The universe seems uncannily well suited to the existence of life. Could that really be an accident?
By Michael D. Lemonick and J. Madeleine Nash
Dealing with cranks is an occupational hazard for most scientists, but it’s especially bad for physicists and astronomers. Those who study the cosmos for a living tend to be bombarded with letters, calls and e-mails from would-be geniuses who insist they have refuted Einstein or devised a new theory of gravity or disproved the Big Bang.
The telltale signs of crankdom are so consistent—a grandiose theory, minimal credentials, a messianic zeal—that scientists can usually spot them a mile off.
|Are "Super Intelligent Aliens" responsible for this photo? James Gardner, foreground with Jeff Daniels. (Photo does not appear with original article).|
That’s why the case of James Gardner is so surprising. He seems to fit the profile perfectly: he’s a Portland, Oregon, attorney, not a scientist, who argues—are you ready for this?—that our universe might have been manufactured by a race of superintelligent extraterrestrial beings.
That is exactly the sort of idea that would normally have experts rolling their eyes, blocking e-mails and hoping the author won’t corner them at a lecture or a conference.
But when Gardner’s book Biocosm came out last year, it carried jacket endorsements from a surprisingly eminent group of scientists. “A novel perspective on humankind’s role in the universe,” wrote Martin Rees, the astronomer royal of Britain and a Cambridge colleague of Stephen Hawking’s.
“There is little doubt that his ideas will change yours,” wrote Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (seti) Institute in California.
“A magnificent one-stop account of the history of life,” wrote complexity theorist John Casti, a co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute.
Since then, Gardner has been welcomed at major planetariums and legitimate scientific conferences, explaining his ideas to a surprisingly interested public.
It’s not that anyone actually buys Gardner’s theory. He admits it’s “farfetched,” and even those scientists who find it stimulating think it’s wildly improbable. But it does have one thing in its favor. The biocosm theory is an attempt, albeit a highly speculative one, to solve what just might be science’s most profound mystery: why the universe, against all odds, is so remarkably hospitable to life.
Given that we haven’t found any life beyond Earth yet, “remarkably hospitable” may sound a bit strong. At a deep level, though, it’s true. Many of the most fundamental characteristics of our cosmos—the relative strengths of gravity, electromagnetism and the forces that operate inside atomic nuclei as well as the masses and relative abundances of different particles—are so finely tuned that if just one of them were even slightly different, life as we know it couldn’t exist.
If the so-called weak nuclear interaction were a tiny bit stronger or weaker than it is, for example, stars wouldn’t blow up in the mammoth supernovas that spread elements like carbon and oxygen out into space—and without those elements, there would be no water and no organic molecules.
If the strong nuclear force were just one-half of 1% stronger or weaker, stars could not make carbon or oxygen in the first place. In 1999 Martin Rees postulated that there were “just six numbers” that make life possible, although other theorists have since added several. And because there is no known law that requires those forces to have the values they do, scientists figure that there must be another explanation for how we got so lucky.
The proposition that the cosmos is—against all odds—perfectly tuned for life is known as the anthropic principle. And while it has been getting a lot of attention lately, there is no consensus on how seriously to take it.
Some scientists are confident that there is a law that dictates the values of those key cosmic numbers, and when we find it, the anthropic problem will go away. Others think the answer is even simpler: if the numbers were any different than they are, we wouldn’t be around to argue about them—case closed.
“The anthropic principle,” complains Fermilab astrophysicist Rocky Kolb, “is the duct tape of cosmology. It’s not beautiful or elegant, and it sure as hell is not going to be permanent.”
A vocal sector of the religious community, on the other hand, has seized on the anthropic principle as further evidence that God created the universe just for us—adding intellectual support to the so-called intelligent-design movement, which believes that the staggering complexity of nature can be explained only by assuming that some higher intelligence had a hand in designing it.
Over the past several years in the U.S., pitched battles have been fought in school boards in Ohio, Kansas, Georgia and Montana and, just weeks ago, in Dover County, Pennsylvania, over whether to give intelligent design and Darwin’s theory of evolution equal time in classrooms.
Although intelligent design may appear to have found tiny pockets of support in the scientific community, most scientists consider appeals to a supernatural designer to be an intellectual dead end.
Over and over in our history, natural phenomena—lightning, the changing of the seasons, the nature of the sun and moon—have been explained simply by saying God (or Zeus or Odin) did it, only to have that explanation fall away as science provided a more satisfying answer.
Maybe we really have reached the limits of intellectual understanding, but few scientists are willing to give up quite yet, even on seemingly intractable problems.
In fact, lots of astrophysicists think the anthropic issue, rather than signaling a problem with modern science, points toward a deeper understanding of the universe.
Rees likes to use our solar system as an analogy. Says Rees: “If Earth were the only planet in the universe, you’d be astonished that we just happened to be exactly the right distance from the sun to be habitable.”
That would be absurdly improbable, but it becomes much less so when you realize that the Milky Way almost certainly has millions of planets. With so many possibilities, it’s not surprising that at least one planet is friendly to life.
And so, he contends, it might be with the cosmos. What we think of as the “universe,” argues Rees, could well be just one of trillions of universes on an indescribably vaster stage called the multiverse. Each of those universes would have different laws and characteristics. Most of them are totally unlivable; like Earth, ours just happens to be one of the lucky ones.
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