Will Minds Appear in the Cosmos?

Article written: 22 Oct , 2015
Updated: 23 Feb , 2017

One of the interesting consequences of quantum theory is that particles can randomly appear in the cosmos, and if you wait long enough, conscious minds and maybe even whole new Universes. Welcome to the baffling concept of Boltzmann brains.

We blow minds here on Guide to Space.

All we want is for you to start watching, especially on a topic that you knew something about. And then you say “whoa…” when you realize the cosmic scope of an idea, like black holes, gamma ray bursts, or the Fermi Paradox.

Today, I think some kind of warning is in order. We’re going to blow your mind so thoroughly, that you’re going to be a hollowed out shell for the next few days. You’ll going to stumble around, glassy-eyed, in an almost catatonic state as you contemplate the humbling awesomeness of the Universe.

Let’s start with a familiar landscape, the implications of infinite time and space. The Universe might be infinite in space. Once you’re talking about infinity, a lot of strange ideas join the party over at Prismo’s.

Even if the Universe isn’t infinite in space it’ll most likely be infinite in time, expanding at an accelerating pace thanks to the leftover momentum from the Big Bang and dark energy. One way or another, there’s infinity in play. Thanks to quantum mechanics, the Universe is all about probabilities.

The air inside your living room is most likely going to remain evenly spaced, so you can breathe it and stay conscious. But there’s a teeny, tiny chance. A chance so small, that it’s not worth considering, that all the atoms of air in the room will spontaneously shift their position into one tiny corner, or maybe to the Andromeda Galaxy. The chances are small, it’ll practically never happen.

Once you’re dealing with forever, however, almost never, means sometimes always. You can imagine a situation, in an incomprehensible amount of time where quantum fluctuations spontaneously generate a hydrogen atom, floating in space, or perhaps a sperm whale or potted petunias.

We’re talking a seriously long amount of time. Long after all the stars have used up their hydrogen and died. Long after even the most supermassive black holes have evaporated away. If you could wait long enough, these quantum fluctuations would just pop things into existence.

One of the most compelling ideas is the concept of a Boltzmann Brain, named after the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. It’s possible that entire, fully conscious minds could appear randomly in the cosmos. Keep rolling the dice for an infinite amount of time, and eventually, you’re going to get that Paladin with 18 charisma, 18 strength and a dreamy voice like Patrick Stewart.

The chances of this are 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 50. That’s a huge huge number. Trust me, you’re going to need more pencils to even write it out. Actually, you could turn every atom of the Universe into a pencil and it wouldn’t be enough.

Just imagine what it would be like to be that self-aware conscious entity that suddenly appeared floating in a completely empty cosmos, contemplating the mystery and wonder of all that vast nothingness. Perhaps it’s just a bunch of telepathic screaming because one thing this particular brain was missing was the ability to survive in a vacuum.

A binary star system Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester

A binary star system Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester

Now, then imagine an entire planet, orbiting a sun-like star, filled with human beings and other life. Again, that number is even more incomprehensibly small, but it’s not zero. And so, in a Universe of infinite space, those things are popping up an infinite number of times, and in infinite time, it’ll happen an infinite number of times.

And now, I shall deliver the final mind bending blow. Imagine you took all the particles and energy in the entire Universe. All the protons, photons, neutrons and hadrons. There’s a tiny, tiny chance that all those particles could suddenly appear in an infinitely dense region of space, and undergo a rapid expansion.

In other words, it’s possible that another Big Bang could spontaneously appear in an infinite amount of time. How long? Physicist Sean Carroll has done the math. You’d just need to wait 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 56 years for it to happen.

It’s a long time, but it’s not forever. So, in an infinite amount of time, you’ll get an infinite number of Big Bangs, spontaneously appearing in a finite Universe. Or an infinite number of Big Bangs happening all the time in an infinite Universe.

I’d drop my mic now, but it’s sort of clipped onto my shirt here. So imagine that’s what I just did.

Can’t wrap your mind around these ideas? Don’t worry, just wait a nearly infinite amount of time, and a better version of me will spontaneously appear to explain them a little better. Thanks infinity.

We love to bend minds here at the Guide to Space. What ideas should we talk about next? Post your suggestions in the comments!

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5 Responses

  1. BlackWolfStanding says

    Hey, if a whole Nebula can be made of alcohol, anything is possible.

  2. Richard Kirk says

    I dunno. The trouble with all these calculations involving random events over long timescales is that the universe is expanding and so the odds that any two particles are going to be within any given range is dropping all the time.

    If you have anything complex, such as an atom, there is always a finite chance that it will decay as one of the nuclear particles tunnels out of the nuclear energy well. But once it is out, the chance that it, or some other particle will ever get back into the nucleus becomes tiny.

    Here’s a trick question: what is the heaviest stable element? Not bismuth-209 – that has a half-life of about a billion times the age of the universe.


    Lead? We don’t have a half-life figure for that, but it must be capable of decay by tunnelling too. Iron? Is there a stable element at all? Hydrogen? Perhaps, though even that may decay into pions and positrons…


    If an atom can’t survive these ages, and even black holes evaporate in time, I can’t see the odds of something intelligent assembling itself before all the particles are too far apart.

  3. Lubomir Stiak says

    In an infinite amount of time and in an empty space laurele, wrathell and stern will appear asking: who killed Pluto? 😀

  4. Bo Zo says

    I know, I’m a caveman, but…

    It’s not just impossible; it’s INFINITELY impossible!

    This is the sort of result you get when you start playing with infinities. It might be valid in math, but is there any evidence for an actual infinity of anything “real?”

    People say “time and space”, but no one even knows roughly what time and space really are, let alone whether they could be infinite, let alone whether they are, or what that would mean. So, get back to me on those.

    I don’t believe the universe is made of math. We can use math as a language to quantify and DESCRIBE individual events and relationships, and make ROUGH sense of things, but it’s a rough description. Math is full of triangles, and there are plenty of trios of real things, and triangles are useful for describing them; but triangles are figments of the imagination; there are no free standing triangles in the universe.

    The map is not the territory. The Tao you can understand, measure and explain is not the real Tao.

    Since there are an INFINITE number of things that could magically appear from the ether, instead of a complete, working brain, I say the odds are INFINITELY against such a thing, making it infinitely impossible, and infinitely silly.

    Edit: (When I saw the headline, I thought the video would be about evolution of intelligent life, which made me think of life on Earth, and how that might be a good idea. (Sorry Gandhi.))

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