Robert L. Blum, MD, PhD

 

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Fine-Tuned Universe, God, and

the Anthropic Principle

 

            I just completed my annual trek through the Sierras.

This year I was out for 12 days, backpacking, most of it above 9,000 feet.

During the day I experience the majesty of 4,000 meter granite peaks

formed from plumes of magma deep within the shifting plates of North America and the Pacific.

 

 

Waterfall

 

 

            At night beneath crystalline skies the Milky Way is strewn across the heavens
with its array of constellations and multiform stars. This year's trip coincided with
the Perseid meteor shower -a spectacular remnant of cometary debris.  Much of  Earth's water
may have been delivered by asteroid impacts eons ago.

 

            Not surprisingly in such environs my thoughts always turn to the big questions of life.

How did we come to exist?  Why, in fact, does anything exist? Could the Universe
have existed in any other way?  Are there, in fact, other Universes? Is there a direction
to the Universe or to evolution? Does intelligent life exist anywhere besides Earth?


           Although I was hiking solo this year, I was astounded by the number of
fellow seekers on the trail: physicists, theologians, environmentalists, neuroscientists,
engineers, and  philosophers. As I engaged them in conversation, some lasting multiple days,
the issue of Fine-Tuning of the Universe frequently arose.  

 

Milky Way

 

(One of  astrophotographer Serge Brunier’s stunning photos La Voie Lactee (the Milky Way)
taken in Chile’s Atacama Desert – home of several of the world’s largest telescopes.
His other photos are equally mind-bending.)

         

             Do We Live in a Fine-Tuned Universe?

 

            There are perhaps two or three dozen physical constants that characterize
the nature of our Universe.   Some of these are 1) the speed of light, 2) the strength of gravity,
3) the strength of electromagnetism, 4) the strength of the strong force that binds protons
and neutrons (and quarks) together to form atomic nuclei, 5) the relative masses of
electrons and protons, 6) the ratio of strengths of electromagnetism to gravity, and so on.

 

            It is widely thought by many physicists that these physical constants
have to be very narrowly set to allow for the existence of a Universe that permits life.

 

            Think of a Universe-creating machine with many knobs
with God seated at the control panel.   If the knobs are not very carefully set,
the Universe will be still-born. That is, atomic nuclei will not form;  hydrogen, helium
and deuterium will not form; stars will not form; atomic fusion will not occur;
galaxies will not form, the supernovas that created the 92 elements will not occur; 
planets will not form; and life will not happen.

 

            Some of these physical constants appear to be so finely-tuned that
infinitesimal deviations could have caused the Universe to collapse. Needless to say,
this state of affairs has added fire to the discussion among theologians, physicists,
and biologists about the nature of creation.

 

I have heard dozens of lectures by leading cosmologists on this topic. This essay is just
my attempt to share my enthusiasm and wonderment at one of life's greatest mysteries.
How did all that exists come to be?

             Before I launch into fine-tuning, you need to be aware generally of how the Universe

developed over time from its initial seed in the Big Bang.  That story is told in a series of articles
in Wikipedia:the Big Bang, the Universe, the Timeline of the Big Bang, and others.  The lead article
in the September 2009 issue of Scientific American by physicist Michael Turner also
succinctly describes the Origin of the Universe
. Here it is, in the proverbial nutshell. 

 

 

Cone of the Universe

(illustration from Wikipedia article on the Big Bang)

 

            13.7 billion years ago:  Big Bang occurs from an initial dot of infinitely hot, infinitely dense matter.
  (physics note: “infinite” used loosely.)

 

            10-35 seconds: Cosmic inflation creates a large smooth patch of space filled with lumpy quark soup.

 

            First microsecond:   protons and neutrons form from quarks

 

            First few minutes: (as early as .01 seconds)  Helium, lithium, deuterium form from proton and neutrons

 

            380,000 years later:  Atoms form from nuclei and electrons.  Before this the Universe was

opaque.  Since electrons were not bound, all light was immediately scattered – like scuba-diving
in cream soup.   At this moment, for the first time, the Universe was transparent.

 

            300 million years later: the Dark Ages end – gravity has enabled the first stars and galaxies to form.


            One Billion years: limit of current astronomical observations (highest redshift objects)

 

            Three billion years:  clusters of galaxies form; star formation peaks

 

            Nine billion years: Solar system forms: Earth is 4.5 billion years old

                        (minor footnote: life begins 3.7 billion years ago)

 

            10 billion years:  Dark Energy causes accelerated expansion of Universe

 

            two million years ago: Homo habilis evolved (our distant ancestors - early species of hominoids)

 

            two hundred thousand years ago: Homo sapiens evolved

 

            ten thousand years ago: agriculture and later, the first cities

             

Big Bang Theory

(Illustration is from The Birth of the Universe: The Kingfisher Young People’s Book of Space, 1998.
  Graphic drawn by Ed Gabel, former Associate Graphics Director of Time.)

 

                        Sources: Closer To Truth           

 

            As I gathered material for this essay, I was delighted to find an outstanding collection of video interviews by many of the physicists who have created the current view of the origins of the Universe. That website is ClosertoTruth, a magnificent collection of interviews of the top-gun physicists on the planet.   Robert Kuhn, who conducts the interviews, has selected the cream of the crop: several Nobel laureates, prominent authors, physicists, cosmologists, philosophers and professors of theology.  My thanks to Robert Kuhn for making these clips freely available.

 

            As several of the physicists state, there are several possible explanations for fine-tuning.

(I will revisit these and others at the conclusion, but this will help you get my drift.)

 

Religious explanation: God created the Universe (by setting the knobs just so).              

 

Random luck: It just turned out the way it did.  We won the cosmic jackpot.

 

Grand Theory:  An unknown theory forces things to be the way they are.
Scientists haven’t worked it out yet. Human brains may still be too primitive to figure it out. 
Monkeys don’t understand quantum mechanics either.

 

Multiverse:  There are an infinite number of Universes with different laws.
We are in one of the very few that permits intelligent life.

 

            I’ll come back to these later.

 

Alpha

 

 

  Alpha: the Fine Structure Constant:
How Electrons Move

 

            Let’s examine one important class of knobs on the Universe-creation machine.

These knobs are called the coupling constants.  These are the constants that determine how strongly a particle feels a particular force.

 

            The most famous of these is the fine structure constant alpha, which determines the strength of the electromagnetic force on an electron. (Here I summarize the Wikipedia article on the Fine-structure constant.)


According to quantum mechanics, negatively charged electrons are confined to their particular orbits around the positively charged nucleus by the exchange of photons only of particular definite energies.  These quantized orbitals determine how tightly bound
an electron is to the nucleus. This relationship is reflected by the fine structure constant alpha, which = about 1 / 137.

 

            Now, the question is "why is it 1 / 137?"  If it were 4% larger, then stellar fusion would not produce carbon, so carbon-based life would be impossible! If it were > .1, then stellar fusion itself would be impossible, and there would no stars in the Universe! As Nobel laureate Richard Feynman put it in 1985 -

 

"all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it. Nobody knows where the number comes from.  It's one of the greatest mysteries of physics ... You might say the "hand of God" wrote that number and we don't know how He pushed his pencil."

 

            Or consider this quote from Nobel laureate Max Born that appears in Arthur I. Miller's 2009 book, Deciphering the Cosmic Number:

 

          "If alpha [the fine structure constant] were bigger than it really is, we should not be able to distinguish matter from ether [the vacuum, nothingness], and our task to disentangle the natural laws would be hopelessly difficult. The fact however that alpha has just its value 1/137 is certainly no chance but itself a law of nature. It is clear that the explanation of this number must be the central problem of natural philosophy."

 

       Living organisms are made from about two dozen elements, principally carbon, hydrogen,
oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur, but also many other elements including sodium,
potassium, chlorine, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, and zinc.
If the coupling contants were substantially different, then only hydrogen would have formed.
The existence of life depends on a compatible fine-structure constant.

 

NASA Galaxies

 

                                   Omega Lamba: The Cosmological Constant:

                          Dark Energy is 73% of the Mass-Energy of the Universe

 

            More recently, because of discoveries just in the past decade, the cosmological constant,
omega lambda, has taken center stage.


The ultimate fate of the Universe has long been an open question.
Then, in 1998, observations of distant Type 1a supernovas indicated unexpectedly that
the Universe is undergoing an accelerated expansion.  This has since been confirmed many times.

 

            Presumably the Universe is expanding as a result of residual effects of the Big Bang,
the event 13.7 billion years ago that created all matter from an infinitely dense, infinitely hot dot
in the quantum foam. But due to the gravitational force of all that matter, one would think that
the expansion would be slowing down, just like a ball attached to a paddle by a rubber string.
However, the distant supernovas are speeding away from us faster and faster.  What is driving that acceleration?

 

            The current best theory is Dark Energy!  All of space is filled with this type of energy,
which, unlike gravity, exerts a repellent force on all matter.  That, according to theory,
is what is causing the Universe's accelerating expansion.

 

            The cosmological constant (physicists, forgive this simplification) expresses
the relationship between this energy density of the vacuum of space and the density
of the material universe.

It's important because the calculated value appears to imply that the vacuum of space
has a positive value that is driving that acceleration.  Dark energy, by the way, appears
to constitute 70% of the entire mass-energy of the Universe! Notably, if one tries to derive
its value from the standard quantum model of physics, then the resulting theoretical value
is off by 120 orders of magnitude.  Obviously, something is wrong!

 

            The cosmological constant is another of those physical constants whose value
is a complete mystery, and yet it plays a key role in the fate of the Universe.

 

            So, we are left with a conundrum: how were these dozens of physical constants so finely tuned?

 

God and Adam

(Michelangelo’s Creation of Man from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.)

 

                        The Anthropic Principle

 

            All we really know for sure is that we are here, and that if conditions had
not prevailed for the billions of years that it took for us to evolve, then we would
not be here wondering about this. 

This is called the Anthropic Principle and it has two forms: the weak form and the strong form.
(Here I draw from the Wikipedia article on the Anthropic principle.
)

 

            The Weak Anthropic Principle is what I just stated: since we exist, we must find ourselves
in circumstancing allowing our existence. To paraphrase Descartes, cogito ergo mundus talis est.
 "I think, therefore, the world is such as it is.
"


This seems like an obvious truth or tautology, but it is useful nonetheless.  Roger Penrose explains
this usefulness when he paraphrases Brandon Carter and Robert Dicke "the epoch in which we live
coincides with the lifetime of main-sequence stars, such as the sun.  At any other epoch,
there would be no intelligent life around to measure the physical constants."
This line of thinking does seem to account for the fact that we live at a time that is
about half way through the life of our sun and that our bodies are in the geometric mean
of objects in the Universe.  However, the weak version of the principle
doesn't seem to really explain the miracle of existence,

namely, why are the physical constants of nature precisely set as they are?

 

            The Strong Anthropic Principle adds a MUST to the statement.  The Universe MUST
have the properties that allow for intelligent life to develop OR that the Universe MUST
have the properties that we observe.This is the version which generates considerable controversy.

 

            So, what is the state of opinion among scientists, philosophers, and theologians?
Here are some of the possibilities enumerated by physicist Paul Davies (he lists these
and others in his book The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?

(Here, I also add my own intuitions – just one man’s prejudices.)

 Paul Davies

I introduced Professor Paul Davies at one of his book presentations recently. The list below
is from his writings. (My day-glo clothes are just to maintain visibility while cycling.)


            Some Possible Explanations of a Fine-Tuned Universe

 

1. The absurd universe

Our universe - and it is the only one in existence - just happens to be the way it is.
  (This possibility strikes me as being highly unlikely.)

2. The unique universe

There is a deep underlying unity in physics which necessitates the universe being the way it is. Some grand theory will explain why the various features of the Universe must have exactly the values that we see.   (I really like this. It also provides the motivation for thousands of papers on grand unification, string theory, and quantum loop theory.  The idea is that these seemingly arbitrary physical constants MUST  have their observed values because of some deep underlying structure of nature.  Unfortunately, as Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, points out in his video interview on ClosertoTruth, our brains at present are possibly too primitive to perceive that deep structure.  That discovery may need to await humanity 2.0 .)

3.The multiverse

Multiple Universes exist having all possible combinations of characteristics, and we inevitably find ourselves within a Universe that allows us to exist. (When I first heard of the Multiverse theory, championed by Stanford physicist Andre Linde, I was delighted.  His theory of chaotic eternal inflation creates multiple universes all the time, not just ours.  Some of them contain life like ours and others don't.  As several physicists comment on Closertotruth, however, this can be viewed as simply a failure to find the grand theory (possibility two).  We don't understand why or how our set of physical constants turned out to be so precisely set, therefore, we resort to this fallback position.

4. Creationism

A creator designed the Universe with the purpose of supporting complexity and the emergence of Intelligence. If you're religious, this is for you. God created the Universe as we see it. Note, however, that even if you're not religious, there are versions of creationism that still work.  Consider the Biocosm hypothesis of James Gardner.  Technological society is developing god-like powers of creation.  In the future it may be possible to create black holes and other seemingly miraculous feats of cosmic proportion.  It's conceivable that our Big Bang was designed by just such a powerful agent or civilization expressly with the purpose of perpetuating intelligent life.

5. The life principle

There is an underlying principle that constrains the universe to evolve towards life and mind. (This appears to be a subset of the unique universe hypothesis above - fascinating and driving lots of research in origins of life and evolutionary psychology.  That intelligence evolved, given living organisms, is easy to explain.  It confers a large survival benefit for an individual organism.  Whether it also confers longevity on human civilization as a whole is not known.  The possiblity of technological annihilation of mankind might explain the Fermi Paradox, the apparent rarity of extraterrestrials. The evolution of consciousness as an accompaniment of intelligence is also unexplained.

      Note, however, that accepting Darwinian evolution only helps once you’ve got life.  That’s just events on Earth in the past 4 billion years. It says nothing about how we got from a sea of hot quarks 14 billion years ago until the Solar system came into existence 5 billion years ago.

 

            Physicist Lee Smolin also offers just such another possibility:
cosmological natural selection of fecund universes.  This, like some versions of the Multiverse,
is Darwinian selection happening on a cosmic scale. Quoting the article in Wikipedia,

The theory surmises that a collapsing black hole causes the emergence of a new universe on the "other side", whose fundamental constant parameters may differ slightly from those of the universe where the black hole collapsed. Each universe therefore gives rise to as many new universes as it has black holes. Thus the theory contains the evolutionary ideas of "reproduction" and "mutation" of universes, but has no direct analogue of natural selection. However, given any universe that can produce black holes that successfully spawn new universes, it is possible that some number of those universes will reach heat death with unsuccessful parameters. So, in a sense, fecundity or cosmological natural selection is one where universes could die off before successfully reproducing, just as any biological being can die without having children.

 

       So, according to Lee Smolin, black holes may create new Universes,
each with slightly different physical laws. Physicist Louis Crane extends the analogy to
biological evolution even further with his meduso-anthropic principle. Here's the idea.

Very advanced civilizations may find it advantageous to engineer black holes.
(Small black holes may be convenient garbage dumps; they are also efficient, long-lasting
generators of energy via Hawking radiation.) Now, notice that this has inserted advanced
intelligence and longevity into the Universe generation enterprise. This means that Universes
that produce such civilizations may have a higher probability of producing similar offspring.

(My thanks to physicist and AI-researcher Steve Omohundro for bringing
the meduso-anthropic principle to my attention. See Steve's series of essays on
the ubiquity of cooperation in the evolution of life. It's not all tooth and claw.)
The meduso-anthropic principle is named for the medusa jellyfish whose
two-part life cycle involves not only the mature jellyfish (intelligent civilizations)
but also their reproducing polyps (the black holes).

 

 Sierra Flowers

 

 

 

                               Scientific Bottom Line

 

            Will we ever find out which of these theories, if any, really describes the Universe? 
Although it is easy to dismiss all these theories as idle speculation, I am tremendously heartened
by the progress that mankind has made in the past hundred years.  Even during Einstein's time,
a hundred years ago, astronomers thought that our Universe consisted only of
an eternally static Milky Way galaxy.

Upon reflection, it's clear that experimental data combined with theory have created
spectacular advances in cosmology. In the near future I expect that data from
the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva will advance mankind's understanding of
the fundamental forces of nature.  That understanding, perhaps reflected in advances
in string theory, will combine with new observations from ground-based telescopes,
like the proposed Square Kilometer Array, or space-based telescopes, like
the incipient James Webb (to be launched in 2018) to help illuminate our place in the Universe.

 

                     My Personal Bottom Line

 

            All miracles pale beside the miracle of existence.  In the first 10-43 seconds the Universe
winked into existence. A dot of mass-energy that was infinitely hot and dense materialized
from an infinite sea of quantum foam.  13.7 billion years later here we are, a civilization of 7 billion
human beings - conscious, intelligent agents whose combined action will determine
the fate of life on our planet. (See Sir Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal, present
the Doomsday Argument for the importance of humanity's stewardship or lack thereof.)

For unfathomable reasons, the Universe tends toward self-organization into entities of
increasingly great complexity. Earth is the only planet we know of that sustains any forms
of life, let alone intelligent life. (But view this report by the Kepler planetary discovery team!.) 
It took nine billion years for the Universe to create Earth and another five billion years
to create our civilization.

Whether we are alone or part of a vast collective of civilizations, we do not know.
We are now the stewards of our collective fate and the fate of higher life forms on Earth.
Our greatest efforts and wisdom must be devoted to the longevity of our civilization and
to the sustainability of all life on Earth.