Monday, January 25, 2010

ACROSS THE MULTIVERSE: FSU PHYSICIST CONSIDERS THE BIG PICTURE



Is there anybody out there? In Alejandro Jenkins' case, the question refers not to whether life exists elsewhere in the universe, but whether it exists in other universes outside of our own.

While that might be a mind-blowing concept for the layperson to ponder, it's all in a day's work for Jenkins, a postdoctoral associate in theoretical high-energy physics at The Florida State University. In fact, his deep thoughts on the hypothetical "multiverse" — think of it as a mega-universe full of numerous smaller universes, including our own — are now receiving worldwide attention, thanks to a cover article he co-wrote for the January 2010 issue of Scientific American magazine.

In "Looking for Life in the Multiverse," Jenkins and co-writer Gilad Perez, a theorist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, discuss 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.

"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."

(Photo: Florida State U.)

Florida State University

1 comentarios:

Fugamante on January 25, 2010 at 2:23 PM said...

This is why I can't stand theoretical physics, sometimes the people behind the thinking just play possibility with the mathematics of things without any real pragmatic use behind the gesture... But, hey, I'm not the one paying this people to just 'ponder'.

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