Friday, February 22, 2008

You Call This Friendly?

listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go
(e.e. cummings)

Let's do the math. Two bowls of porridge were wrong for Goldilocks. Two chairs were wrong, and so were two of the beds. I forgot . . . when Goldilocks sat in Baby Bear's chair, it broke. Put that chair in the "wrong" column too, making Goldilocks two for nine. Only 22% of the house she found in the woods was right for her.

How much of the cosmos is right for us? How much is wrong? You can do the math or just take a walk in space, no equipment allowed. The math would go like this. Calculate the amount of space in the universe. Calculate how much is occupied by creatures like us, or observers of any kind (SETI is having a hard time finding them). Divide the latter by the former. You'd get one of those astronomical numbers. A decimal point followed by lines of zeroes, then a 1, then the % sign. An unprotected walk in space would make the same point. It's not a "bio-friendly" universe.

Yet that's the term cosmologists use, whether they think there's a Who outside or many whats. Midway through the Goldilocks enigma--I'm still flying by the seat of my pants--I want to think about that. I want to think about words like "just right" and "benevolent." Theoretical cosmology is mathematical, and its practitioners are really smart guys, but at some point they use language--my language--and that's where I'm entitled to a say. Here are some reflections.

1. The initial conditions of the universe were just right for lots of things. They were just right for toothpaste and barges and YouTube and lower interest rates. If you're going to talk about an "anthropic" principle, said Carl Sagan, you should talk about a "lithic" principle as well, since the initial conditions of the universe were perfectly right for stones. Take any outcome of any kind, dig into its history, and of course its origins will be just right.

2.The odds will always be astronomical. In 1969 I went to a convention, walked up to a desk, and started talking to the person standing next to me. If I had arrived at that precise place a minute sooner or a minute later, the conversation would not have taken place and my life today would be very different. As far as odds go, that's just the tip of the iceberg. What had to be right, years before, for the person I met to be born? For me to be born? For his parents? For my parents? And so on. Don't be impressed by all the zeroes: any outcome of any kind has overcome incredible odds.

3. If the initial conditions were just right for good, they were just right for evil. They were just right for terror and torture, for tsunamis and Katrinas. This is a universe with mixed outcomes. If you call it benevolent, you have to call it malevolent as well. This is a problem for believers in the Who outside, a problem that goes by the name of theodicy.

Maybe it's the earth that's bio-friendly, and not the entire universe. The dinosaurs might think so, their demise having come from outer space. But what about all the other species--over 99% of the total--that have gone extinct? It seems that life on our planet proceeds by eliminating other life. There ought to be a friendlier way. And while the earth is habitable now, it won't always be, even if we take good care of it. When the sun begins to die billions of years from now, it will become a red giant, and its outer edge will reach the earth's present orbit.

I'm not in a gray wintry mood, just in a mood for perspective. I want to get the story straight. It isn't lush out there in space. It isn't a rain forest. It's a near vacuum and it can get down to three degrees Kelvin and that's really cold. To say that the universe as a whole is "bio-friendly," much less observer-friendly, is myopic. How about "bio-tolerant"? Barely bio-tolerant? Just barely? The universe had the stuff to make us, but if it's friendly, it has a funny way of showing it.

Note: Paul Davies addresses degrees of bio-friendliness on p. 174 of Cosmic Jackpot. From the multiverse point of view, he says, it is likely that our universe is "marginally," rather than "optimally," bio-friendly.

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Mark A. Thomas said...

Its a beautiful and hostile world. Beauty and hostility, somehow they go together. We live on a beautiful and bountiful planet that is full of hostile elements. Mankind has overcome exponetially incredible odds to get to the current stage of comfort and survivability. We wrap ourselves in warm blankets, eat hot food and submerge ourselves in the protective bubble of civilization and culture and smile at our accomplishments. We are comforted and our lives are made easier. How is this related to the creative moment of the Universe? Somehow! The navajo know the juxtaposition of beauty and hostility in the land they live in. They have the Beautyway, the creation myths. We are all wrapped in the myths of our culture. And what about the initial moment of creation? It too has a language, Planck units, God's units, language of the sacred from which the myths are fractured from and roll down in time to cultures. Beauty and hostility must have been born in the sacred fires of creation. Evil must be a subversion of the fractured language not near the fire, a result of improper thinking. The idea that one wakes up every day to this Universe makes one really wonder about it all.

Gary Kirby said...

So, if the universe is bio-unfriendly, and the earth barely bio-friendly, what does that say about the life friendliness of any who who might exist?

If we reject that logic, because of Goldilocks and gospel tales, is our viewpoint much different from the geocentered favoritism surrounding Copernicus? Even though instruments have sharpened our human optics, sent back photos of earth from space, why do we still maintain the urge to myopically, narcissistically look through our biases and wishes to see ourselves as special?

I hate logic when it is cold and harsh, and not human warm and fuzzy. But I’d rather live with scientific cold logic than Grimm’s warm pudding. Most of us choose one or the other or another, and maybe switch now and then, and often when we die. Then maybe we’ll find out, and if not, we won’t know that we didn’t.

Having weighted the scale for science over desire, I still declare that fairy tales are wise and whos are wonderful—I even picture Goldilocks as quite cute--and I love the unsolved mystery of everything, especially how we talk and love.

Anonymous said...

Here is a link to something you might appreciate. It is a UK artist's perspective of the beautiful landscapes of the Navajo. The enchanted landscapes of a real place on this planet. The photos are eerily remniscent of the beautiful Hubble space photos that are cataloged. From here to there, there is beauty everywhere.