Is the Universe Perfect for Life?

Article written: 19 Oct , 2015
Updated: 23 Feb , 2017
by

Doesn’t it feel like the Universe is perfectly tuned for life? Actually, it’s a horrible hostile place, delivering the bare minimum for human survival.

Consider that incomprehensible series of events that brought you to this moment. In a way that we still don’t understand, a complex mix of chemicals came together in just the right combination to kick off the evolution of life.

Generation after generation of bacteria, insects, fish, lizards, mammals and eventually humans somehow successfully found a buddy and passed along their genetic material to another generation. Clever humans invented computers, the internet, YouTube, and somehow you found your way to this exact video, to hear these words. Whoa.

It’s amazing to consider the Universe we live in, and how it’s perfectly tuned for life. If just a single variable was a little bit different, life as we know it probably wouldn’t exist. Gravity might be a repulsive force. Pokemons might catch you.

Doesn’t it feel like the Universe was created especially for us? I mean, didn’t I already tell you that we’re all the center of the Universe?

I’m sad to say, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that the Universe is 100% completely inhospitable. Well, apart from a thin layer on the surface of our Earth, but that’s got to be a rounding error. A fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the teeniest percent of the volume of the Universe. The rest of the Universe is bunk.

If I was plucked out of our cozy environment and dropped into the near vacuum of pretty much anywhere else, the only resource would be a handful of hydrogen atoms. And what can you do with a few hydrogen atoms? Nothing. It might even give Bear Grylls a run for his money. He might have a little more trouble on a star’s surface, crisping up in a heartbeat.

Into a black hole? Surface of a neutron star? Near an exploding supernova? Please enjoy the crushing pressures and hellish temperatures of Venus, or the freezing irradiated surface of Mars.

Earth itself is mostly a deathtrap. Travel down a few kilometers and you’d bake and crush from the rising temperatures of the Earth’s interior. Travel up and the air gets thin, cold and killy. In fact, without our technology heating, cooling, or helping us breathe, we wouldn’t last more than a few days on most of the planet.

Panorama of one area of Mars, from Sol 173. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Image editing by

Panorama of the part of Mars, from Sol 173. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Image editing by

When you think about the landscape of time, we even live in a brief thumbnail of a moment when Earth is hospitable. Over the next few billion years, the Sun is going to heat up to the point that the surface of Earth will resemble the surface of Venus. And then the last hospitable hidey-hole in the entire Universe, that we know of, will wink out. The Universe is as inhospitable as it could possibly be. That is, without being completely inhospitable.

Especially when you consider the timeframes, and the long future when all the stars have died, where there’s nothing but black holes and frozen matter, and the Universe finally ditches that rounding error, and becomes 100% purely inhospitable.

Cosmologists use a term known as the anthropic principle to explain this very special moment we find ourselves in. There’s the greater anthropic principle that says the Universe wouldn’t be here without us to observe it, but that seems nutty and egotistical.

The lesser anthropic principle says that if the Universe turned out any differently, we wouldn’t be here to observe it.

First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent.  Credit: ISRO

First ever image of Earth Taken by Mars Color Camera aboard India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft while orbiting Earth and before the Trans Mars Insertion firing on Dec. 1, 2013. Image is focused on the Indian subcontinent. Credit: ISRO

Imagine you threw a dart out the window of an airplane and it landed in a tiny spot on the surface of the Earth. What were the chances that it would land there? Almost zero. What a lucky spot.

You can imagine all kinds of other even more inhospitable Universes, where the conditions were never good enough for life to evolve, and so intelligent civilizations could never even ask the question, “Is Our Universe Perfect for Life.”

So when you look out across a meadow in the springtime. The birds are chirping, and there’s new growth everywhere, don’t forget about the boiling rock magma beneath your feet, the frigid air and then vacuum above your head, and the whole Universe of burning, radiating, impacting objects trying their best to kill you.

Of all the extreme environments in the Universe, which ones do you find most fascinating? Tell us in the comments below.

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2 Responses

  1. N. Frank says

    An environment of intense tidal forces, such as ancient earth’s, would create a substantially different world than today’s. Air tides would create extreme turbulence; water tides would erode any mountain; and earth tides would rend the earth for thousands of feet below the surface. This was an environment of destruction. Any comparison of ancient earth to a distant moon, such as Europa, ignores this distinction.

  2. qedlin says

    Very interesting excursion into grand areas of philosophical exploration. Much appreciated. At some point the data science collects needs to be put to some good use. I do not see any of your discussion of the extremes of the universe as grim or depressing, rather humbling and revealing in just how fine tuned everything is. Life is not simple, ergo, it is not ubiquitous, time does not change this. I choose to take the logical next step, considering the evidence of the Big Bang, the miracle of fine-tuning, the impossibility of abiogenesis, and the miracle of our consciousness, to conclude purpose in the universe and therefore a creator who gave us that purpose. Thank you for that visual.

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