Many high-profile critics in the raging debate over “intelligent design” have, understandably, been evolutionary biologists. Legendary Oxford professor Richard Dawkins regularly appears on British TV to talk up Darwin and lash out against ID between books. Harvard emeritus prof E.O. Wilson has edited a hefty new 1,700-page anthology of Darwin’s collected works, with the fighting title From So Simple a Beginning.
They’re generally not people like Leonard Susskind, a renowned physics professor at Stanford and a prime architect of string theory. His new book, his first for a general audience, has the provocative title The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design (Little, Brown). It’s not the term “cosmic landscape,” trippy as it sounds, that’s drawing the attention. Nor is it the words “string theory”—even though “string theory” is, admittedly, one of those futuristic-sounding 10-dollar terms, like “chaos theory” or “complexity theory” or “quantum gravity,” that get the layperson daydreaming of The Matrix and cybernetic implants. The words that are causing double takes—and in some cases, drawing ire—are “intelligent design,” and the word that precedes them, “illusion.”
“Intelligent design” is, for better or worse, its own 10-dollar term these days. But another reason why the book’s title seems so
surprising is because Susskind hails from the ultra-rarefied world of theoretical physics.
Never mind that the word “hadron” appears more often in his book’s index than “intelligent design.” The Cosmic Landscape—which is by turns a memoir, an impassioned manifesto, and a brain-melting theoretical-physics primer—mainly addresses another controversial concept, the anthropic principle, which, as Susskind defines it, is “a hypothetical principle that says the world is fine-tuned so that we can be here to observe it.”
“I started writing about it as a controversy strictly between physicists,” says Susskind. “I started writing it as a physics book, and quite honestly, I didn’t know that much about biology and chemistry, but as I started to write, I realized I was writing something broader.”
While doing some online research, Susskind inadvertently came across dozens of religious blogs and websites invoking the anthropic principle. “I discovered this very large culture of people [who believe] that the anthropic principle means intelligent design,” he says. “That was a bit of an education for me. This book is about the lack of need for supernatural explanations.”
Why are the laws of nature so precariously balanced, Susskind writes, on the fine line between life being possible and life being impossible? Susskind argues for the idea that the universe is so huge, messy, diverse, and pregnant with possibilities that the
anthropic principle can make sense—without the necessity for intelligent design. It’s a strange stew of several concepts, including nonzero cosmological constants, expanding universes, and vacuum energies.
Susskind has been a professor at Stanford since the late ’70s, but you can still detect a trace of old-school New York in his grizzled, no-nonsense voice. He begins and ends his book with a plainspoken quotation—”I have no need for this hypothesis,” Pierre-Simon Laplace’s famous retort after getting grilled by Napoléon for not mentioning God in his mathematical masterwork Mécanique Céleste (Celestial Mechanics).
A lot of weird things have happened in physics since the time of Laplace and Newton. As no-nonsense as Susskind seems, he rejects the idea of a holy grail of beautiful, tidy mathematical equations and elegant minimalist explanations. Our universe, he argues, is a messy place. He frequently uses crazy patchwork quilts and ungainly Rube Goldberg devices as points of comparison. He says he actually finds it “embarrassing” to explain particle physics to a lay audience. “So many different pieces and assumptions and orders of magnitude,” he says. “I always think, jeez, is anybody going to believe this?” I ask him what it would take to get answers to some of those hazy questions. His response: “If we had an accelerator at least as big as the galaxy, and if we could pour in 10 trillion barrels of oil per second . . . ”
Before Susskind dedicated his life to plumbing the mysteries of the cosmos, he spent some time working as a plumber—the kind that clears drainpipes. Born in the hardscrabble South Bronx, Susskind went to City College with the practical objective of learning how to build heating systems. He quickly realized that he was lousy at his
engineering classes—all of their interlocking mechanical parts, slide rules, and graph paper diagrams. He found himself falling madly in love with the more ethereal world of physics. Finally, he decided he had to break the news to his dad, a plumber who toiled in gritty tenements in Harlem and the Bronx.
As he vividly recounts in an autobiographical essay, this news wasn’t received well by his father.
“The tough guy looked at me and said, ‘What the—do you mean, you’re not going to be an engineer? What are you going to be—a ballet dancer?’ I said, ‘I want to be something else, a physicist.’
” ‘Physicist? Physicist? What the hell is a physicist?’ . . . I held my ground and answered, ‘It’s a kind of scientist.’ . . . I was not sure that I could explain so I took a shortcut. I said, ‘A scientist like Einstein.’
” ‘Einstein?’ he said. ‘Yeah, Einstein.’ For a full minute he stood silent, in deep thought. Then he said, ‘Are you any good at this stuff?’ ”
Susskind wasn’t actually comparing himself to Einstein, but it illustrates a point—everyone knew Einstein. No physicist today can claim the same status in the public imagination. There are famed British physicists like Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, and physicists who have recently written well-received popular books, like Columbia professor Brian Greene; there’s Case Western University professor Lawrence Krauss, who routinely speaks out on public issues, and a handful of others. “I think physicists these days are less public figures than they were 40 or 50 years ago,” Susskind observes. “They’re less comfortable interacting with the press and political structure. There’s so much out there that requires expertise, and requires the input of experts and scientists.
“When I was very young, the great scientists I knew were really public figures. They had come out of Los Alamos, they had come out of the Manhattan Project, and they were used to being taken seriously as authorities, as experts.”
Granted, it’s no longer World War II. But today, there’s a different type of battle at hand.
“As you know, there’s something of a war against science going on,” Susskind says.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.