Monday, November 22, 2004

The Anthropic Principle

Time Magazine devotes a long feature to Biocosm, a year-old book by an attorney from Portland, James Gardner, which is getting some surprisingly positive reviews from some famous scientists. Surprising, because Gardner argues that the universe just might have been manufactured by... a race of superintelligent extraterrestrial beings.
His theory rests on the fact that no one, to date, has ever shown why the universe is so hospitable to human beings, and looks as if it was designed specifically for us:
Many of the most fundamental characteristics of our cosmos — the relative strengths of gravity, electromagnetism and the forces that operate inside atomic nuclei as well as the masses and relative abundances of different particles — are so finely tuned that if just one of them were even slightly different, life as we know it couldn't exist.
If the so-called weak nuclear interaction were a tiny bit stronger or weaker than it is, for example, stars wouldn't blow up in the mammoth supernovas that spread elements like carbon and oxygen out into space — and without those elements, there would be no water and no organic molecules. If the strong nuclear force were just one-half of 1% stronger or weaker, stars could not make carbon or oxygen in the first place. In 1999 Martin Rees postulated that there were "just six numbers" that make life possible, although other theorists have since added several. And because there is no known law that requires those forces to have the values they do, scientists figure that there must be another explanation for how we got so lucky.
All of this might be rather annoying for one Nathan Aviezer, a Bar Ilan professor of Physics whom I heard just the other week speaking about this very same idea. Except that he, like a tiny minority of other scientists, argues that the Anthropic Principle, as it is known, is evidence that the universe must have been created by G-d. Suffice to say, Aviezer's book hasn't been quite as successful as Gardner's.
From the bits that I've heard, I'm not remotely convinced by either of them -- but I do think it's rather amusing that the modern world evidently feels more comfortable with, and more interested in, a theory that the universe was created by 'a race of superintelligent extraterrestrial beings' than an identical theory saying it was created by G-d!

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