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We May Not Be Alone…

Could multiple universes theory reshape science—and faith?


“Science’s crisis of faith.” That’s how Harper’s magazine headlined an article last December describing a revolutionary theory that could not only upend physics, but blur the border between science and religion.

Some BU physicists dispute that last point, made by MIT physicist Alan Lightman in his piece. One, Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow, BU’s Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Mathematics and Science, doesn’t buy the theory itself, which holds that physicists’ search for fundamental laws governing, well, everything in the universe, has been a colossal waste of time. This view says that there are many universes with different traits, dictated by different parameters than those in our own universe.

“Some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice,” Lightman writes of the implications of this “multiverse” theory. “In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.” According to the theory, the just-right parameters that allowed us and all life to emerge was our dumb luck; in another universe, those parameters may not exist, and so neither does life. Still other universes may require different parameters to support life. (The fact that our parameters are so finely tuned has led some people to embrace intelligent design, which most scientists reject, Lightman notes.)

This new paradigm would be upsetting enough by itself, which may be why multiple universes hitherto have been the stuff of science fiction, like Star Trek (remember the bearded, alternate-universe Mr. Spock?) or Lost in Space. (Fortunately for those shows’ characters, they always managed to beam into another universe that supported life.) But Lightman adds a match to the fire: “We have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove. Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not.”

Martin Schmaltz, Associate Professor of Physics, Boston University College of Arts and Sciences

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Discussions of the multiverse proceed so insanely arcanely, writes Lightman, that “it is perhaps impossible to say how far apart the different universes may be, or whether they exist simultaneously in time.” Nonetheless, says Martin Schmaltz (left), a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of physics, the theory “may well be right and deserves to be considered.” But he agrees that we’ll never observe other universes, so there are “no direct, observable predictions” flowing from the theory. “The hope is that there might be indirect predictions” about phenomena facilitated by the multiverse idea.

If the multiverse turns out to be useless in explaining data and making predictions, Schmaltz says, “the question of whether there are other universes would indeed merely become a question of faith, which I am not much interested in.”

Glashow (below) has reached that point. (Schmaltz enjoyed the Harper’s piece. Glashow, asked if he read it: “Nah.”) “The multiverse is more a notion than a theory,” he says dismissively, describing the concept as “an abject surrender,” because it can’t be tested. As to whether the new theory poses a crisis of faith, he says, “Only to its believers.”

Sheldon Glashow, Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Mathematics and Science, Nobel laureate, Boston University

Photo by Vernon Doucette

Alan Marscher a CAS professor of astronomy, discusses the multiverse in a course he teachers for non–astronomy majors and considers it a possible explanation of our universe’s characteristics. Still, he says, “it is based on an extrapolation of quantum physics, and extrapolations tend to be dangerous.” Lightman argues, for example, that the 1998 discovery of dark energy, the force believed to be making the universe expand ever faster, “practically demands” the multiverse to explain it. Marscher disagrees, saying dark energy’s origins remain a mystery and that the multiverse is just one possible explanation.

We’ll never talk with any beings in any other universe, according to the theory; it seems the multiverse is like a city bus, to steal an analogy from Stephen Colbert. “Followers of the multiverse have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence,” Glashow says. “Their approach seems to me more like medieval theology than science.” Marscher dubs the multiverse “atheistic theology…an unthinking creator.”

“If someone were to devise an observational test of it, then it could be called a scientific hypothesis,” he says. “So it represents a theology that some scientists hope to convert into a scientific model. I see nothing wrong with that, as long as the fact that it’s scientists who are proposing it doesn’t confuse people into thinking that it’s a valid scientific theory.”

According to Lightman, some leading theoretical physicists (he cites MIT colleague Alan Guth and the Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas) “reluctantly” buy the multiverse theory as the best explanation for the exquisitely precise calibration of natural forces in our universe that allowed life to emerge: if there are many universes, one is bound to have our life-supporting parameters, while others will be “dead, lifeless hulks of matter and energy,” Lightman writes.

In short, we got lucky.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

7 Comments on We May Not Be Alone…

  • Ben on 02.27.2012 at 10:38 am

    We didn’t get “lucky”. We exist as we do because (think evolution) we could survive in the conditions that currently exist. If our universe had other conditions, then whatever could survive those conditions would exist. It’s simply a survivor bias.

    This universe isn’t “just right” for life. It is “just right” for life as we know it to exist–but if it was any other way, then it would be “just right” for that other type of life to exist.

    • Brett on 02.27.2012 at 11:00 am

      Right, or it wouldn’t be “just right” for any life to exist at all, as the author states. Evolution in our universe is possible but if there are other universes with other parameters, they may not permit life at all. For example, think about the weak nuclear force or gravity. If these are altered in certain ways, life may be absolutely impossible to even begin, nevermind evolve.

    • Patrick on 02.27.2012 at 12:34 pm

      Did you read the article?

    • Nathan on 02.27.2012 at 2:50 pm

      I think Ben went straight to the point.

      The multi-verse thought experiment, while associated with the attempt to explain to explain dark matter, seems to be an attempt to explain the logical fallacy ‘survivor bias.’

      A similar experiment would be a young man who finds ‘the perfect girl.’ The randomness of the world does not explain how the red hair he likes, the physical shape he likes, the laugh he likes all appeared on this one ‘perfect girl’ at just the right time in his life when he was desperate for a woman. He can’t explain how he got so lucky. – I think we can all agree that he only comes up with the definition of his perfect girl AFTER her appearence made him look for an explanation. She is only perfect from the viewpoint of that moment in his reality.

      The survivor bias about the ‘perfect’ circumstances of life on earth exists because life on earth has adapted to the circumstance of the earth.

      From the viewpoint of a subteranean argon fueled squiddly that may or may not live in our own solar system and repirates at a speed we cannot percieve, our world is so fatally inimicable to life that we can’t possibly exist.

      • Steve on 02.28.2012 at 6:11 pm

        Kudos for creativity that a “subterranean argon fueled squiddly” may exist. But, there may be a world where the element Argon is absent. As Brett stated, if the fundamental forces were different, nothing might form period. Not even a squiddly.

        To appreciate the views in this article, you have to accept the multiverse hypothesis as true. Yes, in your own opinion about the formation of life you may not agree that we “got lucky”. However, if you believe that the multiverse theory is correct, then you also HAVE to believe that we are lucky.

        While it is a radical idea, we cannot abandon it yet. As observers, we can only see so far into the night sky. What exists beyond that horizon?

  • PeterKinnon on 02.29.2012 at 2:25 am

    The evidence for “fine tuning” and directionality of our universe for the overall life process is not limited to the physical parameters.

    There i a great wealth of evidence of seemingly inevitable directionality and “just right” conditions to be found downstream of the usually quoted dimensionless physical prameters, especially in such areas as geology, chemistry and biology.

    Most clearly observed in the way in which the the properties and timely abundances of the chemical elements and their compounds not only have allowed, but have made virtually inevitable the observed evolution of technology in the medium of the collective imagination of our species.

    This persistent and pervasive pattern is not to be ignored or swept under the mat by the very unparsimonious artifice of positing multiverses with infinitely varying physical properties.

    Nor does it require for interpretation “intelligent design”, a notion derived solely from the hearsay of superstitious mythology.

    A broad evolutionary model of the kind outlined in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” will suffice to account for these patterns on a straightforward empirical basis. At the expense of swallowing a few human conceits!
    The book is avaiable as free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website

  • enviroguy on 03.30.2012 at 12:42 pm

    Well, it is for sure we don’t know everything. If the term infinite applies to anything, then we know little to nothing at this point. All the theorizing is fun but a bit asinine.

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