Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cosmological Words

Nothing and Chaos, with or without Strings
Here is the NASA link to the photograph used to illustrate, in part, a galaxy cluster at the limit of visible space.  See Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, 2012, Ch. 2 (on a Kindle, search CMBR, ff. or gravitational lensing where, at "location 622-625" the NASA photo is reproduced to illustrate it).

Krauss, whatever other physicists may be saying right now, is incomparably the best teacher among them, barring perhaps only Richard Feynman.  He isn't merely being cute when he says that everything, and you and I, are literally made of stardust: our basic constituent elements were born in the cores of the first stars.  Before that there was only plasma.  That is OK in physics, I guess, but it's misleading if you think Greek (for the word is Greek).  Plasma is any substance that one can model things in, so think of the God of Genesis 2, or of Prometheus modeling Pandora.  Generally, though, he is wondrously good with words.  He knows that 'data' are plural, and he is as concrete as it is possible to be.  He knows that his readers are not stupid but also that it is hopeless to try to explain Dirac's equation (for example) to them.  He can be humorous, but without being low, when the context permits: "Infinity is not a pleasant quantity, however, at least as far as a physicist is concerned", a neat rebuke to the metaphysical tribe.  Before I say any more I'll have to read the book a second time, but I do not hesitate to recommend it heartily (or you can take Richard Dawkins' "Afterword", if you want his authority).  It is a wonderful book to read, only I have read it so fast that I need to read it again.  As my heading indicates, he does not like string theory.
What I can address, though, is the antiquity of his mentality.  Epicurus and Lucretius, even the pre-Socratics,  are downright modern by comparison with Hesiod.
Hesiod, who in the Theogony is not, I suppose, later than Homer (once the obligatory window dressing to the Muses is done—it is not his own), begins, II. 116, ff., "First of all Chaos came into being, next broad-bosomed earth... Out of Chaos came Darkness and black Night, and out of Night came Light and Day..."  It is not the order we'd put things in, but Hesiod's cosmus comes before any deities or heroes are named.  As I was taught, this is earlier than Genesis 1.  And Chaos should not be translated as "void" or "space" or "yawning gap" (ginnungagap is the Norse word).  The big lexicon, LSJ, itself refuses to further define Chaos, "the first state of the universe" (citing Hesiod, as above).  Chaos, undifferentiation, is prior to cosmus, order.  Now, that is tantamount (and in the 8th century BCE!), to Nothing (with the upper-case initial supplied by Krauss to make it clear).  It is as good as Odysseus making the befuddled Polyphemus think that he is Oudeis (Nobody).  Chaos does seem to be the Undifferentiated, so No-Thing.
Greek thought, even so early that abstract words have not yet evolved to meet the task, is from our earliest records cosmology and physics, not metaphysics.  Lawrence Krauss is up to his eyeballs in it, and, like the Greeks, he is highly verbal (not that he cites Hesiod!).
Working through Epicurus philologically will take me a bit more time, but I haven't forgotten it.
Credit
Though by now most of my thoughts or opinions are as mixed as my all-American genealogy, it is mete and right to say that my idea of Chaos came straight from one of my favorite professors, Joseph Fontenrose, at UC Berkeley.