Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The creator as a careless child ... or a malfunctioning copy machine ..

The Big Lab Experiment - Was our universe created by design? By Jim Holt (Slate)

Jim Holt writes the "Egghead" column for Slate. He also writes for The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine.

Was our universe created? That is, was it brought into being by an entity with a mind? ...

... To get a better understanding of this matter, I thought it might be wise to consult the man who has done more than anyone else to explain how our universe got going. His name is Andrei Linde, and he is a physicist at Stanford University. ...

... Among the many curious implications of Linde's theory, one stands out for our present purposes: It doesn't take all that much to create a universe. Resources on a cosmic scale are not required...

"When I invented chaotic inflation theory, I found that the only thing you needed to get a universe like ours started is a hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter," Linde told me in his Russian-accented English when I reached him by phone at Stanford. "That's enough to create a small chunk of vacuum that blows up into the billions and billions of galaxies we see around us. It looks like cheating, but that's how the inflation theory works—all the matter in the universe gets created from the negative energy of the gravitational field. So, what's to stop us from creating a universe in a lab? We would be like gods!"

... then Linde thought of another channel of communication between creator and creation—the only one possible, as far as he could tell. The creator, by manipulating the cosmic seed in the right way, has the power to ordain certain physical parameters of the universe he ushers into being. So says the theory. He can determine, for example, what the numerical ratio of the electron's mass to the proton's will be. Such ratios, called constants of nature, look like arbitrary numbers to us: There is no obvious reason they should take one value rather than another. (Why, for instance, is the strength of gravity in our universe determined by a number with the digits 6673?) But the creator, by fixing certain values for these dozens of constants, could write a subtle message into the very structure of the universe. And, as Linde hastened to point out, such a message would be legible only to physicists.

"You might take this all as a joke," he said, "but perhaps it is not entirely absurd. It may be the explanation for why the world we live in is so weird. On the evidence, our universe was created not by a divine being, but by a physicist hacker."

These ideas have been brewing in various circles for at least 10 years, and I'm sure there are historical antecedents. I think this is in the "blind watchmaker" category, as in Votaire and Spinoza and others but definitely not Einstein. See also an oddly related recent post of mine.

This is the first time, however, I've come across the idea that such a creator might embed messages in the fundamental constants. Perhaps if one peered long enough into the cosmic background radiation the message might emerge. Psychoactive agents and temporally reversed vinyl could be helpful.

Holt (the author) and Linde (the physicist) are writing with ironic humor. I wager, however, that they are quite serious. Our universe used to seem superficially complex, but potentially internally sensible and aesthetically pleasing. Those were the glory days of Einstein. Now it is hard to deny that the universe looks profoundly absurd and weird.

Linde is demanding too much of the likely creator, however. If in one generation a hacker physicist can create a universe, then a few short generations later it will be, perhaps literally, child's play. If it can be done at all, it will be done be entities noble and decadent, grave and frivolous, by entities who might spend a lifetime contemplating a single creation, or by entities who might spew out half-baked concoctions by whim or worse.

As to who our creator most likely resembles, we need only ask -- which sort of entity would create more universes? The grave, serious and responsible, or the absent minded and frivolous child? Or perhaps, a defective machine spewing out trillions of copies of a single template.

Whichever is the most prolific, that is our most likely creator.

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