British journalist and scientist Zeeya Merali isn't content writing about easy subjects. Merali is a theoretical cosmologist, and her latest book tackles the possibility that scientists are getting closer to the day when they may be able to create a tiny universe in the laboratory. She does a deep dive into the implications — about creation, faith and morality.
Here & Now's Lisa Mullins talks with Merali (@littlebangtheor) about those questions, and her new book, "A Big Bang in a Little Room: The Quest to Create New Universes."
On how she explored such a surprising topic
"I kind of started off with this wild, crazy idea: that you could make a universe in a laboratory. But how serious is it? Is this something that could really happen? And so what I do is I look at the actual, practical ideas that people have put forward over the past 30 years, since this idea kind of first occurred to somebody at [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and [I look at] how they sort of tried to take steps to work out the actual blueprint of whether or not you could actually do it... Yes, it is something that people are seriously talking about doing practically, but they would need a next-generation accelerator, or maybe a couple of generations down the line, but something like the equipment that we have today, but more powerful... If a lot of different things come together, if a lot of different theories that people are proposing come together, if we get the right equipment, it's something that people could really actually do — probably not in our lifetimes, but maybe in coming decades."
On what a baby universe might look like
"It would just be another universe with another Big Bang, growing its own space in time, growing to astronomical proportions... In the same way that our universe evolved planets and galaxies, stars and life, certainly this universe could do the same thing. Would it be life exactly as ours? Would it be a different type of life? Would it be no life, but some other weird kind of things? We don't know, but it's all out there. It's all a possibility."
On the most compelling arguments for and against creating a new universe
"The most persuasive argument for came from a philosopher at Oxford University who really put forward the argument that, life itself is inherently a good thing. You may agree with that or you may not agree with that. But he sort of said, 'Well, you know, as human beings we should be thinking of ways to promote our civilization, to increase our civilization, and to create more and more intelligent life. There are more good things out there than bad things and it is worth promoting more intelligent life.' And so he kind of felt that actually, we could be morally obliged, or obligated, to promote life.
"On the sort of against side, I spoke to somebody else who was a philosopher and physicist, this was a chap called Seth Lloyd at MIT, and I guess he was more wary not so much in the sense of making intelligent life in a baby universe, but he was kind of wary of what we're already doing in terms of creating artificial intelligence. He has a very controversial, kind of interesting idea: that we're already getting to the stage where, with our mobile phones, with our laptops, we're already creating entities that have free will in some sense. So he makes the argument that Siri on your iPhone already has free will, and so he's sort of at the stage of saying, 'We really need to be thinking right now about the things that we're already making, and whether or not we're treating them ethically.'"
"If a lot of different things come together, if a lot of different theories that people are proposing come together, if we get the right equipment, it's something that people could really actually do."Zeeya Merali
On where God or a higher being fits into the equation
"It really depends on where you want to put him. But one thing that was interesting to me was, you know, how do you turn this into science? So I went and spoke to somebody, this was a guy called Anthony Zee in California, who had actually been looking to see if there was a way to find evidence that our universe was created by an alien intelligence, or by God — an actual physical way that we might find signs that our universe was created by somebody else, whoever that might be. He was looking at sort of the radiation that's been left over by the Big Bang. So this is radiation that we've already discovered, we know that it's out there, we can measure it to incredible accuracy, but it has slight dips. It has slightly higher temperature and slightly lower temperature in some places. And his idea, him and colleagues, was that potentially, within these dips and peaks in the temperature, you could encode a message. So if there was a creator, they could have encoded a message into the sky that potentially we, humans living inside of the universe, could look out and see and find it to see if there was a message from whoever made the universe. Nobody has found this yet, but it is certainly a wonderfully interesting idea...
"Again, I think it's really very much up to you. It's up to you whether you choose to interpret that as a creator that is part of an advanced civilization that's just like ours, but a bit more technologically savvy, or whether you interpret that as a single, omniscient, supernatural being. I think a lot of these things, these are open questions, and the book doesn't answer those questions. It just shows you that physicists themselves are thinking about these things too... some of them."
On her takeaways
"First of all, just on the idea of making a baby universe: wow. It's an incredible idea, it's a speculative idea, but it's amazing to me that as a civilization we can talk about this as something that one day humans could do. I mean where does that leave us as a civilization? It is just amazing to me that we can even ask these questions.
"But actually, one thing that I hadn't been expecting and I was really surprised by was how much scientists really do think about the implications of their work, but are actually kind of afraid to talk about those implications... partly for very real reasons. You submit an article and you put implications into your paper and you'll be asked to remove them for fear of offending people. That's a very real reason why people are worried about talking about these things, but also they don't really appreciate that some of their colleagues are talking about these questions too, because everybody's kind of a little bit embarrassed about talking about things that aren't really scientific and may be on the edges of spiritually or ethics or issues that they just don't want to get their hands dirty [with] talking about in public. But it just struck me that, you know, they often think that they're the only ones that kind of think this way, and none of their colleagues do. But if they just knocked on the door of the office next to their lab and started a conversation with their colleague there, they might find out that actually a lot of physicists are thinking about these questions, but may be keeping it a little bit quiet."
Book Excerpt: 'A Big Bang In A Little Room'
By Zeeya Merali
This is a book that is all about beginnings. It tells the story of the people uncovering the secrets of our universe’s birth, scientists who have spent decades striving to understand the origins of space, time, our cosmos—and potentially many other parallel universes in an ever-inflating multiverse. Over the course of the following chapters, I will meet with them and others who argue that we could wield that knowledge to forge a new cosmos in the laboratory, with the help of some exotic physics, a few weird particles, a lot of energy, and a little bit of luck. And I will also be examining the ethics of whether or not we should perform such an act of creation, given the responsibility that comes with it. After all, once our baby was born, the theories say, it would evolve into a full-fledged universe, replete with new galaxies, new planets, and maybe even new life: a daughter civilization that would look upon us as gods.
So it's somewhat ironic that the book’s beginning, this opening chapter of my journey, is starting off so badly.
Before committing to this (possibly quixotic) quest, I want to know if there’s actually any point in entertaining the idea that we humans could become cosmic creators in our own right. Do any scientists believe we could truly make it happen?
In some sense, we cannot know for sure that we can make our own universe until we’ve done it. So I turn the question inside out: if we can, even in principle, knock together a baby universe, then it must stand to reason that our own cosmos might have been created by a more advanced civilization or superior intelligence—and we exist as proof of its success. If we
could find evidence of that, it would be a huge discovery in its own right, reverberating through science and theology. And if our makers happened to leave any blueprints for how they performed this trick, so that we could repeat it, then all the better.
But does anybody, excluding science fiction authors, seriously think that the possibility that we could find signs of our alien makers (or, dare I say, a divine Maker, with a capital M) is plausible? And could we investigate this as a scientific, rather than metaphysical, hypothesis by searching for evidence? If so, then I think there is good reason to pursue this universe-building idea in depth.
The first person to ask, I decide, is Anthony Zee, a Chinese American physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Zee not only has considered the possibility that the universe was made by an external intelligence but also has gone as far as calculating how to decipher any hidden communications scrawled across our cosmos from—as he and his co-author Stephen Hsu put it in their speculative paper around a decade ago—“some superior Being or Beings who got the universe going.” Simply put, they figured out how to read the word of God, or that of our alien overlords—should such an entity or entities exist and have chosen to message us, that is—scribbled across the skies.
The place to hunt for this code, they claimed back in 2006, is in the radiation that pervades the sky—the cosmic microwave background, which is an echo of the big bang and would be the (hypothetical) creator’s chalkboard, as it were. We’re immersed in this radiation bath, we pass through it every day, but we’re largely oblivious to it. It’s worth taking the time in this chapter to come to grips with how this radiation came about because, aside from being a convenient place for a deity to leave us a memo, it also, less whimsically, serves as the strongest evidence of the big bang theory. And it turns out to be the best place to look for support for the model, which we shall meet later in the book, that provides the instruction manual for building our homemade universe.
I have traveled to Santa Barbara from London to meet with Zee, and I have a short list of questions to put to him about his paper with Hsu, tantalizingly titled “Message in the Sky.” Chief among them: is this a joke? That was actually my first reaction to the paper when it was released as a preprint back in 2005. Back then, my job as a reporter at New Scientist magazine was to find newsworthy research, and largely involved spending hours trawling through arXiv, the physics preprint server where physicists post new papers for the attention of the academic community, often at the same time as submitting them to a reputable journal, where the papers will be reviewed by their peers before publication.
But arXiv is a murky place, where goofy papers stand shoulder to shoulder with respectable workaday reports and, very occasionally, groundbreaking results. Knowing that these papers have yet to pass peer review and be officially sanctioned, you have to exercise a bit of care before choosing whether to cover one of them. Many never make it to journals.
The title initially made me worry that the paper was either a deliberate spoof or bad science. I quickly dismissed both of those concerns when I saw Zee’s name as an author, however. The physicist is a well-established senior researcher, with a long track record working out the kinds of things that would happen when you smash particles together in an accelerator, such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), in Geneva, Switzerland (just the kind of place where some physicists hope that a new universe could be born, in fact). Zee is not a crank.
Reading further, I could see that the science that he and Hsu outlined, which we’ll get into in detail a bit later, was also perfectly sensible. Still, at the time, I decided not to write a news article about it, partly because of the worry that it would be too oddball a topic to cover. But it had stuck in my mind ever since. What I really wanted to know back then, and what I still want to know today as I rap my knuckles on his office door, is what was the authors’ motivation for thinking about this question. In his core, does Zee honestly believe our universe was created by a God or gods, or aliens whose technological capabilities lie just beyond our own—and that we really could read off proof of this using experiments running today? Does that have bearing on whether he thinks we should carry out such a cosmos-making task ourselves? Or was the paper just an amusing example of an exercise all theoretical physicists revel in: asking fantastical what-if questions, just to see where they lead, without believing they could be literally true?
Excerpted from the book A BIG BANG IN A LITTLE ROOM by Zeeya Merali. Copyright © 2017 by Zeeya Merali. Republished with permission of Basic Books.
This segment aired on July 19, 2017.
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