“Listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door. Let’s go”-E.E Cummings.
INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS ‘NORMAL’ ANYWAY?
In online worlds the everyday concerns that define real life coexist with experiences that can only be described as ‘surreal’. It is fairly safe to say that if you spend long enough exploring such worlds, sooner or later you will find yourself asking, ‘what is normal’?
Now, at this point it may seem like this essay is going to be a social commentary, railing against prejudice and the subtle ways in which fashion and commercialism shapes our minds. Actually, this introduction has other concerns. What we need to look at here is an older set of prejudices, those hardwired into the brains of animals long before the human race evolved. In the prequel to this essay (‘Ctrl-Q: Quantum Time’) I explained that ‘it appears as though imagination ocurrs in the mind, Second Life® exists on the screen and RL is out there in physical space. But really, both SL and RL (in the form in which we perceive them, at least) exist where imagination does – in the mind’.
Philosophy has long struggled with questions regarding the nature of reality, and whether or not it exists independently of the mind. Bishop George Berkely (1685-1753) was bothered by the Newtonian ideology and its decree that nothing is needed other than ‘what can we describe through equations?’. Wanting to feel there was a divine presence in the world, Berkely came up with the rather radical solution of denying the existence of a world external to ideas. ‘To exist is to be perceived’. Reality just is the ideas you have of it; reality only exists in subjective experience. When he heard of Berkely’s philosophical system, Dr Samuel Johnson is said to have cried, ‘I refute it thus!’ and stubbed his toe on a rock.
The picture I presented, in which ‘imagination, RL and online worlds exist in the mind’ might sound more like Berkely’s belief in the non-existence of objective reality, rather than Johnson’s conviction that rocks (and, presumably, all material things) really do have an existence independent of subjective experience, but there is a crucial difference. Today, cognitive neuroscience uses psychological experiments, studies in brain anatomy and the relatively recent technological advance of functional brain imaging to build up a model of how the brain creates our mental world. It does not deny the existence of a reality independent of the mind, far from it. There really is something out there, going about its business whether we perceive it or not. But, cognitive neuroscience tells us that we are not in direct contact with this external reality. As Jeff Hawkins explained, ‘you hear sound, see light and feel pressure, but inside your brain there isn’t any fundamental difference between these types of information. There’s no light inside your head, it’s dark in there. There’s no sound entering your head, either… The only thing the cortex knows is the pattern streaming in on the input axons’. What we experience, then, is not reality itself but rather a simulation, a model of reality created by the mind based on the patterns of information flowing in through the senses.
Well, that sounds like a decisive victory for immersionists, doesn’t it? We are all simulated people living in a simulated reality. However, the way the cortex works has many similarities with the fundamentals of augmentism. That, recall, is the belief that online worlds are communication tools that allow you to continue, enhance, and expand your social and personal life (conversely, an immersionist would say the simulation of RL stops when you log on and a different simulation begins.
Who we are in online worlds is not who we are in RL). What the cortex does is prediction. It ‘remembers’ the patterns it ‘experienced’ in the past and uses them to anticipate what patterns it’s going to experience in the future. Like an indefatigable scientist, the cortex is constantly trying to falsify your model of reality by comparing its predictions against the behaviour of reality itself. Whenever there is disagreement between the model and reality, the former is junked and a revised model is put in its place and the cycle of predict-test-falsify-refine-predict continues.
So here we have two-way communication between the cortex and reality. The former constantly asks ‘is this model accurate?’ and the latter answers by responding in a manner that was anticipated or not. The brain strives to make its model of reality as accurate as possible. You can well imagine the Darwinian cost of an inaccurate simulation, such brains would have been removed from the gene pool. After tens of millions of years of fine-tuning by evolution, you can be sure that your mind does a very good job of simulating reality. In fact, it’s so reliable and so consistently able to reflect reality itself that, by any practical measure, it IS reality. Only in very exceptional circumstances, mostly using tricks developed by cognitive neuroscience that are designed to exploit the methods the brain uses to construct its model, do we become aware that what we perceive is really a simulation.
But what we are asking ourselves here is not ‘what is real?’ but ‘what is normal?’. There are various reasons to believe that our sense of normality is totally skewed, even without considering the cultural influences like fashion, religion and nationality coloring our perception of the world. For one thing, the environment our minds model is highly unusual. It does not seem that way to us, there is nothing more familiar than the place in which we live. But space exploration has shown us that environments in which we can survive and thrive are extremely rare. Our world is an anomaly, an exceptional oasis floating amongst a normally hostile Universe.
Furthermore, evolution tuned our senses to intercept information useful for survival within the environmental niche our species evolved in. To be sure, our senses are superbly fine-tuned. Compare a robot’s ability to orientate itself with respect to objects in a room with a person’s ability to do likewise and you begin to appreciate the sophistication of our senses. But the very fact that they are so highly-tuned inevitably means our senses are hopeless at tuning in on information outside of a narrow range. Take vision, for instance. Our eyes are instruments designed to pick up electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths ranging from 400-700 nanometers- the wavelengths of visible light. But this is an extremely small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which ranges in wavelengths of hundreds of kilometres or more at the ‘radio’ end all the way down to a millionth of a nanometer or less at the ‘gamma ray’ end. The same thing applies to our audio sense, our tactile sense, our temporal sense and our spatial sense. We hear birdsong because it comes in a frequency our sense of hearing can tune in on, but we don’t hear the eerie wailing of Saturn. We feel the weight of a cat curled up on our lap, but not the millions of bugs crawling over the surface of our eyes, nor the neutrinos passing through our bodies. We can perceive events on a temporal scale ranging from seconds to decades, and a spatial scale ranging from millimetres to tens of miles. But reality extends far beyond this range, with particle events occurring in femtoseconds at one extreme to galactic events occurring over billions of years at the other.
People have long wondered about parallel worlds and whether or not there are realities co-existing with the one we experience and yet somehow hidden from us. Now we can appreciate that there is a great deal of truth to the premise of parallel realities, for they would be the simulations minds would construct if senses tuned in on information outside of the range our eyes, ears etc can detect. Imagine beings whose ears are radio antennae. Provided they were tuned to the appropriate waveform, such beings would hear the noise generated by Saturn’s aurorae. But they could never hear (and therefore, probably not be able to imagine) the sounds of nature that are so familiar to us. Or, imagine beings whose eyes are tuned to wavelengths at the X-ray or gamma-ray end of the spectrum. They would see a universe so shockingly different to ours that it would be impossible for them to visualize the calm of a clear night or the colours of a sunset that we who tune in on visible light know so well.
But could there be a way for our hypothetical beings to learn something of the realities carried on information outside of their perception? Indeed there could be, and online worlds exist thanks to the two most important conditions. The first of these is technology. Augmentists seek to expand and enhance our innate desire to share information, and that same drive can be and has been directed to develop tools that gather information our senses cannot tap into. Particle accelerators are used to probe reality on the smallest scales, while orbiting satellites peer as far as visible light will permit, but also see the universe through X-ray, gamma-ray and radio waves.
Simply gathering such information, though, is only the first step. At the moment, these incredibly sophisticated instruments may be able find and store data that our senses are incapable of intercepting, but as yet they don’t have the ability to perceive it. The ability to reason analogically; to invent and learn terms for abstractions as well as for concrete entities; to reason outside of the current context; to invent terms for relations as well as things and the ability to learn and use external symbols to represent numerical, spatial or conceptual information- these are all abilities that machines have yet to acquire on even a rudimentary level. But the human brain is a master of them all, and it uses these abilities to conceptualize reality. This is where immersionists become so useful. From oral storytelling, to the writing of novels, to the art of film-making and now the construction of online worlds, people have saught not only to see reality as we know it, but also to see a world different to the one we are familiar with (for better or worse) and share this imaginary reality with others. That ability must be used when analysing data gathered by our scientific instruments. As philosopher Joel D. Morrison explained, ‘we can view science as an attempt to build a rational and functional puzzle from a relatively small percentage of the total number of pieces critical to a comprehensive theoretical construction. It is the monumental task of science to take this incomplete yet vast collection of puzzle-pieces and form a coherent and accurate picture of observed reality’. Because we are attempting to comprehend realities that lie so far beyond our natural senses, such visions can seem every bit as fantastic as the strangest fictions. And what we think is going might indeed be innacurate. Perhaps we have misinterpreted the data? Today’s scientific theories might be flawed in ways we cannot yet see?
That’s worth remembering as we explore some of the scenarios imagined by thinkers exploring the outer-limits of science. What follows are four speculations from the cutting-edge, chosen for their similarity to certain aspects of online worlds that distinguish them from ‘real-life’. Or so we thought. The message from the outer-limits of scientific possibility, though, may well be that our weird fantasies ain’t so unreal, after all…
ONE: GWYN’S INFINITE TWINS.
When Linden Lab® made the surname ‘Lewellen’ available, Gwyneth Llewelyn got herself an account under this (almost) identical name and, once her barely distinguishable twin had rezzed into life, she used this doppleganger to attend two different events at the same time. Mind, one might think that this fissioning of Gwyn can only go so far. Yes, there are two avatars, and yes there are two computers running the appropriate software, but there is only one RL Gwyn. Well, there might not be. After all, another resident known as Wilde Cunningham is many people in RL and that could be how it is with Gwyn. But for the sake of argument let’s assume there is only one RL Gwyn, because then we get to argue that, actually, she too has a copy. Not just one, mind you. If the two most widely accepted theories of reality are correct, there are an infinite number of universes that are perfect copies of ours, each containing a Gwyneth Llewelyn absolutely identical to the one we know and love.
Now, ‘Universe’ by definition is ‘everything there is’. So, in strict terms there can only be one Universe. However, science distinguishes between ‘our’ universe and ‘the’ universe. Just like the Earth, ‘our’ Universe has a horizon restricting our view, and it is said to have been created by two things. One is that light travels at a finite speed (which seems instantaneously fast to us but is pretty slow when it comes to crossing astronomical distances) and the other is that ’our’ universe is believed to have been born 13.7 billion years ago. Together, these facts mean we can only see objects whose light took less than 13.7 billion years to reach us. Talk of horizons obviously raises questions concerning what lies beyond and we’ll get to that. But for now, all we need to know is that science distinguishes between ’our’ universe (although they tend to refer to it as ’the visible universe’) and whatever lies beyond the light horizon.
Now let’s move away from astronomy and look at the fundamental concept of quantum physics. According to this theory, everything in the Universe ultimately comes in tiny and indivisible chunks called ’quanta’. In my favourite SL, just about everything is ultimately comprised of simple geometric shapes called ’prims’, and quantum physics argues that everything we see in RL is also made out of basic building blocks. Now, in SL, people’s freedom to build is restricted by the amount of land they can purchase, and the amount of land available to buy is restricted by server capacity. Because there is limited space there cannot be an infinite number of ways in which prims can be arranged. This also applies to the visible universe. According to quantum physics, the fabric of spacetime becomes grainy at the very smallest scales and that means there is a finite number of locations that may or may not contain a building block. Of course, each building block is very small indeed (a proton is 0.1 nanometers in diameter). It takes light a mere 10^-24 seconds to cross this distance. On the other hand, it takes light billions of years to reach the edge of the visible universe (not that it ever actually reaches the edge, because it is said to be moving away faster-than-light as the universe expands). Taken together, the teeny tiny size of fundamental building blocks and the amount of space available in ‘our’ Universe means there is an enormous number of ways in which we might arrange them – 10^10^118 ways, in fact.
But while such a number is larger than anything we can imagine, it still falls way short of infinity. Due to several lines of evidence, the almost unanimous agreement of cosmologists is that the Universe is expanding. This logically leads to the conclusion that space was smaller in the past which, in turn, leads logically to the conclusion that there was an ultimate beginning- a ‘singularity’ from which our universe was born. This is famously known as the ‘Big Bang’. Now, in its original incarnation this theory failed to account for certain observations. A detailed examination of these problems is not really necessary here, but if you are curious try Googling ‘flatness problem’ and ‘horizon problem’. All we need to know here is that something called ‘inflation’ was later added to the Big Bang theory. It solved the horizon problem by allowing the Universe to be much smaller in the past than we previously thought and it solved the flatness problem by making the whole universe much larger than the portion we can see. (Notice how the Earth seems flat because we see only a tiny part of its curvature).
But, what IS inflation? It’s a concept that was proposed by a particle physicist called Alan Guth. According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravity is generated by two things – energy and pressure (remember, that ‘mass’ is another form of energy e=m and all that). Normally, gravity is an attractive force but it is also possible for it to be repulsive. What makes gravity repulsive is something called negative pressure. In the 1970s, Guth was studying something known as Higgs fields and discovered that, in the conditions thought to exist in the primordial Universe, this field could fill all space with enormous and negative pressure known as the ‘false vacuum’. The conditions necessary for keeping the Higgs field stuck in a false vacuum lasted a mere 10^-35 seconds but its repulsive force was 10^100 times more powerful than the ‘cosmological constant’ that Einstein originally imagined held the universe in balance with no expansion or contraction. So enormous was ‘inflation’ that, in a mere 10^-35 seconds the universe inflated by a factor of at least 10^30. According to inflation, what lies beyond the light horizon is a great deal more space. In fact, if the Universe were scaled down to the size of the Earth, the portion visible to us would be substantially smaller than a grain of sand!
But even that mind-boggling idea comes nowhere close to describing how large the Universe is according to ‘eternal inflation’. This came about when Andre Linde realised that there was no reason why the conditions necessary for inflation to ocurr would have happened only once. Returning to a more accurate picture of the Universe for a moment, inflationary bursts are more realistically seen as events that occur in a pre-existing space that is infinite in extent. Think of the false vacuum as being an infinitely vast liquid with tiny bubbles forming inside it. Those bubbles are regions where the false vacuum has decayed and inflation has come to an end. According to the laws of physics, energy cannot disappear, only change into different forms. Therefore, when inflation ‘switched off’ the energy did not disappear but instead got converted into heat. In turn, the energy of that ultimately gave rise to the building blocks of matter arranged in one of 10^10^118 ways.
Now, finally, we can see why Gwyneth Llewelyn has been copied an infinite number of times. According to quantum physics, each visible universe contains about 10^118 building blocks that can be arranged in 10^10^118 ways. According to eternal inflation, though, there are in infin
ite number of ‘bubbles’ forming in the false vacuum, now, in the past, and forever into the future. Think about what this means. There are ‘only’ 10^10^118 ways in which building blocks can be arranged in each ‘bubble’ but there are an infinite number of bubbles. Inevitably, some Universes MUST have their building blocks arranged in exactly the same way that gives rise to all the galaxies, planets and life that makes up our universe. Either the standard model of cosmology or quantum physics is wrong or Gwyn has been copied an infinite number of times! This, by the way, makes the chances of Gwyn (or anybody) having her mind exhaustively mapped and transferred to a functionally equivilent software model running in a solar system rising to consciousness pretty much inevitable. We only need to suppose that there are self-similar Universes in which all possible histories are played out. Somewhere in the infinite possibilities of all reality there must be a Gwyn who uploads herself into cyberspace and achieves full mind child status.
Furthermore, Max Tegmark has worked out roughly how far away the nearest copy is from ‘our’ RL Gwyn. She exists in a Universe that is 10^10^28 meters away. I would write that out in full, but it’s a one followed by ten billion, billion, billion zeros. The nearest twin Gwyn is a very long way away indeed. What is more, between our universe and twin Gwyn’s there exists the false vacuum, pushing our universes further and further apart. It seems impossible then, for Gwyn to meet Gwyn or even communicate with her. Then again, theoretical physicists never say ‘never’ and, according to some extremely speculative papers, what I shall call the ‘Ultimate Lindens’ might be able to not only contact these universes, but maybe even engineer them!
TWO: A MESSAGE FROM THE ORIGINAL LINDENS.
An inhabitant of an online world has good reason to believe in the existence of a creator. After all, a group must be responsible for writing the software underpinning their virtual world, and somebody has to work behind the scenes, maintaining the hardware it runs on. The fact that online worlds owe their existence to a creator does not necessarily rule out Darwinism. Some residents of my favourite online world believe that certain actions taken by its creators show no evidence of any intelligent design. But what about RL? Is there any reason to believe that it, too, was purposefully built? According to some scientists, there are six numbers that may be evidence of design. Science, remember, advances by looking for patterns and regularities in nature. These allow more and more phenomena to be placed in general categories. The overall aim is to encapsulate those general catagories (ie physical laws) in a unified set of equations.
Each one of those six numbers, then, describes some aspect of physical reality. One number is a measure of the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together, divided by the force of gravity between them. The second number defines how firmly atomic nuclei bound together, and so determines a star’s ability to transmute hydrogen into all the other atoms. The third number measures the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the universe. The fourth number controls a mysterious anti-gravity force that is believed to be slowly but increasingly accelerating the expansion of space (not to be confused with inflation, which was something else entirely). The fifth number relates to the primordial ripples in the fabric of spacetime, and the sixth number refers to how many large spatial dimensions there are.
What is so significant about these numbers is that they cannot be any old value, not if you want a universe in which DNA-based life can evolve. Change the value of any one of those numbers and you alter some aspect of physical reality. More often than not, the alternate reality produced when ’fiddling with the settings’ is incapable of supporting life-as-we-know-it. Take the second number, the one that controls nuclear fusion in stars. The value of this number is 0.007. If it were 0.006, it would be impossible for a proton to bind to a neutron, making deuterium unstable. That, in turn, would have made chemistry impossible and so DNA-based life could never have evolved. If the number had been 0.008, two protons would have been able to bind directly together, which would have had an effect on the life cycle of stars that would have ruled out the possibility of there being water in the universe. So, again, there would be no life-as-we-know-it. Or take the number that controls the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the universe. Cosmologists call this number Omega and its value is 1.0. A deviation of anything more than one part in a million billion would be disastrous from our perspective, because the result would either be a universe that collapses before galaxies have any chance of forming, or the universe would expand too quickly for galaxies to form. So, the physical laws need to be fine-tuned or else life-as-we-know-it cannot evolve. On contemplating this fact, the physicist Freeman Dyson commented that it seems ’the universe knew that we were coming’.
What great destiny does the universe have for the life it seems to have been fine-tuned to create? According to the vast majority of cosmologists, the long-term prospects for life is grim indeed. In 1854, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholst realized that the laws of thermodynamics could be applied to the universe as a whole. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that the total amount of entropy (disorder) must increase. Applied to the universe as a whole, it means that all useful forms of energy will, in time, be transformed into disordered energy. Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin of the University of Michigan divided the age of the universe into 5 distinct states:
The primordial era: Starts at the inflation period and ends with the creation of hydrogen and helium.
The Stelliferous era: The hydrogen gas collapses under its own gravity and nuclear fusion begins. Stars blaze away and conditions are ideal for DNA-based life.
The degenerate era: The stars burn through their reserves of nuclear fuel and, once it is exhausted, they are extinguished.
The black hole era: The only energy now comes from the radiation that black holes are believed to emit. Leaking this so-called Hawking radiation causes black holes to evaporate. The more massive a black hole is, the longer it takes to evaporate. The most massive black holes are thought to leak radiation for about 10^117 years before finally evaporating.
The dark era: All useful energy in the cosmos is utterly spent. The universe is dead.
As you can probably guess, right now we are in the Stelliferous era when conditions are optimal for our kind of life. When judged on human timescales, the time it will take for this period to end (and the amount of time that has passed since it began) seems truly immense. But from the perspective of cosmological timescales, the Stelliferous era exists for only a brief period of time. Life, it seems, is a fragile and transitory phenomena that is doomed to quickly perish.
Or is it? In 1979, Freeman Dyson studied the thermodynamics of life and came to believe it could exist indefinitely. Not human life, mind you, or any kind of biological life at all. Rather, Dyson generalized life in terms of information processing and then asked how long information processing could continue as the universe’s energy ran down. Information theory tells us that the smallest unit that can be sent is proportional to the temperature. This means that, as the temperature of the universe falls, the bits of information that can be sent have to be smaller and smaller. Dyson reasoned that his hypothetical software-based life would have to think at slower and slower rates as the temperature of the cosmos continues to fall. Dyson realised that slowing down the rate of thinking would not be enough to keep going indefinitely. Quantum mechanics dictates a fundamental limit to how fast heat can be dissipated. An organism that produces heat faster than its electrons can dissipate it will die from overheating. So Dyson concluded that there would have to be periods when life hibernates – goes ’offline’, essentially – in order to avoid overheating. Those periods of utter inactivity would have to grow increasingly long as the temperature of space fell. Life might have to wait trillions of years in order to process a single thought.
Ironic, really. Ask any inhabitant of online worlds what is most annoying to them, and it is a fair bet that ‘slowdown’ and ‘lag’ would be high on most people’s lists. And trying to log on, only to find your online world has been taken offline is really terrible. But, according to Freeman Dyson, these great annoyances will turn out to be the last great hope for long-term survival! Recently, though, science has come to realize that Dyson’s strategy is ultimately doomed to fail. The plan relied on the 2.7 degree microwave radiation that fills all of space dropping indefinitely, providing tiny temperature differences from which useful work could be extracted. But, during the 90s, cosmologists found evidence of a mysterious force that is slowly causing the expansion of Space to accelerate. Not much is known about this ‘dark energy’, apart from the fact that it seems to be a property of ‘empty’ space (in quantum physics, terms like ‘empty’ mean something different to everyday concepts). The force of dark energy is proportional to the volume of the universe. The larger the universe becomes, the more dark energy there is to push galaxies apart, which in turn increases the volume of the universe. Eventually, dark energy becomes so strong that a horizon is formed (known as the Desitter Horizon), marking the point where dark energy has become strong enough to cause objects to recede at the speed of light.
In quantum physics, ‘empty’ space is seen as fluctuations in which pairs of particles and antiparticles are created before finding each other and cancelling each other out. But if one half of the pair crosses the DeSitter Horizon, the other half is left, contributing to the heat energy in the universe on our side of the horizon. This means that the temperature of space will not continue to fall indefinitely, but instead will reach a uniform temperature of 10^-29K. Now, people think it is cold when conditions are chilly enough for water to freeze, but on the Kelvin scale the freezing point of water is 273K. Clearly, then, a temperature of 0.000000000000000000000000000001K redefines the meaning of the word ‘chilly’. However, the ultimate fate of Dyson’s software-based life forms is not to freeze, but to burn. When, at last, we arrive at the Dark era, everything will be at the same temperature. Dyson’s information-based life forms will be unable to dissipate heat and so the instant any information processing is attempted, they will fry to death.
It would appear, then, that the immersionists’ dreams of attaining immortality by uploading into cyberspace and living forever as software-based life is ultimately doomed to failure. All forms of information-processing are destined to burn out in roughly 10^117 years’ time. But is this really the end? Is life’s struggle for survival and quest for knowledge really destined to simply burn out in the final state of high entropy 10^117 years from now, or could there be some way to preserve a record of our existence? According to a paper by J. Garriga, V.F Mukhanov, K.D Olum and A. Vilenkin (‘Eternal Inflation, Black Holes and the Future of Civilizations’) once dark energy becomes strong enough to dominate our Universe, bubbles of inflationary phase will begin to nucleate at a constant rate. Recall from ‘Gwyn’s Infinite Twins’ that inflation never completely ends. It is driven by something called the ‘Inflaton Field’ (no, that’s not a misspelling. Physicists often give fields names that end with ‘on’. Think Photon and Gluon). Quantum fluctuations allows for the possibility that the inflaton field will jump to the inflationary range, and since quantum fluctuations are different at different points in space, it follows that quantum tunnelling events in which the inflaton field jumps into the inflationary range cannot ocurr homogenously in space. The inflationary phase occurs in a spherical volume of space and the authors suggest that it could be possible, in principle, to arrange for information to be swallowed up by one of these bubbles and carried over to the termalized region (another universe, essentially) that would form once the false vacuum decayed.
As you can well imagine, there are a few technical difficulties to overcome before such a plan can succeed. One of the largest difficulties would be getting the information into one of these bubbles in the first place. This is because black holes are believed to form at a far more prevalent rate, putting the chances of the message being swallowed by an inflationary bubble (as opposed to simply being destroyed inside a black hole) at 10^122-1. This may sound like a completely hopeless cause, but we can at least appeal to our current lack of knowledge regarding the nature of black holes and speculate that there may be ways around this problem. Currently, we can only solve the equations for a single star in an empty Universe. But calculating the curvature of Space at any point requires knowing the location of all objects in the Universe, each of which contributes to the bending of Space. Such a calculation is currently beyond our capability (even taking our computers into consideration), so we can speculate about scenarios in which the plan has a greater chance of success and worry about it being ruled out later.
One such possibility is that black holes do not form a ‘singularity’ where spacetime comes to an end (the result you get using the standard theoretical model, based on a particular solution of Einstein’s equations that Karl Schwarzchild discovered in 1917). It could be that the Schwarzchild Solution needs to be replaced with a deSitter space with limiting curvature. If that were so, inflating Universes would automatically form inside black holes.
Assuming black holes are simply passages to a new inflating region, what other problems lie in store? There is a limit to the amount of information that can be sent through a black hole. The entropy of the package needs to be less than the entropy of the black hole, with the maximum amount of information being somewhere in the range of 10^13 to 10^68 bits. Physicist Michio Kaku has estimated that a post human civilisation would be seeking to send 10^24 bits (‘sufficient to recreate the civilisation’, or so he says) which would be clearly ruled out if the maximum amount of information that could be sent was in the lowest range (in fact, that would also rule out preserving all human knowledge, since the Library of Congress represents 10^15 bits). Being in the right place at the right time could also be a problem. Quantum events like the spontaneous creation of bubble Universes happen so rarely that one can rule out the possibility of witnessing such an event. However, we need to remember that Dyson’s software-based life forms would have a different perception of time to us. Recall that their environment would require them to think extremely slowly, perhaps taking a trillion years to process a single thought. From a subjective point of view their rate of thinking may appear to be perfectly normal, when objectively so much time has passed from one subjective awareness of a moment to the next that rare quantum events appear to happen quite regularly.
Another possibility is that future civilizations might purposefully trigger the nucleation of a bubble Universe. Alan Guth speculated, ‘since the inflationary theory implies that the entire observed Universe can evolve from a tiny speck, it is hard to stop oneself from asking whether a Universe can in principle be created in the laboratory?’. When asked to explain the reason for SETI’s failure to find evidence of intelligent life, a popular response is to say that such beings are not interested in establishing contact with us. This line of reasoning supposes that SETI is looking for alien communications, when in actual fact the search is for characteristic forms of radiation. In the 1960s, a Russian physicist called Nikolai Kardashev catagorized civilizations according to their ability to harness available energy. He then showed that their presence could be inferred from the waste heat generated by their activities. Today this is known as the ‘Kardashev Scale‘. It begins with Type I, defined as a global civilization able to harness all of the solar radiation striking the planet (roughly 10^16 watts). Next we have Type II, defined as an interplanetary civilization able to harness the total output of their local star. The energy they can harness exceeds that available to a Type I civilization by a factor of 10 billion- 10^26 watts. Then there is Type III, a civilization that has spread throughout and can harness the power contained in a galaxy. Again, they differ from the next lower type by a factor of 10 billion. Type III civilizations can harness 10^36 watts.
Obviously we Earthlings don’t yet have the ability to harness all of the solar energy striking our planet, so we don’t even qualify as Type I. However, Michio Kaku has said that certain developments may be an indication of us either being on the threshold of transcending to Type I status, or due for a catastrophe (at this point in time it’s hard to say how things will turn out). Kaku points out that ‘pollution will be increasingly tackled on a global scale’ and ‘as resources gradually flatten out due to over cultivation and over consumption, there will be increased pressure to manage our resources on a global scale’. Recall also the question I posed in ‘Metaverse: Reloaded’, ‘if operating systems and email eventually converged on a common standard, can we expect coalescence amongst online worlds?’ Again, one can single out such convergences as evidence that the World Wide Web is maturing as a global communication system, or one could argue that cases like Google censoring itself to appease authorities in Beijing is proof that we are as far from being One World as we ever were. Having said that, Kaku argues that transition to Type I status does not necessitate the eradication of nation states, only that ‘as business itself becomes more international, national borders become less relevant’.
Doom and gloom types might want to link the rising problems we face with the apparent lack of Type I-III civilizations elsewhere in the Universe. Perhaps civilization is doomed to collapse before the transition to Type I can be made? Here, though, we shall be optimistic and assume that the transition to Type I and thereafter to Type II and III is achieved. Suppose a technologically-advanced civilization wanted to build a machine capable of creating conditions necessary to trigger inflation. What kind of machine would the job require?
One such machine might be a particle accelerator, a descendent of scientific instruments such as the Large Hadron Collider. However, no Earthly particle accelerator is anywhere close to being able to generate the tremendous energies and temperatures triggering inflation requires. Such a task calls for a particle accelerator that is 10 lightyears long (by comparison, LHC is a pathetic 27 Km long). An engineering project of that magnitude is hard to conceive, admittedly, but it might be achievable to a civilization that has self-replicating robotic factories at its disposal. Another engineering project for Type II civilisations to consider might involve reworking the matter resources of a solar system into a huge sphere of converging lazers- powered by the entire energy output of the parent star, no less- that fire on a central point. Either way, the aim is to heat up a tiny region of space to 10^26 degrees K and then rapidly cool it down. It is conjectured that at this temperature, spacetime becomes unstable and a false vacuum is created. The engineers would not see the baby Universe being formed, as the process would take place inside of the event horizon of a black hole. In this scenario, the black hole is assumed to be a wormhole connecting our Universe to the new inflationary phase forming from the false vacuum. The black hole would evaporate, the ‘umbilical cord’ would be cut and the newborn Universe would go on to evolve through 10^117 years before maximum entropy is established in its region.
If the engineers responsible for creating the new Universe wanted to leave some kind of message for future intelligences to find, where might they put it? Ideally, the message would be readable from any location in the new Universe, and it would remain unchanged for however long it took for an intelligence able to read it to evolve. According to physicists Stephan Hsu of the University of Oregan and Anthony Zee of the University of California, the only thing that satisfies both conditions is the Cosmic Microwave Background. Imprinting a message onto the CMB would require a fine-tuning of the inflation dynamics, thereby imprinting indelible marks on the tiny undulations in the fabric of space thought to be generated during the first split seconds of a Universe’s birth. After that first split second, the false vacuum would drive regions of the Universe so far apart that light could not travel between them, and so no conceivable process could tamper with the message.
So, a Type II civilization creates a black hole, inside which a new inflating region (a ‘baby Universe’) is formed. After about 10^-35 seconds the false vaccum would decay and its tremendous energy would be converted into matter and heat. How would any civilizations evolving in this Universe decode the message from its creators? After about 13.7 billion years, the temperature of the CMB will have cooled to 2.7 degrees K. However, it would not be exactly that temperature all over the Universe, but instead would vary slightly from place to place. Hotter and colder spots are formed because of the primordial ripples in the fabric of space that are generated in the first instants of creation. These hot and cold spots give ‘temperature maps’ of the CMB such as those created by COBE and WMAP their distinctive blotchy appearance. Astronomers separate out the blotches into ‘multipoles’ and each multipole has a maximum temperature difference associated with it that corresponds to the difference between the hottest and coldest region. The temperature difference between each multipole is known as the ‘amplitude’. ‘It is these amplitudes that we believe are ideal places for the creator of the Universe to lodge a message to the Universe’s occupants’, claim Hsu and Zee. Decoding the message would therefore entail obtaining very detailed maps of the CMB.
What would the message say? It could be instructions on how, exactly, one goes about engineering a new Universe. If such a message were indeed found imprinted on the CMB, that would settle the question of how those six numbers came to be so fine-tuned. It was either deliberately designed by superior but comprehensible beings, or else it inherited the conditions of the Universe in which the builders lived. Of course, one does not need to posit the existence of Type II civilisations in a parallel Universe in order to explain the fine-tuning of the constants of nature. One could say that there are variations to these constants in each universe that forms in the eternal ocean of the false vacuum. Lifeforms would not evolve in universes whose laws were incompatible with life. The downside of this scenario is that it seems to demand a multiverse dominated by lifeless Universes. ‘To me, this is waste on a truly cosmic scale’, said Ed Harrison, one of the few thinkers willing to entertain the possibility that ‘life-bearing Universes come to dominate because intelligent life actively makes new Universes’.
As well as passing on the recipe for cooking up new Universes, recent events in my favourite online world suggest another possibility for the contents of the message left by its creators. It might tell us that they have trademarked the Universe in which we live and every piece of art and scientific discovery ever inspired by the world around us is in breach of their copyright ;).
Coming up in part 2, how real life takes you offline to update itself far more frequently than SL does, and how the laws of physics resulted from post-singularity intergalactic civilizations adopting the MiniMax rule of Game Theory.