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Are we living in a designer universe?

The argument over whether the universe has a creator, and who that might be, is among the oldest in human history. But amid the raging arguments between believers and sceptics, one possibility has been almost ignored – the idea that the universe around us was created by people very much like ourselves, using devices not too dissimilar to those available to scientists today.

As with much else in modern physics, the idea involves particle acceleration, the kind of thing that goes on in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Before the LHC began operating, a few alarmists worried that it might create a black hole which would destroy the world. That was never on the cards: although it is just possible that the device could generate an artificial black hole, it would be too small to swallow an atom, let alone the Earth.

However, to create a new universe would require a machine only slightly more powerful than the LHC – and there is every chance that our own universe may have been manufactured in this way.

This is possible for two reasons. First, black holes may – as science fiction aficionados will be well aware – act as gateways to other regions of space and time. Second, because of the curious fact that gravity has negative energy, it takes no energy to make a universe. Despite the colossal amount of energy contained in every atom of matter, it is precisely balanced by the negativity of gravity.

Black holes, moreover, are relatively easy to make. For any object, there is a critical radius, called the Schwarzschild radius, at which its mass will form a black hole. The Schwarzschild radius for the Sun is about two miles, 1/200,000th of its current width; for the Earth to become a black hole, it would have to be squeezed into a ball with a radius of one centimetre.

The black holes that could be created in a particle accelerator would be far smaller: tiny masses squeezed into incredibly tiny volumes. But because of gravity's negative energy, it doesn't matter how small such holes are: they still have the potential to inflate and expand in their own dimensions (rather than gobbling up our own). Such expansion was precisely what our universe did in the Big Bang, when it suddenly exploded from a tiny clump of matter into a fully-fledged cosmos.

Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first proposed the now widely accepted idea of cosmic inflation – that the starting point of the Big Bang was far smaller, and its expansion far more rapid, than had been assumed. He has investigated the technicalities of "the creation of universes in the laboratory", and concluded that the laws of physics do, in principle, make it possible.

The big question is whether that has already happened – is our universe a designer universe? By this, I do not mean a God figure, an "intelligent designer" monitoring and shaping all aspects of life. Evolution by natural selection, and all the other processes that produced our planet and the life on it, are sufficient to explain how we got to be the way we are, given the laws of physics that operate in our universe.

However, there is still scope for an intelligent designer of universes as a whole. Modern physics suggests that our universe is one of many, part of a "multiverse" where different regions of space and time may have different properties (the strength of gravity may be stronger in some and weaker in others). If our universe was made by a technologically advanced civilisation in another part of the multiverse, the designer may have been responsible for the Big Bang, but nothing more.

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TAGGED: SCIENCE


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