"Listen to this. Space and time shoot out from a point. In a matter of seconds, a universe is formed. It expands and expands. And then, in some remote corner, it drops a speck of consciousness. It spills a little subjectivity. A touch of soul. Weird, eh?" (from The Story of Everything, Ch. 25)
You know the tale. A little girl is walking in the woods and comes upon a house. She knocks on the door but gets no answer, so she walks in and looks around. On the kitchen table she finds three bowls of porridge. One is too hot for her taste, one is too cold, but the third is just right. In another room she tries out the chairs. A couple are too big, but again, one is just right. Then it's the beds--one too hard, one too soft, one just right. In fact, the third bed is so right that the little girl falls asleep in it, her tummy full of porridge.
You may know the story of Goldilocks, but you may not know that it's found a home in cosmology. That's because theoreticians are struck by a weird coincidence: the initial state of the universe, nearly 14 billion years ago, was also just right--just right for us, that is. It was just right to produce observers of the universe long after its beginning. Just right to "drop a speck of consciousness." Had the value of any physical constants been off by a hair, we would not be around.
For the record, this coincidence is usually called the anthropic principle, although the man who coined the term, theoretical physicist Brandon Carter, later regretted it. Early treatments of the subject include Carter's own, which suggested that the basic laws of the universe were fine tuned for life, Martin Rees's Just Six Numbers, and The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tipler. Recent treatments include Paul Davies' Cosmic Jackpot and God's Universe by Owen Gingerich. It's Davies who likes to talk about the "Goldilocks enigma."
What was so finely tuned in the beginning? Energy from the Big Bang, to start with. Had it been greater, matter would have rushed apart too fast for stars and galaxies to form. Had it been less, gravity would have pulled the matter back and the universe would have collapsed. "If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size," wrote Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. The rate had to be that precise . . . and it was.
The list of coincidences can get pretty long. The speed of light was precisely right. So were the strengths of the "fundamental" forces--gravity, electromagnetism, and two confined to the nuclei of atoms. Had any been off by 1 or 2%, we would not be here. According to Davies, the "biggest fix" of all involves dark energy, the name given to whatever drives galaxies apart at an accelerating rate. The odds of its value being just right? Four hundred flips of a coin. If you want a universe that produces us, he says, they all have to come up heads.
And they did. Why? That's the Goldilocks enigma.
I wonder what was in Goldilocks' mind when she first looked around the house she had found. Did she think that someone had cooked the porridge just for her? And what about us? Should we think that someone has cooked the books on our behalf?
The internet is full of travelers discussing this question. But no one has made the trip with Goldilocks, as I will do in the weeks ahead. Her story, the whole of it, has something to offer. Goldilocks has been outside her just-right house. She was, in fact, born there. Not us. We were born inside the universe, we grew up inside, and we remain there. There are no windows in this house of ours. There are no doors. We don't even know if our universe has an outside.
Point of view matters in this enigma. It helps to think "outside the box," but in this case we're in the box and can't get out. Standing where we are--and with no windows--we ask, why are we at home in this cosmos of ours? Why do we find those settings on the dials? And what about the porridge?
P.S. For a short version of the Goldilocks story, click here. For a longer version, with history, annotations and variants, click here. For a theologian's view of the anthropic principle, try this by Nancey Murphy; it's from The Global Spiral, an e-publication of Metanexus Institute.
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