Article — From the December 2011 issue

The Accidental Universe

Science’s crisis of faith

( 5 of 6 )

The concept of the multiverse is compelling not only because it explains the problem of fine-tuning. As I mentioned earlier, the possibility of the multiverse is actually predicted by modern theories of physics. One such theory, called eternal inflation, is a revision of Guth’s inflation theory developed by Andrei Linde, Paul Steinhardt, and Alex Vilenkin in the early and mid-1980s. In regular inflation theory, the very rapid expansion of the infant universe is caused by an energy field, like dark energy, that is temporarily trapped in a condition that does not represent the lowest possible energy for the universe as a whole—like a marble sitting in a small dent on a table. The marble can stay there, but if it is jostled it will roll out of the dent, roll across the table, and then fall to the floor (which represents the lowest possible energy level). In the theory of eternal inflation, the dark energy field has many different values at different points of space, analogous to lots of marbles sitting in lots of dents on the cosmic table. Moreover, as space expands rapidly, the number of marbles increases. Each of these marbles is jostled by the random processes inherent in quantum mechanics, and some of the marbles will begin rolling across the table and onto the floor. Each marble starts a new Big Bang, essentially a new universe. Thus, the original, rapidly expanding universe spawns a multitude of new universes, in a never-ending process.

String theory, too, predicts the possibility of the multiverse. Originally conceived in the late 1960s as a theory of the strong nuclear force but soon enlarged far beyond that ambition, string theory postulates that the smallest constituents of matter are not subatomic particles like the electron but extremely tiny one-dimensional “strings” of energy. These elemental strings can vibrate at different frequencies, like the strings of a violin, and the different modes of vibration correspond to different fundamental particles and forces. String theories typically require seven dimensions of space in addition to the usual three, which are compacted down to such small sizes that we never experience them, like a three-dimensional garden hose that appears as a one-dimensional line when seen from a great distance. There are, in fact, a vast number of ways that the extra dimensions in string theory can be folded up, and each of the different ways corresponds to a different universe with different physical properties.

It was originally hoped that from a theory of these strings, with very few additional parameters, physicists would be able to explain all the forces and particles of nature—all of reality would be a manifestation of the vibrations of elemental strings. String theory would then be the ultimate realization of the Platonic ideal of a fully explicable cosmos. In the past few years, however, physicists have discovered that string theory predicts not a unique universe but a huge number of possible universes with different properties. It has been estimated that the “string landscape” contains 10500 different possible universes. For all practical purposes, that number is infinite.

It is important to point out that neither eternal inflation nor string theory has anywhere near the experimental support of many previous theories in physics, such as special relativity or quantum electrodynamics, mentioned earlier. Eternal inflation or string theory, or both, could turn out to be wrong. However, some of the world’s leading physicists have devoted their careers to the study of these two theories.

is a physicist and novelist who teaches at MIT. His novel <em>Mr g: A Novel About the Creation</em> was published in January 2012 by Pantheon.

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  • 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 :)~

    • Jose Hawkins

      For me, a God, gods or no god and whether or not there is an after life isn’t abhorrent, but rather the nature of religion, especially the judeo/christan interpretation. For some reason, people love to compare apples and oranges as if they are the same. No, I’m fine with the existence of God, gods or no god so long as we treat each other, all life and this planet decently.

  • 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.

    • southern feminist

      Thank you, and I concur. I am not a physicist, but I am a historian and can say the following: religion and the existence of god was used before science ever came into being. all cultures use stories of “origination”, and frankly, many of them are similar (another discussion all together). Funny that Galileo is used to support his notion or contemplation of ID given that Galileo was tortured by the church for openly opposing the church’s position on cosmology, and they branded him a heretic. Also, the Catholic school I was lucky enough to attend was very progressive and forward thinking. Father McDevitt told me, when I questioned him about populating the world via incest twice (adam and eve, then noah) that these were merely stories of creation, not scientific fact. I have long since given up my relationship with religion, because 1) there is no god, and 2) if there is he/she/it is not all powerful and all good, or he/she/it is a blatant jackass that enjoys watching the innocent suffer.

      Summarily, regardless of anyone’s personal belief system, or lack thereof, religion should definitely be kept to the private sphere….because of the obvious

  • 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.

  • John_QPublic

    “The Principle” is a documentary that puts all this into perspective. bit.ly/1f9zCdk

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