that this was the only world. But, if we can't rely on him as our final word, maybe there are other worlds. This line of thought advanced even before Copernicus came along. But Copernicus did come along and that was a massive change in how we viewed the universe. If the sun is just another star, and we're a planet orbiting it (instead of vice versa) and the other planets we see also orbit the sun - that creates a whole new view of the universe. We're just one planet among many circling one star among thousands of stars. Oh, and early telescopes show planets orbits Jupiter, too. Suddenly, it's impossible to confuse the world with the universe. Some guys noticed that big Milky Way thing you can see in the night sky. Maybe that's a collection of stars. Maybe we're one of the stars on the edge of it. And so that became what was meant by the universe. We're one planet around one star among the multitude of stars in the universe called the Milky Way. But it expanded again. We get telescopes that are better and notice some smudgy things on them. What are those? Well, it turns out many of them are just gas clouds, but some are other galaxies. The Milky Way isn't the entire universe. It's one galaxy among many. Andromeda is another nearby one. And plenty more exist. (Oddly enough, misreading some of those gas clouds helped popularize the notion of other galaxies - but the big picture was advanced even when the one detail was temporarily understood incorrectly). So the Milky Way was one galaxy of many others in the universe. And we notice that galaxies, instead of being a stable state, are moving. They are typically moving away from each other. So we get the notion of the Big Bang. It happened and we've all been blowing out ever since. So that's the universe: the big thing created at the Big Bang. People start looking at the post-Big Bang: Will it always keep expanding or not? There are scientific reasons to expect either continual expansion (caused by the Big Bang itself) or eventual contraction (caused by the sheer weight of the matter released in the Bang). But in the 1990s scientists made a discovery that upended a lot of thinking. Not only was the universe still expanding, but expansion was accelarating. The heck? That can't be explained by the Big Bang itself. That can't be explained at all. Yet it's going on. How is that possible? Well, there's this theory kicked around from earlier call the multiverse. This universe is just one of many universes created at the Bang. All the Dark Energy and/or Dark Matter form the other Multiverses have created force which is causing acceleration. (Yeah, I'm a bit iffy in my understanding here, but oh well). There were other reasons to think the multiverse is real. Scientists have come around to a belief in inflation that occurred shortly after the Bang. This could cause little bubbles to emerge - and those bubbles could become universes, such as this one. Also, scientists have long pondered how miraculous it is that this universe is even capable of forming matter and stars in the first place. For matter to form galaxies and stars and planets as it does, it relies on some very delicate ratios and balancing act of the forces unleashed by the Big Bang. It the balancing was only slightly slightly slightly different, it would be impossible for matter to form in clusters the way it did. Really, the odds of this ratio being achieved are so incredibly slight, how could it happen? Well, it happened. If it was just one universe, it would be staggeringly unlikely. BUT it there were a countless number of universes, then hey - it makes sense it would happen to some universe. It actually mirrors the old debate about earth: if the distance to the sun or the elements in the atmosphere were only a little off, we'd never have life here. But it's all just perfect for it. If it's the only planet, then it's impossibly unlikely. But it's one of gazillions of planets, then it's likely. The multiverse isn't proven or settled. Some still oppose it. But Siegfried notes that the arguments against it are making essentially the same arguments made by those who opposed believing in other galaxies or in other worlds. Existence keeps getting bigger whenever we look closer at it. Some parts I didn't quite understand, especially later on when Siegfeid goes into depth on the nature of the multiverse. But I got a lot out of it anyway.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Cam Culbertson

    I like books about cosmology written for the general reader. But overall, I found this to be a difficult read. The first half or so surveys a brief history of cosmology from Aristotle to the present day. I found all of that interesting. The theme is that the cosmos keeps expanding, literally and figuratively. The latter half of the book examines various conceptions of the multiverse. As a person without training in physics and mathematics, I find these ideas dense and very difficult to envision. I like books about cosmology written for the general reader. But overall, I found this to be a difficult read. The first half or so surveys a brief history of cosmology from Aristotle to the present day. I found all of that interesting. The theme is that the cosmos keeps expanding, literally and figuratively. The latter half of the book examines various conceptions of the multiverse. As a person without training in physics and mathematics, I find these ideas dense and very difficult to envision. To me, they sound speculative at best, although I suppose some type of multiverse could be real.  If the point of this book was to convey these concepts to lay readers in a digestible and comprehensible manner, I think this book only does an average job. The thesis is essentially that if we look at how our understanding of cosmology has expanded since ancient times, it's foolish to dismiss the multiverse out of hand (even though a multiverse is currently not observable). I suppose that's a reasonable argument. These ideas are challenging and pique my curiosity. But if I'm honest, a lot of this sounds like it may be fancy and complicated nonsense. I'm not a mathematician or a physicist and I will keep an open mind. As this book teaches, the history of science shows us that we never know what we will discover in the future to reshape our understanding of reality.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sally

    An historical sketch of the controversy of many worlds/universes vs one world/universe, going from the ancient Greeks up to today with string theory, brane, multiverse, etc. Almost half the book deals with contemporary theories; the middle of the book is the historical survey. There is good information here, as one watches the world expand from the central earth with revolving heavenly spheres (Aristotle got it wrong again), to solar system with revolving spheres, to many suns, to galaxy, to isl An historical sketch of the controversy of many worlds/universes vs one world/universe, going from the ancient Greeks up to today with string theory, brane, multiverse, etc. Almost half the book deals with contemporary theories; the middle of the book is the historical survey. There is good information here, as one watches the world expand from the central earth with revolving heavenly spheres (Aristotle got it wrong again), to solar system with revolving spheres, to many suns, to galaxy, to island universes, and now the controversies about multiverses. A fascinating subject, but I felt the presentation was somehow lacking. 3-1/2 stars.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ed Kohinke sr.

    I avidly read anything I can find on cosmology, and I especially liked this book because the author covered its history from ancient times to the present and included some interesting (and sometimes humorous) stories about many of the major players along the way. When it comes to strings, branes, and other such things I am still as clueless as ever about the multiverse concept, but that's my problem and not the author's! The book is yet another huge step in the direction of explaining the univer I avidly read anything I can find on cosmology, and I especially liked this book because the author covered its history from ancient times to the present and included some interesting (and sometimes humorous) stories about many of the major players along the way. When it comes to strings, branes, and other such things I am still as clueless as ever about the multiverse concept, but that's my problem and not the author's! The book is yet another huge step in the direction of explaining the universe in factual terms, without totally dissing the creation mythologies of different religions.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Travis Ellis

  8. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

  9. 4 out of 5

    Steve

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mauricio Santoro

  11. 4 out of 5

    Edwin Santana

  12. 4 out of 5

    Semajitation

  13. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Bommarito

  14. 5 out of 5

    Paul Vittay

  15. 5 out of 5

    J.D.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Steve Walker

  17. 5 out of 5

    John H

  18. 5 out of 5

    Rob

  19. 5 out of 5

    Charlene

  20. 4 out of 5

    Pt Books

  21. 5 out of 5

    Luke Gorham

  22. 5 out of 5

    Susan

  23. 4 out of 5

    Madeline

  24. 5 out of 5

    Vatsal Kanakiya

  25. 4 out of 5

    Drazen Milic

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lin Ding

  27. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

  28. 5 out of 5

    Luke Perez

  29. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn D

  30. 4 out of 5

    Maya Sheth

  31. 4 out of 5

    Kimberley

  32. 5 out of 5

    Neil R. Coulter

  33. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin

  34. 4 out of 5

    Livus

  35. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

  36. 5 out of 5

    Mari

  37. 4 out of 5

    JohnnyWorkhorse

  38. 5 out of 5

    Nitin Rughoonauth

  39. 4 out of 5

    浩 陳

  40. 4 out of 5

    Laura Williams

  41. 5 out of 5

    Karol Castro

  42. 5 out of 5

    Ritvij Tiwari

  43. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

  44. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

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