Article — From the December 2011 issue

The Accidental Universe

Science’s crisis of faith

In the fifth century B.C., the philosopher Democritus proposed that all matter was made of tiny and indivisible atoms, which came in various sizes and textures—some hard and some soft, some smooth and some thorny. The atoms themselves were taken as givens. In the nineteenth century, scientists discovered that the chemical properties of atoms repeat periodically (and created the periodic table to reflect this fact), but the origins of such patterns remained mysterious. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that scientists learned that the properties of an atom are determined by the number and placement of its electrons, the subatomic particles that orbit its nucleus. And we now know that all atoms heavier than helium were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars.

The history of science can be viewed as the recasting of phenomena that were once thought to be accidents as phenomena that can be understood in terms of fundamental causes and principles. One can add to the list of the fully explained: the hue of the sky, the orbits of planets, the angle of the wake of a boat moving through a lake, the six-sided patterns of snowflakes, the weight of a flying bustard, the temperature of boiling water, the size of raindrops, the circular shape of the sun. All these phenomena and many more, once thought to have been fixed at the beginning of time or to be the result of random events thereafter, have been explained as necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature—laws discovered by human beings.

This long and appealing trend may be coming to an end. Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.

It is perhaps impossible to say how far apart the different universes may be, or whether they exist simultaneously in time. Some may have stars and galaxies like ours. Some may not. Some may be finite in size. Some may be infinite. Physicists call the totality of universes the “multiverse.” Alan Guth, a pioneer in cosmological thought, says that “the multiple-universe idea severely limits our hopes to understand the world from fundamental principles.” And the philosophical ethos of science is torn from its roots. As put to me recently by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg, a man as careful in his words as in his mathematical calculations, “We now find ourselves at a historic fork in the road we travel to understand the laws of nature. If the multiverse idea is correct, the style of fundamental physics will be radically changed.”

The scientists most distressed by Weinberg’s “fork in the road” are theoretical physicists. Theoretical physics is the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy, and religion. Experimental scientists occupy themselves with observing and measuring the cosmos, finding out what stuff exists, no matter how strange that stuff may be. Theoretical physicists, on the other hand, are not satisfied with observing the universe. They want to know why. They want to explain all the properties of the universe in terms of a few fundamental principles and parameters. These fundamental principles, in turn, lead to the “laws of nature,” which govern the behavior of all matter and energy. An example of a fundamental principle in physics, first proposed by Galileo in 1632 and extended by Einstein in 1905, is the following: All observers traveling at constant velocity relative to one another should witness identical laws of nature. From this principle, Einstein derived his theory of special relativity. An example of a fundamental parameter is the mass of an electron, considered one of the two dozen or so “elementary” particles of nature. As far as physicists are concerned, the fewer the fundamental principles and parameters, the better. The underlying hope and belief of this enterprise has always been that these basic principles are so restrictive that only one, self-consistent universe is possible, like a crossword puzzle with only one solution. That one universe would be, of course, the universe we live in. Theoretical physicists are Platonists. Until the past few years, they agreed that the entire universe, the one universe, is generated from a few mathematical truths and principles of symmetry, perhaps throwing in a handful of parameters like the mass of the electron. It seemed that we were closing in on a vision of our universe in which everything could be calculated, predicted, and understood.

However, two theories in physics, eternal inflation and string theory, now suggest that the same fundamental principles from which the laws of nature derive may lead to many different self-consistent universes, with many different properties. It is as if you walked into a shoe store, had your feet measured, and found that a size 5 would fit you, a size 8 would also fit, and a size 12 would fit equally well. Such wishy-washy results make theoretical physicists extremely unhappy. Evidently, the fundamental laws of nature do not pin down a single and unique universe. According to the current thinking of many physicists, we are living in one of a vast number of universes. We are living in an accidental universe. We are living in a universe uncalculable by science.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 6
Download Pdf
Share

More from Alan Lightman:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

  • WintersGale

    I find it interesting even as art follows the societal philosophy of a generation (or at times generations), what this author is articulating is that science is doing the same. Currently we are in the philosophical age of post-modernism (many think we are beginning to move out and into another phase philosophy). Post-modernism postulates there is no truth, that truth is subjective to the individual. If there is no truth then it follows there are no absolutes. (No absolutes is a self-defeating logic since the statement is itself an absolute.) The author unwittingly has told us that science is following the premise established in post-modernist thought. You’ll find that artist do the same, take a look at modern art and see how they have painted,… “there are not absolutes.”

  • Boris D.

    There is no “scientific” reason to be an atheist. As the evolutionary theory continues to fall apart, and our technology allows us to see that the “fine-tuning” on earth is too complex to be a mere accident, atheistic explantions become more and more ridiculous.
    They used to say it was extra-terestrials, but that begs the question, “Who created them?”
    Now this?? An infinite number of universes, of which there can never be any proof? Puh-leeze.
    Is the idea of a God that abhorrent to them that they grasping at these straws?
    Scientists scoff at the belief in a creator because of the blind faith it requires. They label people who believe in the Divine as toothless, ignorant Bible thumpers. Now their “theory” requires just as much, nay MORE, faith.

    P.S. Eat that, Bill Nye :)~

  • slorimer

    Near the beginning the author says;

    The underlying hope and belief of this enterprise has always been that these basic principles are so restrictive that only one, self-consistent universe is possible

    And later;

    Many of the fish, the theorists, hope to prove that the entire cosmos necessarily has to be filled with water.

    I wonder if these hopes are attributed by the author. It would seem hubristic and contrary to the idea of science to have a preferred answer in mind before we inquire. I imagine a scientist would be more excited to find something that contradicts what they expect than something that supports a preconceived idea.

    As Douglas Adams said;

    There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

  • Terry A Davis

    secrecies shrink transgression father eased stuff Please
    rescue infants rise troublesome mortified direction fabric
    CONSEQUENTIAL heavier rockstar Language god wittingly
    vote A deemed drive mould tookest Death bared weigh winding
    drowsiness partners returned supplied supporting govemed
    influences Carthaginian corrupt Wills tcosa10

  • Bg_Rdish

    Physics, even in its theoretical variety, has heretofore been a science. Armchair theorists can conceive a multitude of different ‘worlds’, but empiricism is still the ultimate arbiter between competing theoretical constructs. Now, if I understand the author correctly, he’s reporting that theoretical physicists are currently positing theories that don’t adhere to the traditional notion of causation and are immune to empirical falsification. If that’s the case, then theoretical physicists are no longer working in the realm of empirical science. They’ve transitioned from Platonism with respect to merely physical laws to full-fledged philosophy.

  • Hugh Beaumont

    We’re told that we are here by chance,
    There was no morning glory,
    But give me endless time and space,
    And I’ll pitch any story.

  • Rickard

    Thank you for the fair and even-handed representation of religious people and ID thinkers, it is really comforting. If more people took this fair approach (on both sides), maybe we could all get along much better and stop treating each other like dirt. This article has made me very happy.

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content