Searching for Life in the Multiverse

by Nancy Atkinson on January 18, 2010

Artist concept of the multiverse. Credit: Florida State University


Other intelligent and technologically capable alien civilizations may exist in our Universe, but the problems with finding and communicating with them is that they are simply too far away for any meaningful two-way conversations. But what about the prospect of finding if life exists in other universes outside of our own?

Theoretical physics has brought us the notion that our single universe is not necessarily all there is. The “multiverse” idea is a hypothetical mega-universe full of numerous smaller universes, including our own.

In this month’s Scientific American, Alejandro Jenkins from Florida State University and Gilad Perez, a theorist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, discuss how multiple other universes—each with its own laws of physics—may have emerged from the same primordial vacuum that gave rise to ours. Assuming they exist, many of those universes may contain intricate structures and perhaps even some forms of life. But the latest theoretical research suggests that our own universe may not be as “finely tuned” for the emergence of life as previously thought.

Jenkns and Perez write about a provocative hypothesis known as the anthropic principle, which states that the existence of intelligent life (capable of studying physical processes) imposes constraints on the possible form of the laws of physics.

Alejandro Jenkins. Credit: Florida State University


“Our lives here on Earth — in fact, everything we see and know about the universe around us — depend on a precise set of conditions that makes us possible,” Jenkins said. “For example, if the fundamental forces that shape matter in our universe were altered even slightly, it’s conceivable that atoms never would have formed, or that the element carbon, which is considered a basic building block of life as we know it, wouldn’t exist. So how is it that such a perfect balance exists? Some would attribute it to God, but of course, that is outside the realm of physics.”

The theory of “cosmic inflation,” which was developed in the 1980s in order to solve certain puzzles about the structure of our universe, predicts that ours is just one of countless universes to emerge from the same primordial vacuum. We have no way of seeing those other universes, although many of the other predictions of cosmic inflation have recently been corroborated by astrophysical measurements.

Given some of science’s current ideas about high-energy physics, it is plausible that those other universes might each have different physical interactions. So perhaps it’s no mystery that we would happen to occupy the rare universe in which conditions are just right to make life possible. This is analogous to how, out of the many planets in our universe, we occupy the rare one where conditions are right for organic evolution.

“What theorists like Dr. Perez and I do is tweak the calculations of the fundamental forces in order to predict the resulting effects on possible, alternative universes,” Jenkins said. “Some of these results are easy to predict; for example, if there was no electromagnetic force, there would be no atoms and no chemical bonds. And without gravity, matter wouldn’t coalesce into planets, stars and galaxies.

“What is surprising about our results is that we found conditions that, while very different from those of our own universe, nevertheless might allow — again, at least hypothetically — for the existence of life. (What that life would look like is another story entirely.) This actually brings into question the usefulness of the anthropic principle when applied to particle physics, and might force us to think more carefully about what the multiverse would actually contain.”

A brief overview of the article is available for free on Scientific American’s website.

Source: Florida State University

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Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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