NPR logo Why Is The Universe Complex? Broken Symmetries, Information, Energy, Work

Why Is The Universe Complex? Broken Symmetries, Information, Energy, Work

A note: By accident, the present post should have been posted last week, and last week's post should have been posted today.  It may be useful to read the present post, and then, should you wish, read last week's post and my comments there for increased, I hope, clarity. — S. Kauffman

The universe is vastly complex. In my previous blog I pointed out that the fine tuning of the 23 constants of nature in the Standard Model and General Relativity were, perhaps, a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for our universe to have become complex.

We have no adequate theory for why our universe is complex. Indeed, I will say that we can have no such complete theory.  But we can link fragments that may grow in time to a more integrated web of theory and observation.

To begin at the beginning, assuming the Big Bang. The universe started extremely hot, dense, and essentially uniform, or isotropic.  Perhaps all four forces, Electro-Magnetic, Weak, Strong and Gravity really were united into a single unified force.  A first essential to a complex universe is that it expanded and cooled.  By cooling symmetries can be broken. Probably the first ones to be broken were those separating the four forces.  If we accept Inflation in the very early universe, exponentially rapid expansion of early space solves the problem of why regions out of causal contact with one another due to the finite speed of light, and causal contact, are essentially uniform - the famous Horizon problem.  Quantum fluctuations just before that Inflation are believed to lead to the 1/10,000 inhomogenieties in mass density that later congeled into first generation stars and galaxies that outlive their stars.  Supernovae in some stars, and the nuclear reactions from hydrogen to all the heavier elements created the atomic distribution of atomic species in the universe.

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Eric Chaisson’s Cosmic Evolution is a wonderful discussion of these processes.  And in the last blog I noted his view, well supported, that the energy density per gram universe per second has increased over the course of cosmic, biological and cultural evolution.  Energy per unit time is a “power”, so the power density per gram universe has gone up.  A deep issue is how can this have happened? What would be a prototheory to account for this?

At present, I can only glimmer fragments. I hope they will build, either in these blogs or beyond, usefully.

I begin with the precient, brilliant insight of Schrodinger in “What is Life”, 1944, and before Shannon and Kolmogorov begat Information theory. Neither Shannon nor Kolmogorov tell us what information IS, only how much of it we have, where information came from in the evolution of the universe, nor what the semantics of that information is.  All this disembodied information appears deeply mysterious, along with matter and energy.  I think Shannon and Kolmogorov, brilliant, boarded the wrong boat.

Schrodinger wondered at the stability of life and the character of the gene. It had to be based on quantum mechanics, for the statistics of ink diffusing in a petri plate would not account for the heritable stability of life.  So genes must be “solids”.  Then Schrodinger lept: The gene would not be a “periodic crystal”. “Too dull”, is all he says. “Rather, the gene will be an “aperiodic crystal that contains a microcode for the organism.”  How very right: DNA is exactly such an aperiodic crystal and contains, with the rest of the cell, a microcode for the organism.

Two immediate features of Schrodinger’s wonderful guess are of interest to me:


  1. The microcode is EMBODIED in the organism as a whole and BUILDS, in general, another organism, bacterium or fruit fly. Building requires real physical WORK to be done. Note that Shannon’s Information theory and Kolmogrov’s information theory are utterly devoid of information coming into existence, embodiment, or work. Nothing is built.
  2. The aperiodic crystal contains a high diversity of microconstraints which are boundary conditions that ENABLE a HIGH DIVERSITY OF ORGANIZED PROCESSES  to happen in the universe.


In make my own leap, I claim that information IS such constraints that enable a diversity of organized processes to occur, and the simple “semantics” of the contraint is the process it enables.  (Once we get to life and natural selection, the semantics will become the coordinated specific diversity of organized processes enabling life to propagate and improve by natural selection.  The “semantics” broadens out to be the biological function of a given constraint enabled organized process.

Next, step: Where to asymmetric crystals and other things come from? By breaking symmetries. The universe started highly symmetric. So for assymetries to arise, those initial symmetries must have been, and even today, continue to be broken.

I want next to show that broken symmetries, absolutely natural in physics, biology, economics, cultural evolution, can arise spontaneously, and become new sources of free energy by which work can be done. But work per unit time is power hence a first step to Chaisson’s increasing power density per gram universe over time.

I consider (again, see earlier blogs) two simple cases:

  1. Consider a hollow metal sphere containing an ideal gas in free space, a closed thermodynamic system. It can do no work.  It is symmetric in the density distribution of the gas, except for square root N fluctuations, where N is the number of gas particles. Now (magically) partition the sphere with a rubber membrane into two half spheres. The symmetry is now BROKEN. But also, by chance, thanks to the square root N fluctuations, the pressure on one side of the sphere will be higher than on the other side, so will push into the less dense half of the membrane partitioned sphere. “Work”, good old fashioned physical work, has been done on the membrane and the gas in the newly compressed half of the membrane partitioned sphere. So: breaking a symmetry imposed a constraint, the membrane, which became a boundary condition, which enabled work to be done.  All of these seem to go together: break a symmetry, by human hand, or spontaneously, as below, and a constraint comes into existence, becomes an embodied boundary condition that enables work to be done.
  2. Second example. Consider a verticle wooden pole on a horizontal wooden surface. The pole has the full rotational symmetry of the plane, 360 degrees. By a fluctuation, even a quantum fluctuation, the pole may topple over, breaking that symmetry and “picking a direction” on the plane.  But now the pole on the plane is also a boundary condition. Watch. It rains ( another broken symmetry), water gathers on the horizontal surface. By surface tension afforded by the wooden pole, the water “rills up” along the surface of the pole above the water level on the horizontal surface. The now horizontal pole is a boundary condition and a new source of free energy, for the surface tension does WORK to lift the water against a gravitational potential up along the wooden pole’s surface above the level of the water above the horizontal plane.

In both cases, breaking a symmetry has provided a new boundary condition which constitutes embodied information that enables a specific organized process to occur, and simultaneously supplies the energy per unit time, ie power, to do the work (per unit time = power) embodied in that specific process.

I think we have a huge clue in the above.

A further comment: What is work? Not just force acting through a distance, but the constrained release of energy into a few degrees of freedom. Both examples above show this.  So too does a cylinder and a piston with hot working gas in the cylinder head. The hot gas “tries” to expand in all directions, but is constrained by the cylinder and piston, the boundary conditions, to release energy only into the translational motion of the piston, a constrained release of energy that then constitutes work.  But what are the constraints?  The cylinder and piston. Where did they come from since the Big Bang?  Well, it took WORK to build the cylinder and piston and assemble them. So it takes work to make constraints (boundary conditions and thereby embodied information) on the release of energy that then constitutes MORE WORK.

Finally, note: There is no “law” for how the pole will fall.  If a quantum event toppled the pole, its direction is essentially random.  In future blogs I hope to explore whether there is a cascade of broken symmetries, all lawless in detail, which affords a cascading increase in the number of ways yet more symmetries can be broken, as in the evolution of the biosphere, such that the “Adjacent Possible” grows in dimensionality and what can arise next increases in diversity - perhaps the constructive creativity of the universe.  If the above is correct, the complexification of the universe is not to be understood as entailed deductively and logically by a Theory of Everything, for much is history and lawless.

You will find none of the above in the physics texts. But you will find it all over the growing complexity and, later, energy density, of the universe.