Through the Wormhole s03e03 Episode Script

Is the Universe Alive?

we think we know life when we see it.
But could life also exist on a vastly different scale where planets act like single cells, and black holes reproduce the DNA of space itself? Could the secrets of the cosmos lie not in physics, but in biology? Is the Universe alive? Space, time, life itself.
The secrets of the cosmos lie through the wormhole.
What makes you and me alive? What makes us different from a rock or a robot? Is it the beating of our hearts? The thoughts that race through our heads? Or is it the fact that we are born, we grow, and we die? Now some scientists think we might share these fundamentals of life with something much larger than ourselves.
Could the entire cosmos be a single, living organism? When I was a kid, on summer nights, I would often look up and catch the drifting, flickering glow of fireflies.
They were living points of light.
Beyond them, I saw the stars, too, flicker in the dark Mississippi sky.
Something about them also seemed living.
To imagine a single living organism encompassing the entire Universe, including vast stretches of empty space, appears to defy logic.
But before you dismiss the idea, you have to ask yourself, what does it really mean to be alive? In fact, that question has no simple answer.
What is life? There's no convincing definition that everybody agrees upon, but most people say, if it is alive, then it has to replicate itself.
It has to evolve over time.
However, there are technological devices that also replicate and evolve over time.
For example, cars.
Cars replicate in car factories according to a set of instructions -- a little bit like the DNA information that everybody carries in their cells.
It turns out that if you look at these definitions, then you will have to admit that even cars are alive.
Jurgen Schmidhuber is a Professor of artificial intelligence in Lugano, Switzerland.
His goal is to push our definitions of life to new frontiers.
He believes that some robots should be considered alive.
He also believes that a single living organism can be spread out over more than one body.
This swarm of tiny robots is programmed to work together like ants in a colony as a single entity whose collective brain is distributed among many separate bodies -- a "super-organism.
" Super-organisms can collectively solve problems that none of the individual ants could solve.
And swarm bots like these collections of robots each being programmed according to very simple rules, they can collectively solve problems that none of the individual robots can solve.
Ants find food and signal the presence of danger by secreting pheromones that change the behavior of other ants.
Instead of chemicals, swarm bots exchange simple electronic messages.
Whenever it comes close to some obstacle, then it shifts its rotation angle a little bit and moves away.
And whenever two or three swarm bots collide or come close to each other, they exchange a bit of information.
For example, you can make them collect in certain clusters.
You can also make them clean rooms by pushing all the obstacles that you find in this room into a certain corner.
So many, many simple rules can be thought of that form a complex emerging behavior that leads to other, amazing results.
If the Universe is alive, jurgen believes it also must be a super-organism, spread out across the countless light years of space like a cosmic colony of ants.
But how big can a super-organism get? Professor Geoffrey West is a distinguished particle physicist at the Santa Fe Institute.
He believes giant, living beings are all around us.
In fact, most of us live inside them.
I think an essential feature of life is its complex system, which means it's made up of enormous numbers of components.
But underlying all of that is this idea of metabolism, in which you use energy, resources to drive the system.
And we see that reflected in cities.
In much the same way that an organism like the human body is made of cells, bones, and blood vessels, a super-organism like the city of Los Angeles is made of people, highways, and power lines.
And just like any biological organism, energy flows through the body of a city.
Cities have many of the characteristics of organisms.
There are network structures like organisms.
They have flows in them -- everything from automobiles and people to electricity and other resources.
Just as organisms do, we have, of course, circulatory systems and respiratory systems and so on.
Geoffrey has spent the last few years working out a mathematical system that predicts how much energy must flow through a being for it to be alive, and how that energy shapes its life.
If you tell me the size of a mammal, I can tell you its metabolic rate.
Its heart rate, how long it's gonna live, how many offspring it will have.
Underlying all this is the mathematics and physics of networks.
Seeing living creatures as nothing more than networks that distribute energy allows Geoffrey to calculate that an animal the size of a small rodent should have a heart rate at around 500 beats per minute.
Whereas a whale heart only pulses once every 10 seconds.
A whale is about 100 million times as heavy as a shrew.
And yet, basically, we're all the scaled versions of the same thing.
So it's a very natural question that follows from that is, does any of this work for cities? The answer, according to Geoffrey's calculations, is yes.
Cities distribute energy around their networks of streets and power lines according to the very same rules as biological beings.
And cities are so large that their hearts pulse only twice a day, with the ebb and flow of commuters.
We have this extraordinary artery coming through the center of Los Angeles, the heart of Los Angeles.
And indeed, if you look up, you see these extraordinary buildings which, in many ways, acting as a heart because they represent wealth creation, and that, of course, is a pump which helps pump a lot of this traffic.
A city like Los Angeles is a living entity on a colossal scale, slowly pulsing with energy.
But no city lives in isolation.
Our entire planet is covered with them.
There are, of course, multiple scales.
You know, we can go from the scale of city to the scale of a country to the scale of the planet.
Geoffrey West has learned how to see life on many scales.
When living beings come together, no matter whether they're ants, humans, or entire metropolises, what they create takes on a life of its own.
But can this concept make the leap beyond our planet? Can a super-organism span not just mountain ranges and oceans, but also vast expanses of outer space? One physicist thinks it might, and he believes he has discovered the heartbeat of the cosmos.
+++++++++++++++ About once every second, our hearts take a beat.
With each pulse, they deliver oxygen, fluid, and energy to our cells.
If the Universe had a heart, pumping matter and energy into space, could we detect its pulse? Stephon Alexander was born in Trinidad and raised in the Bronx.
As a saxophonist, he learned to find the melody that threads through the chaotic notes of a jazz refrain.
And through theoretical physics, Stephon believes he is learning to hear the fundamental beat of the Universe.
It's a wonderful thought to ponder that the Universe could be a living thing.
I mean, even in biology itself, biologists are struggling with the definition and the origin of life itself.
But there should be certain experiments that look for patterns that pertain to the function of a living thing.
Stephon's research may be leading us towards finding those patterns in the cosmos itself.
While most cosmologists believe our Universe was created in an explosive beginning called the Big Bang, Stephon believes the Big Bang was actually a big bounce.
The big bounce model is, simply put, a model of the early Universe.
In fact, there was a previous Universe that underwent collapse and bounced out into and expand the Universe, which is the Universe that we inhabit.
In Stephon's theory, the expanding Universe is just one phase in a never-ending cycle of contraction and expansion, like a beating heart, or like the falling and rising of a bouncing handball.
So let's observe what happens.
I drop the ball.
Gravity's going to, of course, pull the ball down.
And what happens is that the ball bounces up.
So likewise, the bounced Universe, under the laws of gravity, will do a similar thing.
It contracts, and it can bounce back into an expanded phase.
Most of Stephon's model involves simple physics.
The expanding phase will, sooner or later, run out of steam, overcome by the attractive force of gravity, which eventually pulls everything in the Universe down to a tiny size.
But explaining why the Universe bounces back from this point is far more complex.
One of the problems with the bounce in cosmology is that you still have to ask a question.
What happens when you bounce? Gravity becomes very strong.
Okay, the gravitational interaction dominates.
That, in fact, would drive us into the singularity.
A singularity is a place of infinite density -- a place where gravity becomes so strong that it crushes all matter into a single point, allowing nothing to escape, not even light.
Those cosmologists who believe in the Big Bang theory believe it was a singularity, and they had to invent a new force called inflation to allow the Universe to expand out from it.
Stephon, on the other hand, thinks the Big Bounce Universe never shrinks down to a singularity.
As the Universe approaches the bounce point, it has to, of course, avoid that big bang singularity.
So we have to avoid that problem.
The solution, Stephon believes, is provided by a tiny particle far smaller than an atom known as the neutrino.
Neutrinos, which are some of the strangest particles known in physics, could play a major role in understanding the bouncing universe scenario.
A neutrino can, just at that moment, have a repulsive force that prevents you from crunching into the singularity and bounce out.
Neutrinos have almost no mass, and they pass through ordinary matter undetected.
of these ghostly particles move right through each of our bodies every second without our ever knowing it.
Every star in the Universe spews out a constant stream of neutrinos.
In fact, the Universe is chock full of them, and they may be what gives the living universe its steady pulse.
Stephon has calculated that under the immense pressure of a contracting Universe, this cosmic sea of neutrinos would become so tightly squeezed together, they'd transform into a special state of matter called a superfluid.
A superfluid state is well-known to us.
Liquid helium is an example of a superfluid.
One of the strange properties of a superfluid is that, if you try to contain it, it will still flow out, out of the edges of the container.
It doesn't like to be contained.
This tendency for a neutrino to not be contained causes a repulsive pressure and causes the Universe to bounce and expand.
If Stephon's idea is right, our Universe has been going through cycles of expansion and contraction for trillions of years.
At each bounce, most of the matter, including any stars or galaxies, is crushed and then spat out in completely new form.
But neutrinos survive unscathed.
This invisible sea of particles is the lifeblood of the Universe, the fluid that drives its pulse.
Or, if you prefer, neutrinos propel the cosmos from one phase of its life cycle to the next.
A good analogy for the big bounce is like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.
You have the caterpillar that emerges as a butterfly that looks completely different, but has the same genetic cold and is made up of the same stuff.
So in that sense, the analogy from biology of metamorphosis, I think, is quite applicable here and worth pursuing.
Stephon's big bounce model portrays our cosmos as a dynamic, evolving entity -- something that could be alive.
And another scientist has taken this idea one step further.
He thinks our Universe has given birth to a whole family of cosmic offspring -- universes that lay hidden behind the dark horizons of black holes.
+++++++++++++++ All living things share one common feature -- they've all come from something.
The oak tree rises from the acorn which fell from another oak.
The human family tree dates back many thousands of generations.
If our Universe is alive, does it have an ancestor? And could it give birth to other universes? Lee Smolin conducts research at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.
Lee thinks about the laws of physics at the most fundamental level.
He's trying to understand how our Universe ended up with the particular laws of physics it has.
The laws of nature appear to be fine-tuned so that the Universe is hospitable to life.
If you consider what would happen if you change the laws of nature even slightly, then the Universe would cease to be friendly to life.
So there is something -- there's a mystery about why the Universe is so hospitable, why it's so friendly to biology.
Cosmologists have long wrestled with this puzzle which they call fine tuning.
If any of the forces of nature were stronger or weaker by a fraction of 1%, stars and galaxies would never form.
Even atoms might not exist.
To some, this is a sign that our Universe was carefully crafted by the hand of a creator who tailor-made it to support human life.
But Lee wanted a more scientific explanation, and he found one.
Not rooted in physics, but in the biological theory of evolution.
In natural selection, you explain how while the intricacy and structure of life arises progressively, you have something which is very improbable.
There's a method to explain it.
Evolutionists believe that creatures as complex as humans did not just miraculously pop into existence.
But rather, evolved through countless steps from ever-simpler organisms.
Likewise, Lee wondered whether our immensely complex universe was also shaped by a cosmic version of biological evolution.
Could the Universe have a history? Could it have ancestors? Has it evolved through its history? Could there have been random variation of laws, and then selection of those laws, selecting those that introduced the most structure, the most complexity.
So I asked myself that as a question, and cosmological natural selection is one answer to it.
It's the best answer to it so far, I know.
But in order for Lee's theory of cosmological natural selection to work, there has to be a mechanism by which an entire cosmos can reproduce and undergo mutation, the way DNA does from parent to child.
So you need a mode of reproduction.
You need variation.
You need something that determines the properties to vary from instance to instance, from ancestor to child.
And then you need selection.
So what could be those elements in cosmology? The answer to all these questions, Lee believes, lies in the hidden hearts of black holes, where the known laws of physics break down, and the as-yet-unknown laws of a theory called quantum gravity take over.
When a giant star explodes, our current theories predict that its core should collapse down to a single point and become infinitely dense.
But Lee's pioneering efforts to understand quantum gravity suggest it does not, and that instead, this is the moment an entire new Universe is born.
The star that formed a black hole is collapsing, and just before it would become infinitely dense, it bounces and begins expanding again.
And you can evolve new regions of space-time still within the confines of the horizon of the black hole.
But this region could grow and become large like our universe did after the Big Bang.
The dimensions of space and time of these new universes branch off from ours inside the black hole.
The laws of physics change when that happens at this very violent event, so that the parent resembles the children, and the children's children resemble them, but there are small changes.
It works just like biology.
You have a population of universes.
They give rise to progeny through black holes, and if you ask what laws are most successful, those are the laws that lead to universes that have the most black holes.
So what you get, generation by generation, is selection for the tendency to make as many black holes as possible.
Our Universe might exist on an ever-growing cosmic tree of life.
But this is not the most remarkable aspect of Lee's theory of cosmological natural selection.
As he explored which laws of physics allow a baby universe to produce more offspring, he discovered an uncanny connection between the cosmic tree of life and our own biological one.
To make black holes, you need very massive stars.
You need stars of 20 times the mass of the sun or more.
And to make these, you need big clouds of gas and dust that are cooled.
So the coolant turns out to be carbon monoxide.
And so you need carbon, and you need oxygen, which are the two atoms that you need most plentifully for life.
And in fact, the universe has lots and lots of carbon and lots and lots of oxygen, so the explanation for why the universe is bio-friendly is a side effect of the universe being very fruitful in terms of its own reproduction.
And I find that very endearing.
If Lee is correct, the laws of physics we know have been fine-tuned in order to keep the cosmos fertile for its own reproduction.
Those same laws also happen to make our universe a place where carbon-based life can flourish.
Our universe may be just one member of a giant family tree of cosmoses.
Since we can't see outside our universe, this idea will likely remain hard to prove, but there is one other way we could determine whether the universe is alive.
We could find its brain.
+++++++++++++++ What does it take to think? Inside my head is a network of several billion buzzing neurons.
In a computer, electrical pulses scurry across a maze of microscopic circuits.
Now some scientists are building computers out of atoms, deriving logic from the laws of quantum mechanics.
Since those laws apply to the entire universe, why couldn't the universe think? At M.
, Seth Lloyd welcomes us into the weird and wondrous world of quantum computing.
This is a machine that calculates in a way that will one day leave our current computers in the dust.
It is based on the idea that atoms and every subatomic particle can think.
Every atom, every elementary particle stores bits of information.
So electrons spinning like that is 0, electrons spinning like that is 1.
And every time two particles collide, those bits get flipped and processed.
The key to a quantum computer's power is that it can think more than one thing at a time.
But to understand how that can be, we need to comprehend the strange science of quantum mechanics.
The key thing to remember about quantum mechanics is that quantum mechanics is weird.
This is a technical term.
It means funky, counterintuitive.
It's like the James Brown of sciences.
You don't know what's going on or what's gonna happen next.
For the last 100 years, as scientists have studied nature at the microscopic level, they have noticed that particles can actually exist in more than one place at the same time.
And while they have struggled to explain why this should happen, Seth and his colleagues in quantum computing have simply accepted it and used it to their advantage.
I will now use this sophisticated lite-brite device to demonstrate the difference between classical computers and quantum computers.
So in any computer, classical or quantum, a bit can be represented by electron over here.
Now, in a classical computer, the electron is either over here, 0, or over there, 1.
It is definitely not 0 and 1 at the same time.
But in a quantum computer, electrons very happily are both 0 and 1 at the same time.
To see how this affects computation, let's suppose that electron over here says, "do this.
"Let's tell all these other bits to make some interesting pattern.
" And now you see what we have is we don't just have one bit that is doing this and that at the same time, we have many, many bits that are doing this and that at the same time.
So the quantum computer is doing two computations in some funky quantum sense at the same time.
And, hey, there's no reason to stop there.
Quantum computer is completely happy doing 100 or 1,000 or a billion or as many things as there are elementary particles in the universe, all at the same time.
The more, the merrier.
Seth has spent the last two decades making this ordered rearrangement of quantum bits work in a real device, one that can do real calculations.
The heart of this quantum computer is chilled with liquid helium and consists of a small, superconducting electrical circuit known as a cubit.
This cubit is a little, tiny thing.
It sits in a tiny little gold package like this, and in the middle of it, there's a tiny little circuit which a supercurrent can go around like this forever, or it can go around like that forever.
So we call supercurrent going around like this 0 and supercurrent going around like that 1 and supercurrent going around this way and that way at the same time All this rack of expensive equipment here is designed to talk to the cubit by sending microwave signals to it, to tickle it and massage it.
My job as a quantum mechanical engineer is kind of like a quantum atomic masseur.
We massage these molecules in a bunch of different ways.
And if you massage the molecule the right way, you can get this wiggling and jiggling so that it's actually performing a computation.
So the molecule, as it relaxes and sighs, "oh, that feels so good," says, "oh, if you really want me to multiply 3 times 5, I'll do it for you.
" Quantum computing is still in its infancy.
In fact, multiplying 3 times 5 is the most complex computation Seth's machine has ever done.
But Seth argues that his computer proves that subatomic particles can think, and that the universe, which is entirely built from such particles, must also be a quantum computer.
It processes and stores information at the microscopic level on everything we see around us.
And if the universe is processing information, then it must be thinking, and it must be alive.
The universe is not alive.
It's more than alive.
It contains life.
It does all the things that living things do.
It processes information.
It moves energy from one place to another.
The different pieces of it can reproduce each other.
But the Universe as a whole can do much more than just what living things can do.
The human brain can perform about 10 to the power of 16, or 10 million billion computations in a second.
In the same time, Seth believes the universe performs about 10 to the power of 106 computations, which makes the universe impossibly smarter than we can ever imagine.
If the universe is behaving like a giant quantum computer, and let's face it, it is, then it's capable of any kind of complex behavior we can imagine.
Not just creation of stars and planets, the evolution of life, it's also capable of behavior that we probably will never be able to comprehend.
The universe could be the ultimate intelligent organism.
And if the cosmos really does think like a quantum computer, then Jurgen Schmidhuber is ready to take the next logical step -- to read its mind.
+++++++++++++++ Some scientists now believe our universe is an enormous quantum computer, processing information on a scale that dwarfs human thinking.
If that is the case, is it possible to discover what it has already computed and see inside the mind of the cosmos? For centuries, great minds like Newton and Einstein have tried to discover the underlying physical laws of the Universe.
But seeing the cosmos as a colossal computation opens up a novel way to understand it.
Back at the Swiss Artificial Intelligence Lab, Jurgen Schmidhuber is not only preparing to unleash hives of swarm robots.
He has another, far more ambitious agenda.
He wants to re-create the Universe in a computer.
Could it be that the entire universe, everything that we see around us, is maybe just following very simple rules? The rules of physics, which are partially already known, but which might actually be program-like, as if the entire universe is just a huge video game.
Jurgen believes that even though the size of our video game universe is immense, the program that creates it does not have to be complex at all.
Just as in art, a few basic curves can create a pattern of great complexity.
There is a very short program that makes this pattern, and I can re-use it again and again to make this slightly more complex pattern.
Only very few of the circles are used to define every little detail of this drawing which means that the final drawing, this one here, can be encoded by a very simple program that can be written down in three or four lines of code.
The entire universe is nothing more than the pattern of atoms.
So if we could find a simple program that re-creates that shape in a simulation, Jurgen believes we could understand all of physics and the entire history of the cosmos.
So if we had this short program that computes this universe, then of course, we could replicate every single event that ever happened within it.
Especially would, in principle, be able to figure out what exactly happened during the Big Bang and then afterwards.
But as you might expect, this is not a trivial project, because to test any program you might write, you have to let its calculations run through a few billion years of cosmic time.
And then compare its simulation with how our universe actually looks.
The main problem is that to run this code again, we need a big computer, but it would be much smaller than the universe itself, which means that it would take a long, long time to replicate what the Universe has computed within 14 billion years.
But Jurgen isn't throwing in the towel just yet.
He is putting all his strength and energy into building stronger, faster, more intelligent machines.
When I was a boy, I wanted to become a physicist.
However, then I realized there is something even more productive that I could do.
I could try to build a physicist, or a scientist in general, that is much smarter than I could ever hope to be, then I could let this guy do the remaining work.
That's why I would like to build an optimal scientist.
We can already build robots that are stronger than us.
Assuming our computers keep getting faster at the current rate, it will not be long before we can also program robots to beat us in any mental contest.
At some point, we will have robot brains and computers that are not only as powerful as a human brain, but as powerful as all human brains taken together.
It might seem far-fetched that a swarm of futuristic robots will devote themselves to the task of finding the program of the universe, but just think what finding the answer would mean.
If we knew the shortest code, or that short program that computes this universe, then we would have answered the essential question of theoretical physics, namely, how does the world work? So we would solve the fundamental question of physics.
Understanding the fundamental rules of physics from which the universe is built has driven science for thousands of years.
It inspired great minds like Newton and Einstein.
It drove us to venture into space, and it is the goal of enormous atom-smashing projects like the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.
But Jurgen Schmidhuber's work in computation and robotics, inspired by the idea that the cosmos is a living, thinking machine, may be the only way to truly make sense of the Universe.
Or, all of these efforts may be a waste of time because one renegade scientist believes we've gotten it all turned around.
We don't need to find the mind of our universe.
The entire cosmos is nothing more than a figment of our imagination.
+++++++++++++++ How can I know what's going on inside your mind? How do I even know that you actually exist at all? It is possible that you are nothing more than the product of my imagination.
In fact, you and I could both be imagining everything we see around us.
Could we each be dreaming our own private universe? Dr.
Robert Lanza has always been on the controversial side of science.
He was the first stem cell researcher to actually clone an early stage human embryo.
Described by his peers and the press as a renegade thinker, Robert is now pushing on a new frontier.
He says the Universe is unquestionably a living thing, but with a shocking twist.
Yes, the Universe is definitely alive.
It's not an object.
It's an active process that actually involves our consciousness.
So if you look at the trees or the sky, the truth is, everything you see and experience is a whirl of information occurring in your mind.
Robert firmly believes that the Universe begins and ends in the mind of the observer.
That the universe is nothing more than the vivid imagination of our brains.
He calls his theory biocentrism.
In the external world, there's a range of electromagnetic radiation.
At one specific point, we'll see red, or to a certain bird, it may fluoresce orange.
Or to some animals, they can actually see radar or ultraviolet.
So all of these things are not determined by the external world.
They're determined by us.
So it's our mind that actually makes that subjective experience.
So biocentrism is the only rational way to explain the structure of the Universe.
Robert's radical theory stems from pondering another strange theory that is widely accepted -- quantum mechanics.
In quantum theory, particles can be in multiple places at once.
Until the moment you make a measurement, when the particle must end up in only one of those locations.
Which means nothing is certain until an observer makes a measurement.
Robert thinks we must apply the rules of the microscopic world to our everyday experiences.
Since everything we see, hear and touch is made up of microscopic particles, which led him to wonder, what really happens when a tree falls in the woods? So when a tree falls in the forest, it creates an air pressure disturbance.
According to simple science, that occurs whether or not anyone is there to observe it.
But we know for a fact that without the observer, that not a single particle in the tree or the air itself exists with definite properties.
So unless someone is actually observing the tree falling, there are no particles there to make the noise.
So without your consciousness, there's no sound.
Indeed, there's no tree.
The physical world around us is all an illusion, created by our minds, and when we close our eyes, space and time simply dissolve away.
Well, it's actually us, the observer, who creates space and time, and that's why you're here now.
Reality begins and ends with the observer.
Robert Lanza's biocentrism is a radical spin on the undeniable strangeness of quantum mechanics.
Quantum computation expert Seth Lloyd sees a different connection between biology and the Universe -- one that is less controversial, but just as mind-blowing.
He believes that every single thing that has happened since the Big Bang is part of a colossal computation that the Universe is still making.
And within the universe's vast array of atomic 0s and 1s exists what could be its crowning achievement -- biological life.
So the Universe is constantly generating little random bits of information.
Now, every now and then, one of these little random fluctuations will take hold and get amplified to a large scale and start to have really massive consequences in the Universe.
You could say that when life came along and created DNA, that there was already an ongoing computation going on, and life figured out how to hack into that ongoing computation to make a piece of it do something novel and different.
To think of the Universe as a single, living thing stretches our imaginations quite a bit.
The cosmos could be driven by a heartbeat that pumps out clusters of galaxies once every trillion years.
We could be the child of another universe and be spawning countless more.
Or the cosmos could be a giant computation, infected by a computer virus called biological life.
And we can't tell who is more alive -- The Universe or us.