a NEW UNIVERSE in a lab
famous Canadian Science Fiction novelist
Mark A. Carter reprints a June, 2017 article by Zeeya Merali for your edification. It contemplates the possibility of
playing God and creating a universe. Remember the hubris of the
Frankenstein Motif. Oh my ...
Physicists aren't often reprimanded
for using risqué humor in their academic writings, but
in 1991 that is exactly what happened to the cosmologist Andrei
Linde at Stanford University. He had submitted a draft article
entitled "Hard Art of the Universe Creation" to the
journal Nuclear Physics B. In it, he outlined the possibility
of creating a universe in a laboratory: a whole new cosmos that
might one day evolve its own stars, planets, and intelligent
life. Near the end, Linde made a seemingly flippant suggestion
that our universe itself might have been knocked together by
an alien "physicist hacker." The paper's referees objected
to this "dirty joke," religious people might be offended
that scientists were aiming to steal the feat of universe-making
out of the hands of God, they worried. Linde changed the paper's
title and abstract but held firm over the line that our universe
could have been made by an alien scientist. "I am not so
sure that this is just a joke," he told me.
Fast-forward a quarter of a century,
and the notion of universe-making or "cosmogenesis,"
as I dub it, seems less comical than ever. I've traveled the
world talking to physicists who take the concept seriously, and
who have even sketched out rough blueprints for how humanity
might one day achieve it. Linde's referees might have been right
to be concerned, but they were asking the wrong questions. The
issue is not who might be offended by cosmogenesis, but what
would happen if it was truly possible. How would we handle the
theological implications? What moral responsibilities would come
with fallible humans taking on the role of cosmic creators?
Large Hadron Collider, one of the few facilities that can recreate
conditions of the early Universe.
Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world's largest and
most powerful particle accelerator. It first started up on 10
September 2008, and remains the latest addition to CERN's
accelerator complex. The LHC consists of a 27-kilometre ring
of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures
to boost the energy of the particles along the way.
© Photo courtesy of CERN.
Theoretical physicists have grappled
for years with related questions as part of their considerations
of how our own universe began. In the 1980s, the cosmologist
Alex Vilenkin at Tufts University in Massachusetts came up with
a mechanism through which the laws of quantum mechanics could
have generated an inflating universe from a state in which there
was no time, no space, and no matter. There's an established
principle in quantum theory that pairs of particles can spontaneously,
momentarily pop out of empty space. Vilenkin took this notion
a step further, arguing that quantum rules could also enable
a minuscule bubble of space itself to burst into being from nothing,
with the impetus to then inflate to astronomical scales. Our
cosmos could thus have been burped into being by the laws of
physics alone. To Vilenkin, this result put an end to the question
of what came before the Big Bang: nothing. Many cosmologists
have made peace with the notion of a universe without a prime
mover, divine or otherwise.
At the other end of the philosophical
spectrum, I met with Don Page, a physicist and evangelical Christian
at the University of Alberta in Canada, noted for his early collaboration
with Stephen Hawking on the nature of black holes. To Page, the
salient point is that God created the universe ex nihilo
from absolutely nothing. The kind of cosmogenesis envisioned
by Linde, in contrast, would require physicists to cook up their
cosmos in a highly technical laboratory, using a far more powerful
cousin of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. It would also
require a seed particle called a "monopole" which is
hypothesized to exist by some models of physics, but has yet
to be found. The idea goes that if we could impart enough energy
to a monopole, it will start to inflate. Rather than growing
in size within our universe, the expanding monopole would bend
spacetime within the accelerator to create a tiny wormhole tunnel
leading to a separate region of space. From within our lab we
would see only the mouth of the wormhole. It would appear to
us as a mini black hole, so small as to be utterly harmless.
But if we could travel into that wormhole, we would pass through
a gateway into a rapidly expanding baby universe that we had
We have no reason to believe
that even the most advanced physics hackers could conjure a cosmos
from nothing at all, Page argues. Linde's
concept of cosmogenesis,
audacious as it might be, is still fundamentally technological.
Page, therefore, sees little threat to his faith. On this first
issue, then, cosmogenesis would not necessarily upset existing
But flipping the problem around,
I started to wonder: What are the implications of humans even
considering the possibility of one day making a universe that
could become inhabited by intelligent life? As I discuss in my
book A Big Bang in a Little Room (2017), current theory
suggests that, once we have created a new universe, we would
have little ability to control its evolution or the potential
suffering of any of its residents. Wouldn't that make us irresponsible
and reckless deities? I posed the question to Eduardo Guendelman,
a physicist at Ben Gurion University in Israel, who was one of
the architects of the cosmogenesis model back in the 1980s. Today,
Guendelman is engaged in research that could bring baby-universe-making
within practical grasp. I was surprised to find that the moral
issues did not cause him any discomfort. Guendelman likens scientists
pondering their responsibility over making a baby universe to
parents deciding whether or not to have children, knowing they
will inevitably introduce them to a life filled with pain as
well as joy.
A Big Bang in a Little Room
by Zeeya Merali
Other physicists are more wary.
Nobuyuki Sakai of Yamaguchi University in Japan, one of the theorists
who proposed that a monopole could serve as the seed for a baby
universe, admitted that cosmogenesis is a thorny issue that we
should "worry" about as a society in the future. But
he absolved himself of any ethical concerns today. Although he
is performing the calculations that could allow cosmogenesis,
he notes that it will be decades before such an experiment might
feasibly be realized. Ethical concerns can wait.
Many of the physicists I approached
were reluctant to wade into such potential philosophical quandaries.
So I turned to a philosopher, Anders Sandberg at the University
of Oxford, who contemplates the moral implications of creating
artificial sentient life in computer simulations. He argues that
the proliferation of intelligent life, regardless of form, can
be taken as something that has inherent value. In that case,
cosmogenesis might actually be a moral obligation.
Artwork illustrating the concept of an alternate bubble
universe in which our universe (left) is not the only one. Some
scientists think that bubble universes may pop into existence
all the time, and occasionally nudge ours.
Courtesy of Aeon Magazine
© NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
Looking back on my numerous conversations
with scientists and philosophers on these issues, I've concluded
that the editors at Nuclear Physics B did a disservice
both to physics and to theology. Their little act of censorship
served only to stifle an important discussion. The real danger
lies in fostering an air of hostility between the two sides,
leaving scientists afraid to speak honestly about the religious
and ethical consequences of their work out of concerns of professional
reprisal or ridicule.
We will not be creating baby
universes anytime soon, but scientists in all areas of research
must feel able to freely articulate the implications of their
work without concern for causing offense. Cosmogenesis is an
extreme example that tests the principle. Parallel ethical issues
are at stake in the more near-term prospects of creating artificial
intelligence or developing new kinds of weapons, for instance.
As Sandberg put it, although it is understandable that scientists
shy away from philosophy, afraid of being thought weird for veering
beyond their comfort zone, the unwanted result is that many of
them keep quiet on things that really matter.
As I was leaving Linde's office
at Stanford, after we'd spent a day riffing on the nature of
God, the cosmos, and baby universes, he pointed at my notes and
commented ruefully: "If you want to have my reputation destroyed,
I guess you have enough material." This sentiment was echoed
by a number of the scientists I had met, whether they identified
as atheists, agnostics, religious, or none of the above. The
irony was that if they felt able to share their thoughts with
each other as openly as they had with me, they would know that
they weren't alone among their colleagues in pondering some of
the biggest questions of our being.
This article was originally published
and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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