Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life
People have long gazed in wonder at the universe and asked, Why are we here? Until recently, the answer has been the province of priests and philosophers, but now scientists are starting to weigh in with ideas that are both surprising and deeply controversial. In his new book, physicist Paul Davies shows how recent scientific discoveries point to a perplexing fact: many basic features of the physical universe— from the speed of light to the most humble carbon atom—seem tailor-made to produce life. A radical new theory says it’s because our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes, each one slightly different. Our universe is bio-friendly by accident; we just happened to win the cosmic jackpot. While this multiverse theory is compelling, it has bizarre implications, from infinite copies of each of us to Matrix-like simulated universes. Davies believes there’s a more satisfying solution to the question of existence: the observations we make today could help shape the nature of reality in the remote past. If this is true, then life and, ultimately, consciousness aren’t just incidental byproducts of nature, but central players in the formation of the universe.
About the Author(s)
PAUL DAVIES is an internationally acclaimed physicist and cosmologist now at Arizona State University, where he is setting up a pioneering center for the "'study of life, the universe, and everything."' In addition to his many scientific awards, he is the recipient of the 1995 Templeton Prize—the world’s largest annual prize—for his work on science and religion. He is the author of more than twenty books, including "'The Mind of God,"' "'About Time,"' "'The Origin of Life,"' and "'How to Build a Time Machine."' He also chairs the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence postdetection committee, so that if SETI succeeds in finding intelligent life, he will be among the first to know. The asteroid 1992OG was officially renamed Pauldavies in his honor. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
Ambitious and absorbing, April 4, 2007
‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ is an ancient metaphysical riddle. Over the last half-century, a new question has emerged on top of this old conundrum – ‘why is that something (the universe), against an apparent astonishing level of odds, so structured that it (through the emergence of intelligent life) can ask such a question?’
Paul Davies certainly feels these questions not only need answering, but that both must be answered together. The self-consciousness of the universe for him, is not the anthropocentric trivia that it has historically been relegated to by cosmologists and physicists.
In this typically clear and engaging tour of the increasingly wacky frontiers of contemporary science, Davis seems almost trying to present a reductio ad absurdum argument to convince us of his case. Rather than accept that life must in some way be central to the universe, it seems that the best scientific minds available would have us believe in an infinity of universes, our almost unique one favourable for life being of course the one we find ourselves in (the anthropic observer effect). But this leads to even greater head spinning conclusions, such as that it would be statistically more likely that our universe is a computer simulation running in one of these multitude of ‘real’ cosmoses. Here, scientific theory becomes as non-testable as religious claims of an intelligent designer for the universe, and applying Occam’s razor rule of simplicity would seem to suggest that in fact religious belief is more rational than modern cosmology. This, however, is not something the author does, rather settling on speculation as to how the apparent intrinsic nature of life in our universe may require that any future ‘theory of everything’ must link consciousness, the physical laws of the universe, and the creation of the universe itself, together in some way we can only make rather wild guesses at now.
I enjoyed this book a great deal, there is no doubt that the goldilocks enigma does need explaining, and Davis brings out the utter weirdness of all current attempts to either solve it or explain it away. Whether we can dismiss the multiverse arguments so easily, unsatisfying as they may be is another matter. One of my former philosophy lectures, David Papinau, reviewing this book in the Independent, pointed out that Davies seems at one key part of the book to fall back on the argument that the multiverse universe doesn’t explain why there are any universes at all, when the point of the book is to explain why our universe is seemingly so set up for the possibility of life. But clearly Davis is attempting to reconcile the two questions I introduced at the beginning of this review – making consciousness something fundamental to the universe may (highly speculatively) explain both why the universe is so incredibly structured to enable its own self-awareness and to explain the very fact of the universe itself.
Such speculation will of course give some comfort to those who are unable to share Richard Dawkin’s scientific reverence for a cold, blind and accidental universe. Others may shudder that some of the world’s greatest thinkers are taking seriously again the idea that this world of suffering and evils may in some way have been intentioned after all. Either way, this is a must read for anyone interested in the big questions of existence.