by Laura Kemmerer
For as long as humankind has existed, we have been searching for meaning. Whether it is through the personal experiences of religion or through the quantifiable, scientific fact, humankind has struggled to find its place in the universe. But recent findings and theories have introduced the human race to a whole new paradigm—what if the universe, itself, is alive?
Ask three different people for a definition of what it means to be alive, and you’ll get three very similar sounding, but also vastly different, answers. For the sake of argument, some common elements between definitions of life are—the ability to evolve over time, replication, originating from another living creature, and/or eventual death. According to theories presented in the TV show “Through the Wormhole,” the idea that the universe is alive is not as strange as some might think.
Swarm Bots: Working as a Team
According to “Is the Universe Alive?,” an episode of “Through the Wormhole,” Juergen Schmidhuber, a computer scientist known for his work with neural networks, tells us that consciousness can exist across many bodies. With his small army of “swarm bots” to demonstrate, each individual robot can act as part of a cohesive whole to accomplish tasks that one robot could not do alone. Schmidhuber postulates that if the universe is alive, the consciousness most likely exists in many areas, thus making the universe a super-organism.
The Heart of the City Beats Twice a Day
In that same episode, particle physicist Geoffrey West takes this idea a few steps further by suggesting that life itself is defined by a complex series of systems and how they relate to one another. Using the example of a city, West argues that like the veins and arteries in our bodies that carry and distribute energy, the roads and the people traveling them function in much the same manner. While the heartbeat of a small rodent beats about 500 times a minute, a whale’s heart only beats once every 10 seconds. Using these observable phenomena as a model for the city example, the logic naturally follows: a super-organism like a city has a “heart” that only beats twice a day—with the ebb and flow of commuters in the morning and in the evening.
The Big Bounce Model Creates the Beating Heart of the Cosmos
Physicist Stephen Alexander suggests that we have heard the heartbeat of the universe, and it can be found in the Big Bounce model of the universe’s beginnings. The Big Bang posits that a very dense, highly temperatured cluster of matter exploded, which has resulted in the universe we see today. The Big Bounce model differs from that of the Big Bang in that there was a previous universe which collapsed, and in turn “bounced out” into the universe that we now inhabit. If this holds true, the contraction and expansion of the universe can be seen as the beating of the cosmos’ heart. But because gravity is strongest when things reach the point of singularity, Alexander believes that the force that drives the universe back out into expansion are neutrinos. According to the Big Bounce model, the universe does not actually ever reach that final singularity, but is “pushed back out” by the repulsive force found in neutrinos that reach a superfluid state when under that kind of compression, which that kind of gravity enforces.
Subatomic Particles can Think
“Through the Wormhole” takes us a step further with the proposition that it only logically follows that if the universe is alive, there should be a physical brain, or at least some way to observe computations. Professor Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believes that all subatomic particles can think, and if we regard the universe itself as a quantum computer, the universe is more than alive. Since all subatomic particles can think, the universe is constantly processing information. With the kind of unimaginable “computing power” the cosmos may wield, initializing something like the evolution of life seems to be nothing more than a trivial task.
Whatever your own personal views are on the universe and our relationship to it—both as individuals and as a species—one thing is for certain: the cosmos is a strange place beyond reckoning. Given what little we know about the universe we inhabit, is it such a strange thing to envision the cosmos as being alive?