Friday, February 1, 2008

Goldilocks Comes to Cosmology

"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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Anonymous said...

The allusion to us being in a room with no windows or doors made me think of a metaphor for a closed mind: a mind without spirit, willing to seek challenges or make changes. Then I thought about the inventors, astronauts who walked on the moon and two Star Trek Next Generation episodes which involved a moment in time. Alexander Graham Bell spilled acid on a wire which enabled Watson to hear his voice. Thomas Alva Edison used cotton sewing thread as a spark in making the electric light. Ignition trig­gered the engine and boosted Apollo 11 to the moon as a start for man's space explor­ation. In “All Good Things...” Jean Luc Picard traveled back to the past when the amino acids failed to unite in the cave. An earlier episode, Picard witnessed his future implode when he took an easy assignment, a less hazardous one, which changed his future and his inner spirit. All of these situations happened in a closed space, featured a particular moment and an Aha!. Now, I wonder, where would we be without the work taking place outside the box.

John Kotre said...

Thanks for these reminders. I hope I haven't mixed too many metaphors. "Outside the box," of course, refers to thinking that isn't conventional. "Outside the universe," well, I'm not sure what that means, which is the point I wanted to make. It comes up again in the next two articles in this series.

Anonymous said...

I love the "why" in the Goldilocks enigma, for a thinking human must ask even though, to me, there is no discernible answer. But to get to any point of any molecule or any human being, looking backwards, an also incredible numbers of heads needs to have all come up consecutively. So what's the point?

Moral of the porridge? All we can do is look backward in awe (and thanks if we like who we are for whom the porridge is just right).

Moral looking forward--avoid the bear's den, and step forward and shape wisely in this short, short time this, to us rather important, piece of the cosmos.

Live and love, and with Rilke, "Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day."


Anonymous said...

Ah! "To get to any point of any molecule or any human being, looking backwards, an also incredible numbers of heads needs to have all come up consecutively." I was at a convention in 1969, went up to a desk, and started talking to the guy standing next to me. One thing led to another, etc. ,etc., and now I look back and can say that had I walked up to that desk a minute sooner or a minute later my life would have been very different. The timing was "just right."

I guess the moral is that any outcome of any kind has overcome incredible odds.