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Making the Title of Miss Universe a Little Less Impressive
November 16, 2008 2:34 PM   Subscribe

Is the Multiverse Real? Discover takes a look at theories that our universe is one of many. This blogger adds some interesting commentary. via
posted by Bookhouse (35 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
This reminds me: I propose a moment of silence for any alternate Earths out there that are currently suffering under President-elect McCain / Acting President Palin / Emergency Military Overlord Bush.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:07 PM on November 16, 2008 [13 favorites]


If it is, humanity's salvation may not be in outer space, but in neighbour space.

I hereby volunteer.
posted by Kickstart70 at 3:22 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I always assumed that life was bafflingly adapted to the universe, not the other way around. I mean I'm curious why matter holds together, and how I'm a squooshy, self replicating computer who is capable of sitting in chairs, but it's not like I assume the universe was created so I could sit or that something expressly made the properties of matter such that I see clustered atoms as a chair and not swirling energy.
posted by Phalene at 3:29 PM on November 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


Emergency Military Overlord Bush.

Hey man, we still have two and a half months left in which we could get our very own Emergency Military Overlord Bush. Very unlikely at this point, but possible still.
posted by Caduceus at 3:40 PM on November 16, 2008


Indra's Net and dependent arising, innit.
posted by Abiezer at 4:01 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Along the same line of logic, I've figured for a while now that the only reason I still exist is that I'm in the one multiverse where I haven't done anything stupid to kill myself yet.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:02 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I bet the googlebot ordered more storage after it indexed that article.

They mention Vilenkin in the article but only linked to his bio - they ought to have linked to this jaw dropping book excerpt on the principle of mediocrity.
posted by fleetmouse at 4:19 PM on November 16, 2008


"The optimist proclaims we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true." - Joseph Campbell

And of course, this thread would be useless without links to Dinosaur Comics' about alternate realities. (ahem)
posted by blue_beetle at 4:20 PM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


Our universe is perfectly tailored for life. That may be the work of God or the result of our universe being one of many.

I don't know about you, but when I see how the potholes in the road are biased towards the exact shape of the water, I'm thinking, "Woah--what are the chances? Musta been the Great Puddle in the sky!" Because the only other explanation involves an infinite number of potholes, and that just doesn't seem reasonable.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:42 PM on November 16, 2008 [6 favorites]


"Tweak the laws of physics in just about any way and—in this universe, anyway—life as we know it would not exist... Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multi­verse."

This reads like a joke, or something out of a Chick Tract.

There isn't a science magazine out there that would treat Creationism as a scientific theory in competition with evolution. Scientists have continuously explained why, and the courts have continuously rejected this pseudoscience from the classroom on these grounds: religion is not science, it isn't testable, it isn't falsifiable.

So why do so many scientists, and science writers -- after so fervently explaining why Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory in the context of evolution -- often coyly or explicitly treat it as if it is when we are talking about astrophysics?

Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory whether we are talking about chemistry, or meteorology, or biology, or physics. The same exact arguments apply equally to every scientific discipline: religion is not science, it isn't testable, it isn't falsifiable.
posted by dgaicun at 4:47 PM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


Having read the article, I would like to point out that it's not about the water fitting the pothole, it's about water even existing in the first place, making possible "squishy self-replicating computers" and their tendency toward mocking things they haven't made an effort to understand.
posted by longsleeves at 4:53 PM on November 16, 2008


I always assumed that life was bafflingly adapted to the universe, not the other way around.

Yes, this is a pretty common view nowadays (in the college-educated, non-religious population, that is). And certainly evolution explains how life has come to exist in apparently hostile environments. But that only explains how life came to adapt itself to the comparatively narrow range of different environments on Earth. Outside that range, the probability of life (as we know it) existing at all drops off very sharply. So, one might ask, what are the preconditions that allow this narrow range of environments to actually come to exist? And the answer is that if you chose arbitrary numbers to fill in for various constants in the different physical laws -- even numbers that are very close to the actual value of those constants -- it is incredibly unlikely that the result would allow for that range of environments in which life (as we know it) can exist. Since it is such an incredibly unlikely outcome, the reasoning goes, it must have been the outcome for some reason other than chance.

Hence, the anthropic principle.

The problem I have with the principle is the notion of life that it uses. That little caveat, "as we know it," makes all the difference in the multiverse. Life as we know it is a pretty constrained view of all of the different ways life might be made manifest. So while I would agree that the laws of physics appear strangely suited to life as we know it, I would argue the appearance of design is due entirely to our own limited understanding of the multifarious forms life could take given different preconditions or laws.
posted by voltairemodern at 4:55 PM on November 16, 2008 [7 favorites]


dgiacum, given that the the basis of the theory discussed here lies in multiple examples of the physical properties of our universe seeming to be tweaked "just so" in order to allow life to exist, at least a nod to the idea that it was created by an intelligent hand, force, being, or whatever would seem obligatory.

The pursuit of understanding reality (realities) is not thereby hindered in any way.
posted by longsleeves at 5:14 PM on November 16, 2008


Is the Multiverse Real?

Not in this universe.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 5:16 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


What I don't understand is why the tone of the article keeps hinting that scientists are looking for any and all excuses to get rid of the idea of there being a God. Why would it matter to them?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:39 PM on November 16, 2008


"The optimist proclaims we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true." - Joseph Campbell James Branch Cabell*

ftfy

*Actually, Coth said this in Cabell's novel The Silver Stallion
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:48 PM on November 16, 2008


“I do not want to predict the future,” he answers. “I once predicted my own future. I had a very firm prediction. I knew that I was going to die in the hospital at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow near where I worked. I would go there for all my physical examinations. Once, when I had an ulcer, I was lying there in bed, thinking I knew this was the place where I was going to die. Why? Because I knew I would always be living in Russia. Moscow was the only place in Russia where I could do physics. This was the only hospital for the Academy of Sciences, and so on. It was quite completely predictable.

“Then I ended up in the United States. On one of my returns to Moscow, I looked at this hospital at the Academy of Sciences, and it was in ruins. There was a tree growing from the roof. And I looked at it and I thought, What can you predict? What can you know about the future?”


Truest and best part of the article, there.
posted by exlotuseater at 5:49 PM on November 16, 2008


On the Plurality of Worlds. I like to leave this sitting on my coffee table, to impress visitors.
posted by stargell at 7:02 PM on November 16, 2008


Here's a video visualizing dimensions 1 through 10, made to promote Rob Bryanton's book "Imagining the Tenth Dimension"
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 7:05 PM on November 16, 2008


Grimp0teuthis: "Here's a video visualizing dimensions 1 through 10, made to promote Rob Bryanton's book "Imagining the Tenth Dimension""

I was intrigued by that video when I first saw it, but later on I came across the Mefi thread about it where it was pretty much torn to shreds.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:24 PM on November 16, 2008


The most famous anthropic argument was Hoyle's explanation of the triple-alpha process. The helium-4 nucleus (which is called an alpha particle if it is moving fast) is unusually tightly bound, for a reason much like the reason that the noble gases are chemically inert. If you try to stick to helium nuclei together to make beryllium-8, they fall apart into two alphas again in 10-16 seconds. Hoyle, who was mostly made of carbon, pointed out that you could never get a beryllium-8 and another alpha together to make a carbon-12 nucleus --- unless a carbon-12 nucleus really likes to vibrate at some particular frequency. Which it does. This is the only case I know of where the anthropic principle has led to a testable scientific prediction. But it was a big prediction. And it was right.

Hoyle apparently took the success of this prediction as evidence of a fine-tuned universe. It's hard to blame him: what other existential questions are answered by an exact value for the stiffness of nuclear matter? I think it's a problem of incorrectly inverting the question. Any complicated system is going to have a bottleneck somewhere. If anything, bottlenecks -- places where the laws of nature just barely permit some process to happen -- argue against fine-tuning. If your car is starved for fuel but runs, do you call it fine-tuned?

Another problem with fine-tuning arguments: they assume we know most things about the world. The logic behind the people who defend the idea of a multiverse (or a landscape of string theories, or any other nonpredictive anthropic argument) seems to be that they could not imagine life in a universe without whatever set of quirks they choose as "fine-tuned." This seems to my eye more like a failure of imagination than anything else. Sure, human life couldn't happen in a universe without stars. But if there weren't stars (because gravity is slightly stronger, or the electron is slightly more massive, or whatever), there would still be something, and that something would get more and more complicated over time. What would it be like? I have no idea, and I never will: any test I could make would be ruined because all the damn stars get in the damn way.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 7:43 PM on November 16, 2008 [3 favorites]


Our universe is perfectly tailored for life. That may be the work of God or the result of our universe being one of many.

The first comment in this link answers that much better than I could, so I'll steal it:

A few people are decent enough not to jump from grandiose, philosophical arguments about cosmology to the assertion that their particular god exists, with his preferences for headgear and the proper use of human genitals. All too many are eager to make that jump, telling us that yes, the Fine-Tuner or the Essential Precondition of Being had a son by a Jewish girl and then ensured that the son in question got nailed to a post at the age of thirty-three, and for whose sake we should vote for Sarah Palin in 2012.
posted by DreamerFi at 2:09 AM on November 17, 2008


"Another question is about the fine-tuning. I, as I said in my talk, am not terribly impressed by the examples of fine-tuning of constants of nature that have been presented. To be a little bit more precise about the case of carbon, the energy levels of carbon, which is the most notorious example that’s always cited, there is an energy level that is 7.65 MeV above the ground state of carbon. If it was .06 of an MeV higher, then carbon production would be greatly diminished and there would be much less chance of life forming. That looks like a 1% fine-tuning of the constants of nature ... However, as has been realized subsequently after this “fine-tuning” was pointed out, you should really measure the energy level not above the ground state of carbon but above the state of the nucleus Beryllium 8 (8Be) plus a helium nucleus ... In other words, the fine-tuning is not 1% but it’s something like 25%. So, it’s not very impressive fine-tuning at all." - Steven Weinberg.
posted by edd at 2:50 AM on November 17, 2008


I actually read the article. Help a liberal arts major here. One question I have, on the third page some cosmologist guy named Bernard Carr says:

Then in the 1920s there was this huge shift when we realized that our galaxy wasn’t the universe.

How exactly did we find this out? Something to do with Einstein or did we see something? I'm kind of curious how this information got around. Did people wake one morning and read it in the New York Times? I poked around the "Universe" article in wikipedia and didn't see anything. I read Boorstein's The Discoverers and this seems like the sort of thing he would've covered but I can't remember.
posted by marxchivist at 6:16 AM on November 17, 2008


marxchivist, in the 1920s Edwin Hubble was the first person to measure the distance to stars in other galaxies. Lots of popular-astronomy books tell the story well.

edd, interesting quote. Looks like it came from a debate between Weinberg and Polkinghorne?
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:41 AM on November 17, 2008


The study of this subject has even spawned the invention of a new toy:

"If two events are possible, quantum theory assumes that both occur simultaneously - until an observer determines the outcome...When the observation is made, the universe splits into two, one for each possible outcome...." Make your own universe!
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 7:49 AM on November 17, 2008


This article lends credit to my theory (of similar scientific calibur) that the universe is part of my imagination, as I pretty much thought of this idea when I was a little kid watching Sliders.

But everything here, right down to the photons lighting the scene after an eight-minute jaunt from the sun, bears witness to an extraordinary fact about the universe: Its basic properties are uncannily suited for life.

I might agree with that, if you're just talking about unicellular organisms.
Sitting where you are, you're burning 70,000 calories every hour just to stay alive. Life has to constantly struggle against the fundamental properties of nature to exist. There's even a law of physics, the law of entropy, that ensures that this battle can never be won, and that all creatures will die in time. And anyways the sun is due to go off in a few billion years, and this supposedly perfect universe hasn't given us any way to escape that.

Supporters of the multiverse theory say that critics are on the wrong side of history. “Throughout the history of science, the universe has always gotten bigger,” Carr says. “We’ve gone from geocentric to heliocentric to galactocentric. Then in the 1920s there was this huge shift when we realized that our galaxy wasn’t the universe. I just see this as one more step in the progression. Every time this expansion has occurred, the more conservative scientists have said, ‘This isn’t science.’ This is just the same process repeating itself.”

Yeah, what's up with scientists doing their job? This is just the same old "people were persecuted before, therefore I'm right!" kind of tripe that shouldn't come out of the mouth of a respected scientist. The peer-review process demands that all new theories be harshly rejected until they can prove themselves. If science accepted all new ideas, it wouldn't work at all.

If these cosmic traits were just slightly altered, life as we know it would be impossible. A few examples:


I'M IN UR UNIVERSE, ALTERING UR COSMIC TRAITS
posted by Citizen Premier at 9:48 AM on November 17, 2008


I apologize for my tone if these scientists have actually made testable hypotheses. But if not, they're just trying to make a name for themselves.
posted by Citizen Premier at 9:50 AM on November 17, 2008


Good Radio Lab podcast about the subject.

I especially got creeped out by the part where he suggests that not only is it possible we're in a Matrix-like simulation, but it's actually statistically likely.
posted by fungible at 9:58 AM on November 17, 2008


OK, I'll freely admit that I know somewhere between very little and bugger all about the science behind all this stuff (if there actually is any... I'm not convinced) but aren't we taking a ridiculously life-centric view of all this? Isn't it more likely that the universe just is what it is and "life as we know it" is just a sub-microscopic anomoly when viewed from a cosmological perspective?
posted by NeonSurge at 10:15 AM on November 17, 2008



I especially got creeped out by the part where he suggests that not only is it possible we're in a Matrix-like simulation, but it's actually statistically likely.


And it's even more likely that the computer that simulates us is in another matrix-like simulation! And the odds that that simulation is being simulated in another simulator are virtually assured!
posted by Citizen Premier at 12:16 PM on November 17, 2008


And the odds that all untestable hypotheses are true is approximately apples to bananas. Prove me wrong!
posted by Citizen Premier at 12:19 PM on November 17, 2008


Ok I'm kind of being a dick now. My bad.
posted by Citizen Premier at 1:27 PM on November 17, 2008


Then in the 1920s there was this huge shift when we realized that our galaxy wasn’t the universe.

How exactly did we find this out? Something to do with Einstein or did we see something? I'm kind of curious how this information got around. Did people wake one morning and read it in the New York Times? I poked around the "Universe" article in wikipedia and didn't see anything. I read Boorstein's The Discoverers and this seems like the sort of thing he would've covered but I can't remember.


Edwin Hubble is credited with this discovery.
posted by longsleeves at 2:14 PM on November 17, 2008


On postview, what timewaster said.
posted by longsleeves at 2:15 PM on November 17, 2008


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