Paul P. Mealing

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Thursday, 11 June 2015

The fine-tuned Universe

I’ve discussed this before in relation to John D. Barrow’s revelations concerning the fine structure constant, amongst other things, in his excellent book, The Constants of Nature. A recent episode of Catalyst, called Custom Universe also raised this issue, plus the latest issue of New Scientist (6 June 2015, pp.37-39) explaining the extraordinary fine difference in mass between neutrons and protons (that can’t be explained with our current knowledge of physics) and, in particular, the consequences of small variations to that difference.

In other words, the stability of atoms, including the prototype atom, hydrogen, is dependent on the neutron being slightly heavier than the proton by 0.14% (the neutron is 939.6 Mev and the proton is 938.3 Mev). Making the difference much bigger would result in more complex atoms becoming impossible to create and much smaller would have converted all hydrogen atoms into inert helium, therefore no fusion in stars and no other atoms. Smaller still or making protons heavier than neutrons would have resulted in protons decaying into neutrons and therefore no atoms at all.

This is just one of many examples of fine-tuning in our universe that makes the evolution of complex life forms, and therefore intelligent life, possible. And, of course, we still don’t know why matter outweighed anti-matter in the early stages of the universe by 1 billion and 1 to 1 billion, otherwise the universe would be just radiation and nothing else.

The standard answer to this is the multiverse, which postulates that there exists up to an infinite number of alternative universes, and, logically, we must exist in the one universe that allows intelligent life, like us, to evolve. Brian Cox (in Human Universe) uses the analogy of a lottery. When we buy a lottery ticket the chances of winning is some astronomical number, and in our individual lifetimes, very few of us ever win. However, as Cox points out, someone wins every time, and that’s the same with the multiverse. We win because we are in it and all the others that don’t win are unknown and unknowable because no consciousness can evolve in them to find out. This is known as the weak Anthropic Principle, which I’ve discussed elsewhere.

What many people don’t realise is that if there is an infinite number of universes then there must be an infinite number of you and me, because, in an infinite amount of space and time, anything that can happen once must happen an infinite number of times – a mathematical truism.

But many see the multiverse as a cop-out, because it explains everything and nothing. It says all things are possible therefore we are possible, problem solved. It provides an answer with no explanation. And, at its extreme interpretation, it says that everything is possible an infinite number of times.

Max Tegmark advocates this extreme interpretation in his book, Our Mathematical Universe, where he postulates up to 4 levels of multiverses, including the quantum multiverse. In fact, Tegmark conjured up a thought experiment, whereby if you die you just find yourself in an alternative quantum universe, and therefore you are effectively immortal. To take this to its logical conclusion, there must exist a universe where everyone lives forever, therefore we all eventually find Heaven, or at least, its mathematically plausible equivalent.

Equally relevant to this topic, is the issue of biological evolution, and I’ve just finished reading an excellent book on this subject, Life Ascending; The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane. Now many people (including Richard Dawkins, I imagine) will take issue with the word ‘invention’ and ‘evolution’ appearing in the same sentence, let alone on the cover of a book. But I doubt Dawkins would take issue with any of the material between the covers, even in the places where his name is cited. Lane, of course, is aware of some people’s sensitivity to the word ‘invention’ in this context, and is quick to explain he’s not referring to a ‘creator’ but to the extraordinary inventiveness inherent in the process of natural selection. In the same way, and for the same reasons, I have no problem in appropriating the word ‘design’ when discussing evolution because natural selection is nature’s design methodology and its more significant ‘inventions’ are the subject of the book, hence the totally apposite title.

Lane structures the book into 10 chapters that cover his ‘ten inventions’: 1) The Origin of Life; 2) DNA; 3) Photosynthesis; 4)The Complex Cell; 5) Sex; 6) Movement; 7) Sight; 8) Hot Blood; 9)Consciousness; 10) Death.

I have to say that this is the best book on evolution that I’ve read, not least because Lane has such a commanding knowledge of his subject and a very accessible style of prose. Lane is a biochemist by training and it’s his ability to explain what happens at a molecular level that gives the book so much intellectual weight. He appears up to date on all the latest discoveries and provides historical context everywhere; so we learn how theories have developed, sometimes stalled, sometimes been disproved and sometimes yet to be confirmed. Anyone who studies science, at whatever level, appreciates that we never know everything and we never will, but that we are constantly uncovering newly discovered nature’s secrets that would astound the likes of Darwin and his contemporaries with their depth and ingenuity.

All the chapters contain information that I wasn’t aware of previously, but the first two chapters are probably the most revelatory and the most enthralling. One suspects that it’s at this level that Lane is most intrigued and therefore most knowledgeable on all the latest developments. I won’t go into details, but he provides the best arguments I’ve come across on how life, at its simplest form, may have evolved from pure chemistry. In light of the title of this post, I was struck on more than one occasion on how just the right elements or combination of factors arose to produce the forebears of life as we now know it.

This is all good grist for those who believe we have a special destiny, and that there is the ‘hand’ of some immaterial force behind it all. The other extreme is to be dismissive of this view as ‘weak-minded’ and ‘unintelligent’, yet I find the idea that our existence is an accident that should never have happened equally absurd and, dare-I-say-it, unintelligent. My own view, that I’ve expressed elsewhere, is that the Universe is brim-full of purpose yet that purpose has evolved with no plan or blueprint in sight, no pre-destined goal, just a set of laws that have allowed it all to happen.

If there is a ‘creator’, then ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ works in a very strange fashion, certainly not in the manner that creationists and ID advocates would have us believe, because the ‘design’ has been done piece-meal with many wrong turns, much trial and error and many catastrophes on a grand scale, of which we could easily become one ourselves. In comparison to the epic story of life, we are like mayflies, existing for less than a day, thus far – it’s a sobering thought.

In regard to the ridiculous debate on religion versus science, it is worth quoting Lane himself from the last paragraph of his book.

I think the picture painted here in this book is true. Life most surely evolved, along the lines described here. That is not dogma, but evidence tested in reality and corrected accordingly. Whether this grand picture is compatible with faith in God, I do not know. For some people, intimately acquainted with evolution, it is; for others, it is not.

Addendum: This is a YouTube interview with physicist, Leonard Susskind, who discusses the fine-tuned universe on Closer to Truth, which appears to be a series of interviews with well known scientists and philosophers giving us their interpretation of philosophical cum scientific conundrums.

Susskind, not surprisingly, delivers a very compelling argument for the multi-verse, or, as he calls it, the mega-verse, and, in so doing, references String or M Theory as supporting this view. Personally, I'm a bit of a sceptic of String theory and its many variations, as it reminds me of Ptolemy's epicycles, but I may well be proven wrong in the near or far future. Only time will tell.

But what struck me as I listened to Lenny's argument, was that, even if it's true, it still means that our universe is very special, amongst all the possibilities. However, as I pointed out in my main post, if there are an infinite number of universes then it's not special at all.

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