Sunday, December 4, 2011

Theoretical Physicists Adventures Beyond the Multiverse

"Over the centuries science has weakened the hold of religion, not by disproving the existence of God but by invalidating arguments for God based on what we observe in the natural world. The multiverse idea offers an explanation of why we find ourselves in a universe so favorable to life that does not rely on the benevolence of a creator, and so if correct will leave even less support for religion."
- Stephen Weinberg

Alan Lightman's "The Accidental Universe" in the December issue of Harpers is a godsend for those of us who, like me, are fascinated in the theoretical musings about physics and space but don't have the time nor math skills to follow the major texts. He not only provides clear, concise definitions of the latest theories - string theory, dark energy, the multiverse concept - but he also draws them together in order to paint a picture of the current state of the field. I recommend you read the whole thing, but in short a lot of signs are pointing towards our universe, with it's scientifically improbable conditions that support carbon-based life, is merely a cosmic accident, just one of billions of universes- one that happened to have the right amont of energy needed to sustain life. It's the cosmological version of the room full of monkeys banging on typewriters until they produce a work of Shakespeare.

This is interesting enough in itself, but Lightman points out an irony in modern theoretical physics. Basically, scientists who have devoted their lives to "explaining all of the properties of the universe in a few fundamental principles and parameters"- in other words, those who want to scientifically define "laws of nature that govern the behavior of all matter and energy" - find themselves stymied by the multiverse theory. The theory answers a lot of difficult cosmological questions, but it can't be proven because there's no known way to see or otherwise prove the existence these other universes. Thus, "to explain what [scientists] see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove." Which sounds very much like religion.

Has all of this scientific work merely brought us back to the same spot? Do we need to accept some things on blind faith, be it theological or cosmological? It's still too early to tell - these theories are all relatively new and time will tell what new information will turn up. But it's another interesting twist that make pondering the universe so fascinating.

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