Nov 7, 2009

The nature of reality

Last month I started thinking seriously about the nature of physical reality. In his novel, The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov imagined the implications of possible contact between our universe and another universe where there were slightly different physical laws. Asimov's story, The Gods Themselves, was the first science fiction novel I ever read. It is fair to say that "my mind was blown" by the idea of multiple universes, each with its own set of physical laws (this was before I had ever taken a physics course).

Any science fiction story involving communications between "multiple universes" raises the problem of how it is possible to send information between two universes. I've seldom been satisfied with the "explanations" given by authors for how it might be possible to communicate between universes. For example, in his book, Paths to Otherwhere, James Hogan suggested that it might be possible for your conscious mind to "take over" the brain of your analog self in another parallel universe. As a biologist, there are few things that annoy me more than physical scientists who start playing fast and loose with the nature of consciousness. It is fun to imagine other universes, but saying that our conscious minds can magically migrate between universes is a plot device that is not worthy of the kind of hard science fiction that I prefer.

Last month I blogged about Time Travel and Mental Powers and expressed my long-standing uneasiness about science fiction stories that involve time travel, telepathy and fast-than-light travel. I think we should never tire of trying to devise better plot devices for our science fiction stories. Even if most readers are not bothered by a wave of the hand (hyperspace jump, go through the worm hole, etc, etc.) justification for science fiction plot elements, the true spirit of hard science fiction is to have something more scientific up your sleeve than just a wave of your hand.

Including multiple universes in science fiction stories has become quite common. One of the most audacious types of story involving the idea of multiple universes is the type involving the idea that it might be possible for humans or some species with advanced technology to engineer entirely new universes, or, at the very least, engineer changes to the physical laws of our universe. In his novel, Contact, Carl Sagan explored the idea that our universe might have been engineered by a "designer" who established the physical laws of our universe in such a way that a coded message was built into the structure of our universe...a message that unambiguously shows that our universe was designed, not simply created by chance. Albert Einstein famously said that he wanted to know if there was any choice in how our universe was created. More recently, evidence has been found suggesting that Einstein's cosmological constant is not a constant, that its value has changed during the billions of years that our universe has existed. If such a "universal parameter" of our universe can change spontaneously, maybe it really is possible to make modifications to the fundamental physical properties of the universe. Maybe "different universes" can differ in the details of their physical laws.

Imagine that the diagrams in this blog post represent the "dimensional state" of a universe. Further, imagine that it might be possible, by way of some kind type of high-energy physics experiment to trigger a change in the "dimensional state" of our universe. I think that Carl Sagan hinted at some such engineering project in his novel, Contact. I've been thinking that maybe our universe came into being by way of spontaneous symmetry breaking that "selected" among the possible "dimensional states". There could have been some "ground state", possibly the most energetically favorable set of physical laws. However, maybe there is a way to harness prodigious amounts of energy and shift our universe out of the "ground state" into a slightly more interesting state. What might be "more interesting"? Well, imagine that it is strictly impossible for anything to travel faster than the speed of light in the "ground state", but maybe faster-than-light communications and faster-than-light space travel might be possible upon a small engineered modification to the physical laws of the universe.

Being able to alter the physical laws of our universe might be one of the most important features of our universe. I'm exploring this idea in The Start of Eternity, a sequel to Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity. The story is still under construction and collaborating authors are welcome.

Images. The images in this blog post are explained in some detail at the "meta" page for The Start of Eternity. These images are available for use under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license.

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