How Did the Universe Become 'Just Right'? Why did our universe develop in such a way that we can exist? Was it by accident or by design? And is that a question science can answer? Writer, physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies discusses his theories on how the universe came to be such a perfect environment for life.
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How Did the Universe Become 'Just Right'?

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How Did the Universe Become 'Just Right'?

How Did the Universe Become 'Just Right'?

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Up next, how did the universe come into existence in the balance that allows for a life? Scientists have been pondering this question for years. Some say it started as a Big Bang, others talk about quantum fluctuations, others say it exists because we're here to observe it.

My next guest has pondered these questions and offers his own musings. Paul Davies says perhaps, things we do today and in the future can actually go back in time from the future - travel back and influence the very distant past and the structure of our universe.

His new book is called "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for life." He's also a professor at Arizona State University and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. And he joins us from KJZZ in Arizona.

Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Davies.

Dr. PAUL DAVIES (Author, "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life"; Director, Beyond Center for Fundamental Sciences): Thank you. Good afternoon.

FLATOW: What brought on this idea of talking about a new book?

Dr. DAVIES: Well, I was struck by the fact that the multiverse theory of the universe was gaining a lot of momentum a few years ago. And this multiverse theory says that the reason the universe seems to be just right for life, almost like a fix, is because there isn't just one universe. There's a vast ensemble of them out there somewhere. And the laws of physics, what we thought were the laws, are really just more like local bylaws, differing in different patches. And so, getting it just right for life would be a very rare thing, but it would be only in those universes where there would be observers. And I thought this was a bit of a cop out. So that was the main motivation for writing this book. I wanted to have a really good critical look at this very popular multiverse theory.

FLATOW: But you have come up with some, really, new ideas. I think new ideas to me and for mostly other readers and your ideas that you have been thinking about for years.

Dr. DAVIES: Right.

FLATOW: And you've argued that a good case - I'm going to read it right from the book - a good case can be made that life and mind are fundamental physical phenomena and so must be incorporated into the overall cosmic scheme. Life and mind…

Dr. DAVIES: Yes.

FLATOW: …we don't think about that as running the universe.

Dr. DAVIES: Well, you see, it's true that most scientists regard life as just some quirky, little embellishment that's added on to the universe as an afterthought, just something that happened in the funny, little corner of the universe, end of story. And when it comes to mind, a similar thing - just a weird aberration, an odd phenomenon of no fundamental significance. And I've always thought that this is deeply wrong, that life and, eventually, mind are fundamental features of the universe, fundamental in the same sense that the elementary particles of fundamental or the dimensions of space are fundamental.

So they play a deep role. And one of the reasons that that idea was reinforced is because if the universe had any old rag bag of laws, if I gave you the task of designers of universe, you'd make a hash of it. And you've got a universe in which almost certainly, there could be no life. The one we're in is fine-tuned for life, there's no real disagreement about that. Where we start scrubbing is over where the explanation is.

I take the reason for the fine-tuning to be that life itself and consciousness - the existence of conscious beings - is deeply fundamental to the great overall scheme of things. And any attempt to explain existence, the ultimate explanation of existence at a really basic level has to incorporate life and mind in a basic way and not just sort of throw them in as a lucky bonus or something.

FLATOW: Talking with Paul Davies, author of "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life" on TALK OF THE NATION: Science Friday from NPR News.

Are you saying then that the universe exists because there are lives and minds out there?

D. DAVIES: Well, I wouldn't really call it like that. What I would say is the following. That the universe has engineered its own self-awareness, it hasn't been imprinted on it from without and it's not the result of just some, you know, winning the cosmic jackpot - to use the title of the book. It's isn't that there's a squillion number of universes out there and they're all random, and just here and there you're bound to get it just right for life.

I think that life and mind and the universe and the laws that bring it into being or mutually explanatory, that is that they form part of a single explanatory scheme. Now, the traditional way of looking at the laws of physics are that they are sort of stomped on the universe by magic like the Maker's mouth at the time of the Big Bang and that they are basically perfect mathematical statements that exist in some other worldly realm, exact relationships that just happen to exist for reasons we know not what.

And they're plunked on the universe and we're stuck with them. They're amusively eternal, transcendent laws. And I think that's a bogus idea. I think it's an idea that derives originally from theology, from monotheistic theology, the idea of a created world order and a rational plan. I don't think of the laws of physics like that, I think of them as more like software being run on the great cosmic machine, the great cosmic computer we call the universe, and so that that the laws are inherent in the universe and emergent with it.

And so I think that life and the laws and the observers are all part of a common package. And I come - in the book, I suggest a mechanism whereby the existence of life and observers can, as it were, react back on the universe and engineer the very laws that are necessary for that to hold together itself consistency.

FLATOW: But that would mean - and you explained this on your book - that people would have to travel back in time to create those laws.

Dr. DAVIES: We're all expressing it in much more of a dramatic manner. People certainly don't travel back in time.


Dr. DAVIES: And it's important to realize that you can't change the past or send information back in the past. But we've known for over 50 years that this notion of a unique past is in any case a fiction. The idea that there was a particular state of the time of the Big Bang and it's connected by a unique part in history to the present moment went out the window with quantum physics. Quantum mechanics, which has uncertainty at it's half, tells us not only that the future is uncertain, the past is uncertain as well.

FLATOW: Going to go to break and we'll come back and talk a little bit more with Paul Davies, author of "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life."

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Talking with Paul Davies, author of "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life." There are so many ideas in this book, this tremendous book.

Dr. Davies begins the book by giving a terrific recap of where we stand in our knowledge about the universe, and then he goes further and speculates about why the universe is the way it is. And he talks about the universe and mind become one in the far, far future. And he talks about how the knowledge will spread out through the universe and meld and - the mind will meld with the universe and actually be able to change what happened beforehand.

Would that be right, Dr. Davies, what I'm talking…

Dr. DAVIES: Everything except the word change.


Dr. DAVIES: Because this is quantum physics. This is why we need your (unintelligible) to come back. You have to help us out, because, you know, quantum physics is this weird wonderland.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DAVIES: And Einstein spoke about spooky action at a distance.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DAVIES: It's one of his famous phrases. And what he meant is that in quantum physics, you can reach across the universe, two particles that might be millions of light years apart, are somehow still subtly linked in a way that what happens to one concerns what happens to the other. But you can never use manipulation to one particle to change the other one. That they're deeply correlated it in a way that makes no sense in daily life.

Well, this ghostly action at a distance can be - with a simple change of reference frame - turned into ghostly action back in time. What it means is what we do today, what human beings choose to measure - or it doesn't have to be not human beings, it can be some experimental setup in the lab, but what gets measured today affects the nature of reality as it was in the distant past. This is not in dispute. It sounds like a really amazing dramatic claim.


Dr. DAVIES: This is not new. There are experiments you can do in the lab and it's all correct. It's part and parcel of standard quantum physics. And Stephen Hawking has written about this very recently, in which he says, it's a mistake to think of them being a unique path, you must think of the present state of the universe or the quantum level as an amalgam of all the different histories. It's often called the many histories - a few of quantum mechanics or the different possible histories in the past.

And what we choose to measure today, the existence of observers and so on, will, to some limited extent, affect which history is going to that amalgam and which don't.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. DAVIES: But, of course, we're only at the start of the great cosmic journey, as you've pointed out, that in the trillions of years for the rest ahead, we can imagine that life and conscious beings will spread out across the cosmos, certainly from Earth, but maybe from other planets, too. And eventually, these - what John Wheeler called acts of observer-participancy, will saturate the universe.

So these ideas, although they seem very radical, actually are not that new. John Wheeler, he who coined the term black hole…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DAVIES: …was suggesting ideas like this about 30 years ago. What I've done is to try to flesh them out and find a real physical mechanism to make them work.

FLATOW: But you've also brought them backwards a little bit more in time, at least the public idea about them.

Dr. DAVIES: I think this notion that what happens in the universe now is relevant to the past, sounds dramatic and revolutionary. Well, I keep emphasizing that it's actually…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DAVIES: …implicit already in quantum physics, which is pretty weird. Weird things happen in quantum physics. And that's the hook, if you like, that can link life and mind with the universe, which back in the first split-second, if laws were only just sort of congealing, so to speak, how to determine the Big Bang. And that's the way in which those laws can zero in on the bio-friendly set that we're so mystified about. That's how they got bio-friendly.

FLATOW: I see. Let's go to David(ph) in Muncie, Indiana. Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. I don't have a background in science, but I do have some interest in, like, philosophy of science and philosophy of origin. Obviously, I haven't read your book and I'll just be commenting on - based on what I've heard so far.

But when you were talking about mind and life as fundamental parts of the universe, like fundamental particles in the taking - sort of a departure from, like a traditional view, like a materialist or physicalist view of the world where those things would be saved, emergent properties or something, it occurred to me that it - it's somewhat like creationists who are, sort of, presupposing a - you know, a creator and then saying, well, this is the way that the process has worked, but that there was a motivating force behind it or that maybe there's a conflation between theology and science, like maybe (unintelligible) or something like that. And I can't help wondering if there's a blurring of the lines between science and something else, maybe theology or something else.

Dr. DAVIES: Well, in one sense, you couldn't be more wrong because this is an attempt to explain the universe - why it exists, why it has the laws it does or why life and mind exist from entirely within the universe, because one of the things I want to do is get away from the notion that somehow this magic has been imprinted on the universe from without. Instead of appealing to something outside like a god or some set of laws that just happens to exist conveniently, I want to try and explain everything scientifically from within, so it's the exact opposite of what you were suggesting.

But if you're saying that in revisiting these topics, like how did the universe come to exist? What is the place of human beings in the great scheme? Are we trespassing on territory previously occupied by priests and philosophers? Well, then yes, of course. Any attempt to grapple with the deep discretions of existence is going to stray across that line that formerly was the province of philosophy. It's now becoming part of science and I'm taking a thoroughly scientific view of how to explain these things. So I would say that I disagree with your earlier sentiment. And one other thing to say…

DAVID: I understand that the physical constants, they're not something which sort arbitrarily occurred, but they're a product of life or mind?

Dr. DAVIES: The - what I'm saying is that these physical constants which have to be fine-tuned in order for there to be life…

DAVID: Right.

Dr. DAVIES: …these are - when the universe came into existence, these were not nailed down with that is that we have now. They were - some are fuzzy and unfocused. And the way in which they focused in on the bio-friendly set is connected with the very existence of observing beings who appear billions of years later through this quantum feedback loop which John Wheeler explicated in its original form about 30 years ago, and I've tried to develop this now. So that's the link that takes us from…

DAVID: Is it cause-and-effect relationship?

Dr. DAVIES: Well, you have to be really careful in quantum physics with cause-and-effect…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DAVIES: …you know, what they are in daily life, but in some sense, it is. It's more of a consistency.

FLATOW: David, you know, the attempt on the mistake I made before in using the word, you know, change something that happened earlier is the trap that you - we're both falling into. You're saying that, you know, by influencing -listening to Dr. Davies talking about the humans influencing the direction the universe takes, you're saying that we can go back and influence what happened or where there's a direct link but there's isn't. It's a spooky action that's really hard to understand. And I certainly don't understand all of it and…

DAVID: Well, I guess what I had in my mind was that if the proposition is the minds or the lives have been the feature which - maybe causes isn't the right word - but which had an end product such that the universe have the particular set of features that it had, then it seems that in a way that's like positing a creator.

Dr. DAVIES: Why is that? Because the universe is engineering then self-awareness. Otherwise, you're stuck with the notion that something outside the universe has engineered it, but what is that? You know, I'll just turn it around. What is that going to be? That's either going to be a pre-existing designer God or some magical set of laws or something outside the universe. I want it to all be done from within inside and so the universe engineers its own self-awareness.

DAVID: But if with the - what you call the magical set of laws, those are laws which are observable. And if they're observable, then that seems like it's a proper thing to have as part of science. If…

Dr. DAVIES: Yeah, but where did they come from? That's the point. You're saying that they got imprinted on the universe like the Maker's mark by some external agency at the time of the Big Bang? You see I don't buy that because that is appealing to some creator being outside the universe.

FLATOW: So you're saying the universe is self-contained and self-changing within itself?

Dr. DAVIES: And self-explanatory. Exactly. It's…

FLATOW: And self-explanatory and…

Dr. DAVIES: It's an attempt to get everything out of the common explanatory package instead of just shoving it off outside the universe, oh, well, God did it. Oh, well, some magical set of laws just happened to exist or there's an infinite number of unseen universe. I want to do it all from within the universe.

FLATOW: And if there were not intelligent beings here, would the universe exist?

Dr. DAVIES: That's a deep philosophical question that you have to make up your mind about. Does something that can never even, in principle, be observed, can it really be said to exist? Some people think yes. Some people think no. It depends on your philosophical stance. I keep changing my mind though.

FLATOW: I was going to ask you that - does your head swim sometimes as much as mine does at this moment and as much as our listeners do, trying to understand this?

Dr. DAVIES: Dealing with the deepest questions of existence is always challenging. And what I said at the end of the book, incidentally, because some of this stuff sounds just plain wacky, is that everybody's theory of the universe is plain wacky. You know what have we got? There's an unexplained God that just did it - how nice. There's a set of physical laws that just happened to be right for life and so on - well, how convenient. There's an infinite number of universes we can never see even in principle. Well, you know, what (unintelligible)? They all seem totally crazy if you're dealing with the deepest questions of existence. Everything is going to seem bizarre. And I reckon what I'm offering is the least crazy of the lot, but it still sounds pretty wacky.

FLATOW: I think it was John Wheeler, I remember interviewing him many years ago, was saying, oh, maybe he was quoting Einstein in saying the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.

Dr. DAVIES: Right. And this is a big point because human beings are not just observers. It's not like, you know, we're selecting our place in the universe because we just happened to be here observing it, we can understand it, too. It's comprehensible to us. And that's why I think there is this deep link but I don't think that mind is just a trivial little embellishment because why do we have to understand the universe? That suggests that our minds are linked in to the workings of the universe in a very deep way and that's why I say fundamental. Not fundamental in some sort of there are some spirit or anything like that, you know, just sort of pasted on, that's not what I meant. The first caller seemed to misunderstand that.


Dr. DAVIES: I mean, fundamental in the sense of cosmic significance, that the workings of the universe as a whole requires to understand it.

FLATOW: But you know when you talk to scientists - and I've talked to many of them - they all sway, they stay away from the question of why the universe seems strangely suited that way.

Dr. DAVIES: Yeah, they don't like it because it makes them feel very uncomfortable. I've just run through the alternatives on (unintelligible) that you appeal to some external God who's unexplained - well, scientists don't like that. That there's an infinite number of universes - well, they don't like that because it's just that theories of physics permit an infinite number of alternative realities and they'd rather just describe this reality.

And they, generally speaking, feel very uncomfortable with the idea of bringing observers into the picture because physicists, traditionally, have tried to ignore mind - life and mind. They feel the very essence of physics is to be objective that everyone can agree, doesn't matter how the observer is moving, what their stance is, it will all agree to a common set of results.

But at some stage, we must incorporate consciousness - or mind, if you like -into our description of the physical universe in a totally non-mystical way. The moment it's like sort of added on as an extra, most physicists try not to think about it, but they think about it as being sort of something else. I would like to see an understanding of the conscious mind thoroughly integrated into physics, which means finding mechanisms that explain conscious experiences and how those experiences react back on the universe. And quantum physics, by general consent, seems to be the best way of getting at that connection.

FLATOW: Talking with Paul Davies, author of "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life" on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, a truly fascinating book in concept.

So you're wrestling with this, you put out this idea, and you're still working it out in your own mind.

Dr. DAVIES: Yes, I mentioned that the gem of this idea of somehow the universe explaining itself and the existence of observers reacting back on the universe to make it bio-friendly, that idea was - put out by John Archibald Wheeler, he of the black hole fame about 30 years ago, but he called it an idea for an idea. He didn't develop it beyond thinking that quantum physics will be the way to bring about this connection.

What I've been trying to do is to take this step further. How is it the case that the laws of physics are malleable in this way? You know, mostly you think that they're just sort of absolute fixed universal laws precisely now down from the get-go. But indeed, there is a way with our further understanding now of the nature of black holes, the nature of (unintelligible) in cosmology and understanding of how the laws of physics could be malleable, could be flexible, flexi-laws is what Stephen Hawking calls it. And so these flexi-laws of flexi history is just what we need to bring about this sort self-consistent explanatory loop.

FLATOW: Well, if we have - if 75 percent of the universe, the dark energy, we have no idea what it is.

Dr. DAVIES: Right. Well, we have an idea, there's plenty of theories. But the…


(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DAVIES: I've never been too troubled by this.

FLATOW: You're not troubled that we don't know - or we have theories but, you know, it's just mysterious.

Dr. DAVIES: I think it's exciting to contemplate and the lion's share comes from the circle of dark energy, the thing that's making the universe…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. DAVIES: …accelerate, spin faster and faster. And this dark energy at the moment is indistinguishable from the quantum vacuums - we're back to the dready(ph) quantum again. Quantum physics tells us that empty space should have a weird type of energy that would have an anti-gravity effect. And I've worked on that quantum vacuum, the gravity of the quantum vacuum for most of my career so I had a soft spot for it. The only problem is that when you put the numbers in, it's famously 120 pounds (unintelligible) that we get out of the theories. So, you know, nice try, but we got to get that number down from that.

FLATOW: I have 30 seconds, just to ask you, Dr. Davies, do we need new physics? Will the physics we have explain what you're trying to describe?

Dr. DAVIES: No. We need something new and in particular, we need something that will bring the laws of physics themselves within the scope of science.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And there's the search. And I want to thank you very much, Paul Davies, for taking time to talk with us and continue the great work in tweaking our minds to think.

Dr. DAVIES: It's been great fun. Thanks.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Paul Davies is author of "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life." A terrific read, I highly recommend it. It's really thought-provoking. You're going to take some time to spend with this book.

If you like to write us, please send your letters to Science Friday, 4 West 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York 10036. Also surf over to our Web site, it's where we're podcasting and blogging and also you can find more information about the program.

Have a great holiday weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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