This universe would have to be one sick fucked-up computer program. How else do you account for the Eurovision Song Contest, the Spice Girls or Arsenal regularly beating Spurs at home?
‘This universe we live in: scientists have discovered some remarkably strange things about it. So strange they are having to use the most disturbing principles to describe what’s going on.’ Horizon: The Anthropic Principle, BBC 1987
Scientists point with prurient probing to the peculiarly incestuous relationship between the universe and mathematics. High-church big-up respect to Galileo who realised that the universe obeys mathematical laws — so is mathematics merely a language that sets to paper the music of the universe, or is there a more fundamental key?
‘If Max [Tegmark] is right, Maths isn’t a language we’ve invented, but a deep structure we are gradually uncovering like archaeologists. An abstract unchanging entity that has no beginning and no end. As we peel back the layers we are discovering the code. Strange as it seems it’s a comforting theory because if the reality is a mathematical object, understanding it might be within our reach.’ Horizon: What is Reality? BBC 2011
Imagine a trip like Alice down a black hole, up through a white rabbit hole, over the rim of an event-horizon and into a universe thirteen and a half billion years old and floating on a vibrating membrane of ten dimensions of Space and one of Time, where every particle vibrates like String — now that really would be mad.
‘But Lenny [Susskind] didn’t stop there. He and other physicists made a truly shocking leap of the imagination: they asked what if the whole of reality is a hologram, projected from our own event- horizon, the far edges of the universe.’ Horizon: What is Reality? BBC 2011
‘What a piece of work is man!’ enthused Hamlet in one of his upbeat moments. ‘How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!’ This backward, red-necked day-dreaming species of human — half a chromosome away from a chimpanzee the late Christopher Hitchens called us — like Herculean giants crawl from the gutter to look up at the stars and with the mighty power of reason seize black holes by the throat, swim down wormholes, smash atoms like a quantum game of billiards, suck from the bellies of comets, and toast the delights of a champagne supernova star-bursting universe.
‘We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.’ Professor Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan, Cosmos: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean, 1979
‘But yet I could accuse me of such things, that it were better my mother had not borne me,’ sorrowed Hamlet in one of his downbeat moments. ‘I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in’. This backward, bigoted, bloody-minded species of humans — barely down from the trees — abandoned its moon landings to spend hundreds of billions on nuclear weapons, abandoned its brothers and sisters by the millions to die of starvation, and abandoned the benevolence of a good nature to burn with greed for the Yankee dollar.
‘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.’ Professor Steven Weinberg
The freedom of a consciousness-raising trip to the stars outshines the synthetic rush of endorphins from the strictures and confines of false religious dogma. Unchain the mind and release a roaming spirit to explore a superstar universe where wonders are weirder than we can suppose.
‘Look up at the stars. Not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see. And wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.’ Stephen Hawking, 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony
The reader will have noticed that alien life is highly popular these days. The modern cosmologist is not so reluctant to regurgitate a strong fancy for extra-terrestrial life as say Carl Sagan who saw little benefit in belching the reaction of his gut.
Ah! Alien life was so much simpler then. Were Martians green? I can’t remember. Memory gone to pot. Triffids were popular. So was Captain Scarlett. The prize for the coolest alien is credited to the film It Came From Outer Space, featuring aliens with the foresight to be shot in 3-D.
Nowadays planet Earth is crammed with crash-heavy sky-roaming aliens raining on our parade. Big greys. Little greys. Ferocious fang-faced blood-sucking chupacabras who prefer to suck on Puerto Rican goats rather than the superior though tougher-skinned noble English goat.
The pain-in-the-neck neighbours to avoid are probably the Borg from Star Trek, whose cuboid tastes in architecture will bring down the tone of your neighbourhood, and who are giving honest gangstas a bad name.
The discovery of prime real-estate planets replete with their own pristine suns, the age of the universe, and the ease with which the virus of life spreads from desert to ice-cap suggest the universe should be chocka with tech-savvy aliens wanting to sell us afterlife insurance.
‘The universe is a pretty big space. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So, if it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space, right?’ Professor Carl Sagan
The Milky Way is studded with two to four hundred billion suns, each dripping their own dream team of darling planets, and the universe is studded with a harem of two to four hundred billion galaxies. Estimates vary (seventy billion to a trillion) but all agree the universe is bigger than Disneyland. And far more fun.
The nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi over an informal lunch confounded friends with the indigestible entree, ‘Where Is Everybody?’ (or ‘Where Are They?’), and by the desert course was conceived the Fermi Paradox — the contradiction between the high probabilities of extraterrestrial life cf. the reluctance of extra-terrestrials to make contact with cardigan-wearing, be-spectacled, shaggy-bearded scientists.
And it came to pass on planet Earth that from those primeval black and white days when creatures other than politicians crawled from black lagoons a group of scientists at SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — have been zapping the skies with radio telescopes in the hope of swapping phone numbers with back-packing outward-bound aliens.
Back in the short-trousered black and white day, the small club of Big scientific Knobs who, tuning in and dropping out, founded SETI included the astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. When scrambling a scratch agenda for the founding meeting of SETI scientists, Frank Drake scribbled an equation to estimate the number of detectable extra-terrestrial hang-outs in the bars and pool-rooms of the Milky Way. Feel free to add your own constraints to the seven big sisters of Drake’s famous equation: average annual rate of star formations (about seven), the fraction of stars with planets, fraction of planets that can support life, fraction of planets to evolve life, fraction of planets evolving intelligent life, fraction of intelligent civilisations that evolve technology, the time taken by intelligent civilisations to release detectable radio signals into space.
‘Occasionally, I get a letter from someone who is in ‘contact’ with extraterrestrials. I am invited to ‘ask them anything’. And so over the years I’ve prepared a little list of questions. The extraterrestrials are very advanced, remember. So I ask things like, ‘Please provide a short proof of Fermat’s Last Theorum’. Or the Goldbach Conjecture ... I never get an answer. On the other hand, if I ask something like ‘Should we be good?’ I almost always get an answer.’ Carl Sagan