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A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe Hardcover – 6 Apr 2010

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 285 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (6 April 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439108323
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439108321
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.8 x 21.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 815,780 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Peppered with personal anecdotes and wisdom from one of the science's most eloquent statesmen, this sweeping exploration of the imperfections at the heart of existence culminates in a hopeful message for humanity's self-fulfilling purpose in an otherwise meaningless universe."--Seed Magazine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

MARCELO GLEISER is a theoretical physicist and Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Dartmouth College. He is a Fellow and General Councillor of the American Physical Society, author of The Dancing Universe and The Prophet and the Astronomer, and co-founder of and regular contributor to a blog on science and culture hosted by NPR, 13.7. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By David Hillstrom on 25 Sept. 2010
Format: Hardcover
Ever more books on science are being published these days for the lay reader. This is a blessing, because it allows those of us who are not proficient in advanced mathematics to appreciate new perspectives that are emerging from the most recent scientific research. Perhaps more important still is that such books allow broader groups of readers to consider the impact of new theories on the myths of the past as well as upon our current set of beliefs. In my mind it is crucial that the widely held beliefs of human societies should remain informed and current rather than rigidly stuck alongside the beliefs of past generations.

The Tear at the Edge of Creation by Marcelo Gleiser is a wonderful contribution to this category of non-fiction. The author is clear and direct in his explanation of current theory from physics to biology and he writes beautifully. In addition in this book he has provided an insightful philosophical perspective as well. He presents two serious themes: The first is that there is no grand design or purpose to the universe. And the second is that science has its own limitations; the search for a `final theory' is based upon a Platonic belief (or alternatively upon monotheistic religion which was influenced by neo-Platonic thought) that is unfounded. Both of these themes resonate with me due to the fact I have written about them in a book of my own, The Bridge, in chapters one and two respectively. I therefore found myself considering and comparing arguments throughout. But beyond such sweeping comparisons, Mr. Gleiser's book takes a very different trajectory.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A reader on 2 Sept. 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a very readable and straightforward account for anyone who does not have a science background. Gleiser has a clear style that is simple but not simplistic and the chapters are short and easy to follow. The thesis of the book follows Gleiser's personal experience of becomming disillusioned with the assumption of much theoretical physics and mathematics: that the world is somehow perfectly symmetrical. Anything that does not fit into this perfect symmetry must somehow be wrong. Nothing could be further from reality. Nature is not perfect and it came as a surprise to Gleiser to discover this. He explains why he has changed his mind and then moves on to show that it is asymmetry in nature that is the source of organisation and creative processes. As he explains, perfection leads to nothing at all. In this he is following in the footsteps of people who have long had to deal with nature from a practical perspective - engineers, geologists, biologists and chemists to name but a few, who already ignore the wilder fantasies of theoretical physicists. Gleiser explains that string theory, unification theory (theories of everything) which are the holy grails of modern physics, are but illusions, and sometimes dangerous ones at that. He also explains his research into trying to understand the origins of life and just how complex that must have been: but it all happened because of asymmetry. The book is written from a very personal perspective but is none the worse for that, indeed it makes it easier to follow. For those who enjoy it you might also like to read Pythagoras' Trousers by M. Wertheim which will give you an insight into the history of the idea of perfection derived from the study of mathematics. What both books teach is that mathematics is a description of nature, but not a literal one, something which many mathematicians and physicists have stiil got to learn.
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51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
Thinking about it 22 Jan. 2012
By J. A. Goska - Published on
I received this interesting book as a gift. The person who gave it to me had an ulterior motive: she wanted me to explain it to her so that she could discuss it at embassy balls and other such social events. I thought I might as well pass along the result. It may give you a start if you find yourself in a similar situation.

"Our mind is the cosmic mind...we are how the universe thinks about itself...this is a life-transforming revelation, the substance of this book."

I appreciate it when an author tells me what the substance of his book is, saving me from having to guess and get it wrong. If you just wanted to know what the substance of this book is you can probably stop reading here. But we're only up to page six.

Disregard the sub-title, "A radical new vision for life in an imperfect universe." This sub-title is just Marcelo Gleiser's publisher trying to sell some books. Hey, business is business. I am sorry to disappoint anyone who actually is looking for a radical new vision for life in an imperfect universe. For that you might try LSD. For its greater part this book is a discussion of some ideas in science, sprinkled with philosophy.

The science in question is cosmology, although Dr. Gleiser also makes forays into biology and organic chemistry.

During working hours cosmologists ask "Where did the universe come from, and what is its nature?" Gleiser deals with these questions in an autobiographical fashion, recalling his changing states of mind from childhood up to the publication of this book. His various states of mind might be said to constitute the theme (not to be confused with the substance) of the book.

The central fact in cosmology is Edwin Hubble's observation that the light coming to us from most galaxies is shifted to longer wavelengths, toward the red end of the spectrum. This observation led to the conclusion that the galaxies are moving away from us, the universe is expanding, it is the movement in the "away" direction that stretches the wavelengths of light toward the red.

This conclusion makes the universe look like an explosion in progress, every part flying away from every other part. Playing this mental movie backwards, it seems logical to speculate that at some time in the past all the matter and energy in the universe was at one place, and then blew up in the famous Big Bang.

Getting this big bang to bang is tricky. Elementary physics suggests that if all the matter and energy in the universe was gathered together it would stay that way, held together by its own gravity. For several decades cosmologists have been trying to find some plausible non-elementary physics that would account for the expansion that itself seems an inescapable conclusion given the observed "red shift" of the light of the galaxies.

There is a serious stumbling block. Under the supposed conditions of the early universe two reliable mainstays of 20th century physics - the mathematics of general relativity and the mathematics of quantum mechanics - are incompatible. Calculations that combine the two maths give meaningless results.

Physicists are all mathematicians and many of them think very highly of math, to the extent that they are sometimes overwhelmed by the need to quote Pythagoras, "All is number," or Sir James Jeans, "God is a mathematician" (if anyone says either of these things to you at an embassy ball it would probably be best to be diplomatic and reply "Very perceptive, very profound," rather than being overly direct and replying "So, you're some sort of math dweeb, then?"). For people who think God is a mathematician it is a serious matter when math does not work.

Attempts to create a unified calculation method, one that would allow calculations in general relativity, quantum mechanics and any combination of the two, are referred to as the search for a unified theory, the Theory of Everything (an odd name since a unified theory, by definition, would be only a theory of one thing; it would not, for example, tell you how to get a date for Saturday night).

One attempt at a unified theory, one that has received a good deal of attention, is string theory. First proposed in the 1960s and rejected as non-functional, string theory was brought back from the grave in a less plausible, but putatively more functional, multi-dimensional form. Current string theory requires quite a few dimensions to work at all. Unfortunately there is no physical evidence for the existence of the additional dimensions, and none of the entities of string theory - strings, branes, etc. - are observable, and string theory has produced no unique statements that can be unequivocally checked against physical fact, giving rise to the seemingly reasonable criticism that string "theory" is not science at all, but simply a mathematical pastime like Sudoku, and string "theorist" are in fact just string gamers.

In the absence of a really impressive candidate for a unified theory, Gleiser has come to a conclusion that should be no surprise to students of Aesop: unification is not just unattainable, it is undesirable (Bad, unification, bad!). Gleiser argues that a search for unification is "monotheistic" and "fundamentally misguided," a harsh judgment on the efforts of mathematicians who have simply been trying to get the math to work. Is it misguided monotheism that drives a mechanic to want an automobile to run well? Should this mechanic instead glory in bangs, rattles and stalls? It appears that Gleiser, in his present state of mind, would answer "Yes!"

Gleiser explains that Mother Nature is imperfect (recall the book's subtitle). She has been known to disregard the standards of symmetry, beauty and parity that various mathematicians thought up for her right in their own heads.

Turning to biology, Gleiser discusses nature's asymmetry as revealed in the molecules that make up living things.

In the 20th century biology achieved a unification of its own, one that resulted from observation rather than computation. Biologist learned that all living things, from the bird high in the air to the bacterium deep down in the boiling thermal vent, use the same DNA, the same RNA, the same amino acids and most surprisingly the same genetic code (no Tower of Babel here), and this just begins the list of things that all living cells have in common. It appears that there is just one life on Earth, and oak trees, sperm whales, honey bees, mushrooms and our own clamorous selves are all members of the same family, all descended from the same primordial, pre-protoplasmic globule. Biologists didn't go looking for this unification. It, like the cell theory of life, the germ theory of disease and the theory of evolution, was something nature imposed on them when they went looking to see what was what.

Gleiser argues that while the appearance of life (at the single cell level, at least) here and there in the universe may be a common, rather than a miraculous or statistically unlikely event, the appearance of intelligence may be far more rare, perhaps so rare that we here on Earth are unique, the only thinking part of the universe and thus the "cosmic mind." Gleiser admits that there are those who think it equally likely that other, similar environments will host processes not greatly different from the processes that occurred here on Earth (my own view), and the inanimate universe may be as pregnant with thought as it is with life (Skeptics may wish to examine the work of Toshiyuki Nakagaki, who has looked for and found evidence of intelligence in slime molds, before coming to any conclusion. The elements of intelligence seem to be lying around, waiting to be put together, just like the elements of stars and bacteria). Gleiser considers such a view to be fraught with peril, as it may cause us to think of ourselves as nothing special, which in turn would lead to us being careless and destroying ourselves. This would be bad, even if we are not the only thinkers in all the endless starry heavens.

Gleiser feels that we would benefit from a "humancentric" view of existence. "The fact that we exist at nothing short of wondrous...we are special for being alive and conscious of it." With this in mind, we should not let our one and only home, and ourselves, be finished off by the enormous destructive forces at work today. "Wake up and save life with all that you have...this is our supreme mission as the minds of the cosmos."

That last bit sounds like good advice. Will the author's thoughts turn out to have any more real-world relevance than string theory? In the interest of developing a reliable picture of the cosmos, to say nothing of a workable plan, it will probably be necessary to spend some time thinking about some of the things Dr. Gleiser did not include in his calculations.

In California there is the General Sherman tree, the largest of all trees presently on Earth. Not so long ago there was a larger tree. This tree lived for thousands of years among the Indians, who may have visited and contemplated this manifestation of the Great Spirit that dwells in all things. When American settlers arrived and encountered this largest and oldest of all living things, their response was immediate. They killed it and had a party on top of its stump, which was about the size of a tennis court.

The settlers were humancentric: "A tree is nothing, while we are the very image of God, the center and purpose of Creation, even if we, in terms of biology and behavior, are not much different from a cabbage or athlete's foot."

(The tree could be taken as a symbol of all life in the world, or the world itself. That might be the substance of the above parable.)

It is hard to see what impact Gleiser's prescription will have on a human population of seven billion that, in all probability, already exceeds the carrying capacity of the Earth, or on uneducated, forest-burning tribesmen, or on conservative businessmen who see a goal of endless, perennially increasing profits as far more important than life itself, any and all life. (Man's ability to find things that are more important than life is not to be doubted - think of Romeo and Juliet, or the fellows that flew into the World Trade Center).

People hardly need to be told how important they are. The real challenge is getting people to do things they don't want to do, like worry, when they would rather have a few beers and watch the crucial Giants-Cowboys game. Hey, we all have to go sometime, right, and the Giants need this game.

"Our mind is the cosmic mind, we are how the universe thinks about itself (Go, Giants!), this is a life-transforming revelation."

We are the mind of the universe. Well, okay, we did, after all, invent string theory and Sudoku, the slinky and soft ice cream, but the inability of our species to do some quite obvious and necessary things in the interest of self-preservation is good evidence that intelligence is not our strong point. Self-congratulation and texting "OMG!!" might be identified as two areas where we excel.

Looking at the matter trans-humancentricly, if the cosmos is in need of a mind, would it be better advised to look elsewhere?

On the other hand, we did send out the Voyager space craft. Perhaps, someday, our star brothers will find something worthy in the music of Bach or Blind Willie Johnson.

Dr. Gleiser has written an interesting book.

There, that should be enough to get my friend ready for the ball.
25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
A new approach for the present era 26 Mar. 2014
By From Elder - Published on
Format: Paperback
Hegel proposed a model for philosophical exploration. Two contrary ideas – thesis and antithesis – become subsumed within a larger concept, the synthesis, which eliminates the contradictions. In A Tear at the Edge of Creation, Marcelo Gleiser resolves the approaches of religion and science, often viewed as opposed, into a model we might call the Imperfect Universe, but which he would probably call the ‘Asymmetric Universe’.

Gleiser’s credentials are particularly impeccable. He is a physicist, one who early on believed in and sought after the Grand Unified Theory (GUT), which is a theory of all things that mankind has been seeking in one form or another since philosophy began. From the earliest Greeks onward, the attempt to reduce the diverse cornucopia of existence to some simplified model has obsessed humanity. In the 1990’s he began to doubt both the feasibility and the wisdom of the search. He is quick to point out that religion has been on a parallel track, but with a different breed of “explanations”, ones that do not rely on observations, experience or even nature. The supernatural explanation subsumes everything under a model that neither requests nor requires proof; belief becomes entirely a matter of faith and feeling. Though Gleiser appears not to be religious, he is honest enough to admit the similarity between the two methods, particularly at the cutting edge of modern physics, where very little predictive proof exists. Much of the modern string theory and the multi-dimensional-universe concepts are not only not testable, but probably never will be. Hence, he shows that while today’s cutting-edge physics is not a religion, it is based on a degree of faith.

His synthesis derives from the fact that science has long been searching for the GUT and seems to be no closer despite decades of advances in technology, physics, astronomy and mathematics. From this, it is easy to accept Gleiser’s assertion that it is unlikely the GUT will ever be found. However, he goes further, declaring that the assumptions underlying the search are probably untrue. He compares our search for the final all-encompassing formula (or answer) with Plato’s search for perfect forms existing at some higher, ethereal level, and even with religion’s evolution toward a single god. We want to find THE answer that unifies all within a symmetrical, aesthetically pleasing formulation.

Against this, Gleiser postulates an opposite idea. He demonstrates that our very existence is founded on asymmetry: We have matter in the universe because the Big Bang produced a slight imbalance between matter and anti-matter; time flows in one direction only; life evolved to higher levels solely because there were myriad imbalances between living creatures and their environments; and there were matching imperfections in the processes of reproduction. And he ends the book with an even more important conclusion – that perfection is not desirable! This assertion has two forms. First the universe in general and intelligent life in particular are the result of several kinds of imperfections, some of which I have mentioned. Second, the idea that other intelligent life in the universe may be rare or nonexistent leads to the view that our earth and its various life forms are precious – not because they are the creations of a god, but because they are rare. This “cosmic loneliness” allows our focus to change from a search for ultimate answers to a mission to protect and a call to cherish our unique existence as a species and as a planet.
37 of 44 people found the following review helpful
Amazing book 24 April 2010
By Fernanda S. Vieira - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is an amazing book. I'm not surprised, since in my native
country, Brazil, Marcelo is a star, compared often to Carl Sagan. (He
was born and grew up there too.) In fact, the book has been in the
best-selling list for the past 5 weeks there. The book is amazing
because it's not like just about science. It's using science to make
us think about who we are, and even what is the meaning of being
human! The writing is very clear, even I could understand the physics,
and I'm not a specialist at all. Marcelo is a physicist with a soul,
someone that takes you on a long journey through centuries of
knowledge and convinces you that the way we and everyone else have
been thinking about science and the world is simply wrong! I love the
notion that beauty is not in what is perfect but in what is imperfect.
The book ends with a wonderful message, lifting humanity to the center
of the universe but not because we were created by God, but because we
are rare and precious. In a world full of wars and conflicts this book
is like a ray of sunlight, something to be celebrated.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Within a Second 17 Mar. 2014
By Karen Saum - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Wonderfully written, it is worth struggling through the hard parts to get some understanding of how we came to be and, for me at least, a sense of awe for the simple fact of our existence. Ironically, I read "A Tear..." at the same time as I was reading Dava Sobel's "The Daughter of Galileo." Galileo barely escaped death for suggesting the earth moved around the sun; a mere 400 years later we get Gleiser taking us back to the first second after the bang that started it all. Some parts of the book are a hard slog, but as Gleiser urges in the beginning, just keep going for it will get easier and it will be worth it.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
The imperfection of the universe and the flaw in trying to find a unifying theory 24 Jun. 2010
By Wayne Klein - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Marcelo Gleiser's new book A TEAR AT THE EDGE OF CREATION asks an important question; why do we believe that there is a single unifying force or theory that can tie together everything we know about the universe? The more important question he asks is why we are afraid of the concept of an imperfect universe where we can't neatly explain everything? Using his own life (he lost his mother as a child)and the lifes of others who were looking for much the same thing (and how it helped them make major discovers in physics) as an example of the need to believe in purpose and the underlying "oneness" of everything, TEAR is as much a personal journey of one man looking for order in chaos because of the chaos of his life. Ultimately, though Gleiser comes to a startling conclusion--everything we know emerges out of imperfection and chaos. Asymmetries and imperfections are the REASON we are here and that WE can can find our own sense of purpose as amazing creatures that can try and understand the complexity and disorder of our universe.

Well written and engaging TEAR makes a quantum leap turning over centuries of movement towards imposing our view of order over chaos and often coming up with creative, sometimes absurd theories to keep our view of a well balanced explainable universe around us. It's a challenging notion and while Gleiser isn't the first physicist to propose such a view, he's probably one of the most important to embrace it and look into the implications with intelligence as to how it could effect our view of the universe but, ultimately, ourselves.

Gleiser argues that understanding that we live in an imperfect, dynamic, asymetrical universe should make us cherish each other even more because it suggests that intelligent life is even more rare and precious than originally thought. Our presence in this world may not have the meaning that we wanted but it does have meaning nonetheless particularly if you consider the "accident" that allows us to comprehend a universe that is both imperfect and beautiful.

Highly recommended.
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