And the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is?
"The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy." Steven Weinberg
The answer is in a message from the creator?
The answer to 'Life, the Universe and Everything' is of course 42, as calculated by the super-computer in 'Hitch Hiker's guide to the Galaxy' by Douglas Adams. In the real world however, we look deep into space, peer down microscopes, smash atoms and compute complex equations, but it all amounts to the same thing - we are looking for answers. We are looking for a lump of rock, or a planet, or a single cell, that when examined reveals a message running all the way through it, and the message will say "Made by God", or words to that effect. If that were to happen we would know for certain that there was a God, that He created the universe, and that we are here for a reason. Perhaps there really is such a message somewhere in the universe. Perhaps it's millions of light years away to ensure that we will not discover it until we have attained a level of technical sophistication sufficient to be able to understand it. Perhaps, on the other hand, it's right here, under our noses.
Where do we look for the message?
We can look for messages in the living world, and in a sense have already found the message of life in DNA. The information contained within that remarkable double helix is the blueprint for the formation of a living being. But DNA , although revealing much about life, as yet has revealed nothing else, and furthermore is very unlikely to.
Could there be a message for us somewhere in the universe? Perhaps, but if the universe had a creator, and wanted us to know, it would have been a simple matter to write "Made by God" on the surface of the Moon, visible to the naked eye. But the creator, if there is one, may have been much more devious in hiding the message, if such a message does indeed exist.
Where then should we look for such a message should it actually exist? In the arrangement of the grouping of galaxies? In a grain of sand? In the bible? The problem is that if we look hard enough for a pattern, we can always find one because the human brain has a remarkable ability to detect patterns (I wonder why that is?). For example, let's take the bible. There is a book "The Bible Code" where the author claims to have discovered a secret code embedded in the bible text that reveals prophecies, and the book lists many of those prophecies that have come to pass, including the terrorists attack on the World Trade Centre. The claim looks interesting at first glance, the author gives 'verified' mathematical proofs that the 'messages' are way above what could be expected by pure chance alone, and quotes endorsements from various mathematicians, etc. etc. Now here is the catch. The 'messages' are found in a pattern on the printed page, either up, down, diagonal, every second word, every third word, every second line, every fourth line - whatever, so long as the words are in close proximity on the page. The bible text used is in Hebrew and the words are given a number of interpretations to meet today's modern language. A computer is then set the task of finding a specific event looking for key words, such as "War, Iraq, USA, 2003". Sure enough, given the broad scope, it will eventually find these words on the same page in some sort of pattern or other. However, it is not a prophecy when events can be found AFTER the event by searching for the key words. It is claimed that future events can be found, but with so much information generated by the computer it would be very difficult to isolate any meaningful event. I would argue that if, for example, this web site 'Theories with Problems' was used instead of the bible, with the same amount of freedom of interpretation, I am sure it would produce the same results. The number of possibilities for finding meaningful messages in that volume of text is simply incredible, NOT finding a message would be amazing!
It is quite clear then that simply searching for a message is not enough, we need be very clear on what we are prepared to accept is a message.
What would we accept as proof of a message?
Instead of looking for a message in the bible, or in biology, or on the surface of the Moon, perhaps a message awaits us in the one science that is generally regarded as an eternal truth - mathematics. Carl Sagan exploited this idea brilliantly in his science fiction novel 'Contact'. Here the message was ingeniously embedded in the calculation of pi after a few billion decimal places, the clear implication being that only the creator of the universe could have engineered this. In case you are wondering, pi has already been calculated to many billions of decimal places without showing any signs of a message. There is of course an almost endless list of possibilities where super fast super powerful computers may search for order in a strings of digits where no such order should be found. But what if they do find such order? What would it mean?
Suppose a computer in calculating an 'endless' number found this sequence after a few billion decimal places :-
Would this signal a message, or a 'flag' that a message followed? First of all it would be necessary to determine what the statistical probability would be of producing that string by chance alone after a few billion decimal places. There would then be endless arguments between various experts in the fields of mathematics and statistics as to whether or not the string was significant. This would no doubt be followed by thousands of people armed with computers examining the sequence of digits before the string and after it and no doubt coming up with everything from the periodic table to the number 66 bus route time table. My point being that a message from the creator would have to be unambiguous, undeniable and inarguable. I just don't see a statistically unlikely string of digits tucked away in some obscure corner of mathematics as coming anywhere near meeting that criteria. So what would?
With our present level of technology I think it reasonable to say that no such message exists on Earth that meets the criteria we have set. If it did we would have surely already found it.
Could there be a message out in space just waiting to be discovered? Just as an example let's imagine that the Hubble Space Telescope takes a very long exposure of an area of space that to the naked eye appears to be devoid of any object. After many hours of exposure the resultant picture reveals a group of distant galaxies, so far away that each galaxy appears to be a pin prick of light against the darkness of space. Nothing new in this by the way, only this time the galaxies are arranged in such a manner as to look like letters, and the letters spell out the message "Greetings to the people of planet Earth, the creator of the Universe welcomes you". Would anybody deny that the message was in fact what it purported to be? I am sure many would. They would claim that the image was fake, or that it was just pure chance the galaxies lined up that way when viewed from Earth, or that it was a computer programme glitch onboard Hubble, and so on. Those that choose not to believe a thing are capable of finding all sorts of reasons why.
So what message would meet the criteria of being 'unambiguous, undeniable and inarguable'? I think none, I think it impossible. We all have our own way of looking at things, our own way of working things out, our own standards. What to one may meet all the criteria, to another may meet none, it all depends on your personal point of view. So forget the idea of finding some sort of hidden message, it just wouldn't work, unless that is, the message carried its own proof. If, for example, the message found by the Hubble Space Telescope was followed by the precise time of the next star to go supernova, and named the star, or the next gamma ray burst, or any other astronomical event that is impossible to predict, then I suggest that would have to be taken as absolute proof that the message was genuine.
If such a message were to be found, and if the message was undeniably genuine and proclaimed to come from the creator of the universe, what would we do? How would we react?
Suppose on the other hand we never find such a message, would we find our own answer to the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything?
Could we find the answer in a theory?
Perhaps instead of finding a message from the creator we may one day discover a theory that explains everything scientifically without any need for a creator. We may one day be able to explain all the forces of nature - even to the extent of explaining how the universe came into creation from nothing. If that ever came about, that the creation of the universe could be explained without the need of a creator, that even that the existence of a creator would be absolutely impossible, then that would be the end of religion. Or would it? Personally I doubt that very much. After centuries of belief I do not expect that the millions of people throughout the world who believe in a God of one sort or another will stop believing simply because some scientists come up with some clever maths! No, religion will not die just because of a theory, no matter how clever that theory may be.
Are we any closer to finding the fabled 'Theory of Everything'? This theory carries the general name of 'Grand Unified Theory', or GUTS for short. The theory hopes to describe the physical behaviour of all particles and forces - the fundamental interactions - in one set of mathematical equations. There has been considerable progress made over the years in unifying the different forces. In the 19th century James Maxwell showed that electricity and magnetism were not two separate forces as first believed, but that they are two facets of the same interaction, now known as electromagnetism, and described by one set of equations. In the 20th century this description had been improved to include the effects of quantum mechanics. It is the hope and expectation of many physicists that all the four fundamental forces, in order of strength starting with the weakest - gravity, the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, and the strong force - will be explained in one mathematical package.
GUTS would also require the combining of our two greatest theories. Ever since Einstein produced his remarkable theory of relativity scientists have searched for a single theory that would combine relativity and quantum theory. Quantum theory and relativity are the two greatest theories ever discovered, they are the great pillars of 20th century physics, each so accurate in its description and predictions that it cannot be faulted. But the amazing problem these two wonderful, precise theories have is that they are mutually incompatible, they cannot both be true!
Stephen Hawking in his 1988 best seller "A Brief History of Time" believed that the Theory of Everything would soon be found and that it would be the ultimate triumph of rational thought, saying: "For then we would know the mind of God." Hawking has attempted to unify general relativity and quantum theory, but in a lecture delivered in California and reported in the New Scientist dated April 3rd 2003 said:
"Up till now, most people have implicitly assumed that there is an ultimate theory that we will eventually discover. Indeed, I myself have suggested we might find it quite soon. Maybe it is not possible to formulate the theory of the universe in a finite number of statements. We and our models are both part of the universe we are describing. We are not angels who view the universe from outside."
Hawking is now re-examining the work of Kurt Godel, the Austrian-born mathematician. In 1931 Godel came to the remarkable conclusion that mathematics would never be 'finished' because there were theories that could not be proved from first principles. Mathematics was incomplete, he said. Hawking believes that he has come to the same conclusion for the physical world.
Some cosmologists have gone further than Hawking and said that neither relativity or quantum theory is true. Instead they can both be viewed as approximations of some bigger, more fundamental theory - the Theory of Everything. However, even if there is no such thing as a Theory of Everything, it may not matter much beyond the esoteric world of theoretical physics. Professor Richard Kenway of Edinburgh University, Scotland, said:
"Theoretical physics has always been looking for an ultimate answer to everything. From a philosophical point of view having a theory of everything is very attractive. It is neat to think there is a single, simple explanation behind everything. Nature suggests very strongly that it exists. But whether it actually matters? I don't think it does."
Perhaps there is no answer?
Simply because we are very good at asking questions does not mean that we should assume there is always an answer. There may be no answer, no explanation or reason for our existence, and we may just have to accept that.
Understanding the universe around us will take time, a long time, if ever. But we are making progress and things are beginning to make sense. Most things are beginning to make sense. The one thing however that we will never be able to understand is how the universe came into existence.See Where did the universe come from? How could it possibly come into existence? Where did it come from? What caused it to come into existence? The whole thing is just downright impossible, yet here we are proving that it is possible. Annoying isn't it!
As I described in Is there a reason for our existence? we are all a part of the universe. It is not possible for us to examine the universe as if it were something separate from us, as if we were looking at it from the outside. The very atoms that make us, the same atoms that were born in the fires of stars, are part of the fabric of the universe itself. We are as much a part of the universe as any region of 'deep space' or any remote galaxy. We are the universe. Our individual existence is but a fleeting moment in the history of the universe, it is just a particular and brief arrangement of assorted atoms collected from all manner of places. See what am I? Before we came into existence our atoms were arranged differently, forming other objects on our planet, or perhaps on other planets. Some of those atoms could have formed part of a giant Redwood tree, others perhaps the rocks under our feet. Before that period those same atoms could have been floating freely across space for millions of years as part of a massive molecular cloud. Before then the atoms would have been forged inside giant stars under extremes of pressure and temperature. Some of our atoms would have required even greater temperatures and energies to form and would have been created at the moment of a stars death, when it exploded in a massive super-nova. We could, theoretically, trace back the individual history of each one of the billions of atoms that are currently arranged to make us. It would be interesting to learn how many different objects we have been part of in the universe, and will be again when we die, and how far we have travelled across the universe since its incredible creation.
It is interesting to note that at the very moment of creation of the universe, the entire universe was contained inside an area smaller than a single atom. At that time there were no atoms, all was energy, and all was connected. As the universe has expanded and cooled matter was able to form. Even though the universe is now many billions of light years across, it would appear that there still exists a connection between atoms that were once connected. SeeWhat is Quantum Mechanics? This was discovered as a result of the EPR paradox. It is therefore quite possible that every one of us is - in some mysterious way - still connected, with not only everyone else, but everything else in the universe. We are just one huge, connected organism that has developed self-awareness. In other words we are all part of an intelligent self-aware universe.
So what am I? I am a collection of re-cycled atoms that is currently arranged in such a way that I exist as a conscious entity. When I die my atoms will once again be re-cycled into the universe at large and will form parts of other objects. One day in the future I may even be in the rain that falls onto my great grand children's garden. I suppose that is a kind of immortality.
In the meantime we may as well just sit back and enjoy the ride. God knows where it's taking us, but all will be revealed one day, maybe. In the meantime perhaps we should delve deeper into the mysteries of quantum mechanics, relativity, light speed, religion, the Big Bang Theory, extraterrestrial life, time, time travel..........but just a minute, I think this is where we started.
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