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Cosmological Koans
Cover of Cosmological Koans
Cosmological Koans
A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality
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"Playful and enchanting." —Priyamvada Natarajan, Wall Street Journal

Could there be a civilization on a mote of dust? How much of your fate have you made? Using pleasingly paradoxical vignettes, known as Koans, that follow the ancient Zen tradition and have a flair for explaining complex science, physicist Anthony Aguirre tackles cosmic questions from the meaning of quantum theory and the nature of time to the origin of multiple universes.

"Playful and enchanting." —Priyamvada Natarajan, Wall Street Journal

Could there be a civilization on a mote of dust? How much of your fate have you made? Using pleasingly paradoxical vignettes, known as Koans, that follow the ancient Zen tradition and have a flair for explaining complex science, physicist Anthony Aguirre tackles cosmic questions from the meaning of quantum theory and the nature of time to the origin of multiple universes.

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About the Author-
  • Anthony Aguirre is professor of physics at the University of California–Santa Cruz and cofounder of the Foundational Questions Institute. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 25, 2019
    Everything from Newton’s laws to the Big Bang are probed in this hit-and-miss pop-physics primer. Aguirre, a physics professor and founder of the Foundational Questions Institute, prefaces bite-sized science lessons with paradoxical Zen koans—“the gateless gate lies open”—and episodes from a fictional picaresque about a 17th-century seeker who travels from Galileo’s Italy to China, with stops in a Buddhist temple and the cave of a djinn who subjects him to teleportation experiments and lectures on free will. The science explanations that flow from this lively framing device are uneven. Aguirre presents lucid, thought-provoking discussions of physicists’ evolving conceptions of space, time, motion, and forces, up through Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and his explorations of cosmic origins and the possibility of this universe being one among many are grandly engaging. But his complicated, murky exposition of quantum physics is not helped by Zen-like flourishes (“If you follow all paths equally, you end up just following a single path. The one true path”). Further disquisitions on mind and ontology—“what does it mean... to be something rather than, say, something else?”—are provocative but inconclusive. Readers will veer between “Whoa!” and “What?” on this sometimes stimulating, sometimes baffling tour of the cosmos.

  • Kirkus

    April 1, 2019
    A physicist and philosopher delivers a provocative set of meditations on the nature of life, the universe, and everything. If you think hard enough about the unlikeliness that you are you--to say nothing of the fact that the universe is not only infinite, but also expanding--your head is likely to hurt. All the more so when Aguirre (Physics/Univ. of California-Santa Cruz; co-editor: What Is Fundamental?, 2019, etc.) throws in a monkey wrench on the latter point: "It's got just one glaring flaw: the actual universe that astronomers observe is not like this." Throw in other imponderables worth pondering, as the author does--e.g., "if the electric repulsion between protons in the nuclei of atoms were just a bit stronger, then those atoms, and hence chemistry, and hence life itself, could not apparently exist"--and the throbbing temple threatens to explode. Some of Aguirre's forays into cosmological questions can be as squishy as any New Age guru's, as when he asks us to consider ourselves not just part of the universe, but central to it, but he tempers the fuzziness with some truly engaging questions (and questions, he hints, are vastly more interesting than answers when it comes to matters of the universe). Of what, for instance, are atoms made? The textbook answer is quarks and mesons and electrons and such, but also, Aguirre writes, information. And not just any old information, but information that projects dimensionally, proving Zeno's paradox and Galileo's notion that "there is nothing particularly natural or easy or special about being at rest." Though written with the generalist in mind, Aguirre's arguments can be a little difficult to grok sometimes, which is probably the point: It stands to reason that "quantum reality is somewhat ambiguous," but it gets a little shaky when we ask, since everything is quantum mechanical, why do we die? A delight for readers raised on books like Gödel, Escher, and Bach and The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    May 1, 2019

    Aguirre's (physics, Univ. of California-Santa Cruz; cofounder, Foundational Questions Inst.) first book uses Zen-like storytelling as a framing device to explain all areas of physics. Each chapter begins with a journey, making this somewhat reminiscent of Jon Butterworth's Atom Land, which uses the journey metaphor, but in a map-oriented style, to explain physics. Aguirre focuses on the importance (and limitations) of human perception in understanding the physical world, and aims to show how we all can contribute to a shared knowledge. His conversational style makes the complex issues he discusses easier to grasp; however, this is still fairly rigorous for a popular science book. He adds interest by bringing in ideas about the physical world posited by philosophers from ancient Greece to the modern day. VERDICT This intriguing, though dense, account should be of interest to readers interested in a deeper comprehension of the physics of the world in which we live.--Sara R. Tompson, Lawrence, KS

    Copyright 2019 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from April 1, 2019
    Other physicists may seek to understand the universe by using twenty-first-century telescopes and cyclotrons, but Aguirre explores the cosmos by relying on the ancient Buddhist practice of contemplating koans?baffling vignettes that open only to those who abandon habitual patterns of thought. In provocative ways, numerous concepts from physics (including inertia, indeterminacy, and simultaneity) surface in the modern koans that Aguirre embeds in a narrative journey from Venice in 1610 to Kyoto in 1650. And by pondering these koans, readers may experience epiphanies clarifying scientific theories of the cosmically large and the subatomically small. A koan that links a newborn baby in India with a supernova in a distant galaxy, for instance, helps readers fathom why astronomers glimpse the beginnings of the universe in radiation just now reaching our planet. But, ultimately, these koans confront readers with the multivalent and mysterious nature of the deepest truths, experienced by the individual consciousness in the living moment, but forever resistant to tidy summary in objective formulas. In contemplating such koans, readers may intuit that what we often dismiss as merely subjective perceptions of choice, identity, time, and mortality actually reflect the foundational structure of the universe. Science and mysticism meld in this physics rendered as fully human life.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2019, American Library Association.)

  • Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0 [A] unique and beautifully written masterpiece.
  • Carlo Rovelli, author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics [A] gem of a book.
  • Jenann T. Ismael, author of How Physics Makes Us Free There is nothing like Cosmological Koans on the shelves.... I can think of no other book that so effectively elicits a sense of wonder.
  • Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture [Cosmological Koans] will stretch your imagination almost to the breaking point, and your understanding of reality will come away more healthy and flexible than before.
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Cosmological Koans
Cosmological Koans
A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality
Anthony Aguirre
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