The Universe Can Bend the Laws of Physics All By Itself, Scientists Say
Universe

The Universe Can Bend the Laws of Physics All By Itself, Scientists Say

According to a new theory, the cosmos perpetuates itself by constantly modifying its own physical laws over time.

An autodidact is someone who learned a subject without the assistance of a teacher or formal schooling. Leonardo Da Vinci, a master of 16 languages, Kató Lomb, a renowned Hungarian interpreter who knew at least 17 languages, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange are all examples of self-taught maestros. There may be a new addition to that list: the great cosmos. According to new research just released on the pre-print server arXiV, the cosmos may be constantly teaching itself how to grow into a more stable form (meaning the work has not yet been peer-reviewed).

The paper, co-authored by Microsoft researchers and scientists from Brown University, argues that all of the laws of physics that we can see or measure today are laws that have evolved over time. They argue that if we want to understand how these physical laws originated, we should apply Darwinian natural selection to cosmology.

Let us explain: As the universe sought stability over time, the simpler physical laws on which it was founded evolved to become far more sophisticated. Why do we still have cats and dogs but no trilobites or dinosaurs? Cats and dogs have proven to be the most adaptable to their surroundings, successfully passing on their genes to their progeny. By analogy, the universe is the same; the difference is that the universe does not need to compete with other universes in order to continue.

Consider an early version of the world in which gravitational attraction between objects, for example, was a more primitive concept. In that case, Newton’s law of gravitation, which states that all particles of matter in the universe attract all other particles of matter with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers, could not be true.

Today, that law explains why the moon’s surface gravity is about one-sixth that of Earth’s (the moon has far less mass). However, in this simplified universe, gravity may have been a more static idea, with gravity on the moon and Earth being the same. You can apply the same line of thinking to the other 14 laws of physics.

“Over time, that system will teach itself, and some fundamental laws will arise, and that’s really what they’re talking about [in the paper],” explains Janna Levin, a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University and director of sciences at Pioneer Works, a New York-based community encouraging radical thinking in the arts and sciences. “If the universe can compute with a given set of algorithms, then maybe it can do the same kind of thing we see in artificial intelligence, where you have self-learning systems that teach themselves new rules. And by rules, in cosmology we mean laws of physics.”

At this point, the paper combines cosmology and biology, or the study of the cosmos and its beginnings. “We ask whether there might be a mechanism woven into the fabric of the natural world, by means of which the universe could learn its laws,” the authors write. In other words, a universal law may apply to all scientific disciplines. That suggests that the laws of physics as we know them could be subject to higher-order universe laws that control them—laws we don’t even understand.

“Exploring links between fields is crucial because knowledge is not fundamentally compartmentalized,” says Bruce Bassett, professor at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Mathematics and head of the Cosmology Group at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences in South Africa. We beings are merely limited in our thinking. “We segment and compress knowledge into biology, and physics, and sociology because of our limited brains, and the cost of that segmentation and compression is that we easily miss the commonalities and hidden universality between branches of human knowledge.”

That may be why humans struggle to accept the idea that the world is self-learning—we can’t explain it properly with our present scientific disciplines. “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to us,” renowned cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson has said.

And, unlike us, the universe does not need to compete with other universes; the cosmos is mind with its own existence. Of course, when we use verbs like “compete” and “mind” to describe the whole, we are succumbing to anthropocentrism, the philosophical belief that everything begins and ends with humans. But we can’t help ourselves. “A lot of the way we think about the world is rooted in the language that we become familiar with,” Levin says. “The universe doesn’t have a conscious mind, just like selection hasn’t; selection is 100 percent agnostic.”

The scientists admit near the end of their roughly 80-page-long study that all they are doing is taking the first baby steps toward the formation of a new theory. “It is indeed early to comment about whether these ideas have anything to do with our universe. The core idea is intriguing and blends cosmology with the core ideas behind artificial intelligence, but is speculative and radical at the same time,” Bassett says.

However, he quickly adds that theoretical physics requires radical ideas. “It is an invitation to explore a crazy idea because we find ourselves confronted by a crazy universe,” he says. “Chances are, it will not lead anywhere interesting, but perhaps it will inspire a real breakthrough, and perhaps it will lead us somewhere even the authors could not imagine.”

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