The Greatest Innovation of All Times

by Jörgen Eriksson on April 19, 2014

Dali - CrusifixionToday is Saturday on Easter weekend. The day in-between the days of crucifixion and resurrection, as described in the Christian New Testament. What other day of the year can be more appropriate to tackle the greatest innovation of them all?

Yesterday was “Good Friday” and  I have always wondered what is so good about it? After all it is the religious holiday, observed primarily by Christians that commemorates the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. Based on the details of the gospels, the Crucifixion of Jesus was most likely on a Friday (the day before the Jewish Sabbath) (John 19:42) and the estimated year of the Crucifixion was AD 33. Apparently the use of the word “good” is in the ancient meaning of the world, when it was a synonym to “holy”.

Two impressions I had in the past week inspired me to write this brief blog post today. The first was a discussion with some of my colleagues at the Palace Hotel in Zagreb Wednesday evening, about the remake of Carl Sagan’s  1980s television series Cosmos. The second an article I read yesterday in The Atlantic, titled The Pope in the Attic: Benedict in the Time of Francis, about the parallel lives of one Pope emeritus and the current Pope, living a few hundred meters from each other in the Vatican.

The greatest innovation of them all is of course the Universe, the totality of existence itself, including planets, stars, galaxies, the contents of intergalactic space, the smallest subatomic particles, and all matter and energy. We know that the observable universe is about 46 billion light years across and approximately 14 billion years old. As we know that the universe had an origin in time and an approximate age, by logic there must have been something before this. What was there then, and how did the Universe come to be?

File:Universe expansion2.pngAccording to the prevailing scientific model of the Universe, known as the Big Bang, the Universe expanded from an extremely hot, dense phase in which all the matter and energy was concentrated into an initial singularity, a point where all known laws of physics break down.

After the Big Bang, the universe expanded incredibly fast and began the cool-down that has lasted until our own time. The resulting chain of events is a cosmic drama of transitions and a host of actors, appearing and disappearing along the way.

The early scenes played out at unimaginable temperatures and densities, the stage set by the fundamental properties of particle physics. These processes had to be finely tuned to yield a universe capable of forming the galaxies, stars and planets we observe today. In March last year, a European research team found evidence of ancient microwave noise that supports the big bang theory as the correct origination of reality.

The big question is, what started the Big Bang? How did space, time, matter and energy take the forms that we see today? Did some undiscovered fundamental laws determine the conditions that allowed us to exist? Can we work backward to unravel the history of the universe?

It is the greatest mystery of all times and the root of all the others. The rest of humanity’s grand questions here on our tiny dot among billions of solar systems in billions of galaxies: How did life begin? What is consciousness and purpose? What is dark matter, dark energy, gravity? They all originate from what created the Universe in the first place.

imageIn a book published in 1997, the physicist Lee Smolin at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics offered a theory of the universe that is at once elegant, comprehensive, and radically different from anything proposed before. In the book The Life of the Cosmos, Smolin proposed that a process of self organization like biological evolution shapes the universe, as it develops and eventually reproduces through black holes, each of which may result in a new big bang and a new universe. I read the book at the time and it made a strong impression on me.

According to this theory the universe is a perpetual black hole generator, or a system that is optimized to produce as many baby universes as possible. "Everything that falls into a black hole doesn’t just hit the cosmological singularity and just stop evolving so that time simply comes to an end," Smolin wrote. "Time continues and everything that falls into the black hole would have a future where the singularity was, and that region is what we call a baby universe." The conclusion he makes, which is fascinating, is that the state at the origin of the Big Bang and the state at the event horizon of a black hole are both in mathematical terms singularities. Portals to and from the known laws of physics to another new and unique state.

By saying this, Smolin proposed that the Darwinian processes that evolved life on earth also apply at the extreme macro-scale of physics to non-biological entities. Because the universe through black holes is a potentially replicative unit, he suggests that it is subject to the pressures of natural selection. Consequently, through the laws of gravity and the inevitable event horizons of the black holes, nearly everything the universe does is geared toward replication, through the law of great numbers and statistical probability favouring those new universes which are best to continue to reproduce. The result would be a cosmology according to which life is a natural consequence of the fundamental principles on which the universe has been built, and a science that would give us a picture of the universe in which, as Smolin writes, "the occurrence of novelty, indeed the perpetual birth of novelty, can be understood."

With this quite beautiful thought, I wish our readers of this blog a Happy Easter! In modern times being a festive season for meeting family and friends, more than commemoration of ancient religious symbology. 

NASA's Chandra Adds to Black Hole Birth Announcement

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