This past Thursday evening I attended the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium. It’s a highfalutin name for either a very important or completely useless question, depending on who you ask. The audience in the package Leacock 132 lecture theatre, I would guess, consider it to be the former.

The topic was this: Why is the universe just right for life? There are various approaches one can take in an attempt to answer it. One speaker broke it down into three possibilities:

  1. The universe must be the way it is, and it’s just lucky that it supports life at all.
  2. There are an infinite number of universes, so one suitable for humans was bound to show up eventually.
  3. God did it.

The discussion largely ignored the third option, which was fine by me. As for the first two, though, there were some interesting points made. As many people see this question as being highly controversial, especially with you involve intelligent design, I found the most significant statement of the night to be “There is no controversy, only questions,” from Leonard Susskind.

Fine tuning of the universe is a significant part to the problem, and is often used as proof of intelligent design. One of the scientists on the panel (I forget which) made a good analogy to water. We often talk about how if ice were heavier than water (as is the case with most other substances) all the oceans and lakes would be frozen solid and life wouldn’t be able to survive here. Whether that’s true or not, it’s based on the idea that the densities are parameters we could have arbitrarily set. However, now that we have more knowledge of atomic physics than a hundred years ago, we can see that water and ice density is not an arbitrary parameter at all but a consequence of something more fudamental. Thus, it’s quite likely that the many arbitrary parameters people point to to claim fine tuning are just manifestations of something deeper that may yet be explained and nothing special at all.

Similarly, one panelist (either Susskind or David Gross) provided an example that two years before the discovery of DNA, someone published a paper proving that there was no way enough information could be coded in a cell to be passed on to create new generations. With a little more understanding this biological miracle isn’t so miraculous afterall. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the water molecule analogy is apt here as well, to explain the supposed irreducable complexity of biological systems. Yes, proteins and their functions are incredibly complicated, but it’s all just atoms and fundamental forces scrammbled together in chemical reactions. As Douglas Adams said of evolution, “We may never know precisely what steps life took in the very early stages of this planet, but it’s not a mystery.” No controversy, only questions.

However, I noticed a complete lack of addressing the question of (in the case of number two) where the infinite number of universe came from in the first place, or why, if there is a single unified theory (as implied by number one), it’s that particular unified theory and not some other. Well, Paul Davies did address it for a moment, but only to acknowledge the problem — that no matter which position you took there still seemed to be a appeal to something outside the universe.

It actually boils down to the question of why there’s something here at all and not nothing. A few weeks ago my dad posited at the dinner table that the most important question people ask themselves is “who am I?” or something of that ilk. My reply to that wasn’t a well formed philosophical question and nothing interesting could come from asking it. I still believe that. Interestingly, the response David Gross gave to the question “why is there something and not nothing?” was that it wasn’t a well formed physical question and nothing could come from asking it. “What is nothing?” he asked.

Originally, I posed that question as being much more important than simply “who am I?” and it probably is the biggest question there is, in a sense, but I realise that Professor Gross is right in his suggestion that there’s no point in thinking about it yet since it is so far outside the realm of what science can say. Perhaps sometime it will be within reach, but not today, and probably not for a long time.

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