WHICH UNIVERSE WOULD YOU LIKE? Five stars of American science meet in Connecticut to explain first and last things

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[ Tue. Aug. 27. 2002 ]

Eastover Farm is halfway between New York and Concord, where the New England transcendentalists surrounding Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson first contemplated their design for a new society. The farmer who lives there likes to think bigger. During the week he represents authors and sells their books in the international marketplace, and when he plays host to five stars of American science on a cloudless summer day, it is guaranteed that he will harvest the depths of their knowledge. This time, in luxuriously green Connecticut, he asks them to explain the cosmos to him - its origin, its life, and its end. "You have to think big," one of the cosmologists even says, matching the opinion of John Brockman, prophet of the Third Culture and experienced weekend farmer.

Seth Lloyd goes first. Because he usually massages atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in order to make them amenable to information processing, he imagines both ourselves and the entire universe as a giant computing machine - a quantum computer, which according to Moore's Law will consume the collected store of energy in the universe in six hundred years. By that time the universe and everything in it would belong to Microsoft. Lloyd, not just a scientist but a jester as well, expresses his hope that between now and then Bill Gates will produce a more reliable software than Windows.

"Does what I am saying make me sound like I've gone crazy?" he asks, only to deliver the hardly comforting reply, "People who work on quantum mechanics talk this way." Consequently, all of those assembled here feel included. Paul Steinhardt does in any case, segueing from Lloyd's computational universe to his own favorite, the cyclic universe. The theoretical astrophysicist from Princeton celebrates our glorious present, an exceptional period in the history of humanity, which according to his argument, is about to mount a new level of evolution. Before us lie, if only we look carefully, the snapshots of the birth, education, and restless years of the universe. While Steinhardt's colleagues are predominantly of the opinion that the fundamentals of the strange history have already been worked out, however, he expresses his doubts. His alternative model, which breaks with the generally accepted understanding of the Big Bang, conceives of time as something as endless as space, and the evolution of the cosmos as a cyclic process. Steinhardt, who holds the position of Albert Einstein Professor in Science at Princeton, is appropriately convinced that his universe of cycles would excite not only his chair's patron, but also Nietzche, not to mention Hindu thinkers.

The good news is that the Big Bang is truly a simple bang. Without fail, following the foreseeable end is a new beginning. The bad news is that after fourteen billion years we currently live in an endphase and will have to leave the new beginning to foreign beings. The Epicureans had it good, believing in the immortality of a single universe in order to suppress their fear of death long before the cosmologists of Eastover Farm. Steinhardt's theory of the eternal cycle, in which expansion and crash alternate, has yet another snag. According to the laws of relativity theory, a large amount - indeed a growing amount - of entropy would have to be left over. Who or what helps us out of this dilemma? There is string theory, for example, which argues for the existence of fine threads in the subatomic regions, instead of waves and particles. For those for whom this model of the universe is still too speculative, it would be better sticking to the professionally tested and eagerly expanded vision of the inflationary universe.

At least its discoverer, Alan Guth, an MIT researcher, is here to explain how the model looks these days. As he begins it becomes quiet in the small circle, which sits in the shade of an almost cosmically aging maple tree, so quiet that it is as if nature - earthly nature anyway - could eavesdrop. Since it was first postulated, explains Guth, inflationary theory has branched out in many directions. One of its more conventional models both borrows from the Big Bang and repudiates it at the same time. It shows how matter comes into being, and how it again and again goes through a rapid expansion and evolution, but the cause - the Big Bang itself - is left out. For the inflation theorist, the universe is flat, homogenous and isotropic; that is, containing the same characteristics everywhere. It is also closed, from which he infers that parallel lines will at some point intersect and a rocket with enough propulsion over a short or very, very long distance will return to its original point of departure. By the way, what happens to dark matter, that mysterious material whose constituent particles have to date only been inferred from the gravitational forces that stabilize galaxies?

Just then, salmon and green asparagus is served, accompanied by conversations not about cosmological riddles, but about shoelaces. But despite the change in topic, the scientific method is still the mode. Finding out why shoelaces tied in different ways will produce the same knot appears to be a colossally complicated mathematical problem. Naturally,the discussion also turns to A New Kind of Science, Stephen Wolfram's scientific book of the season, in which the universe outs itself as a cellular automat. The consensus is that it is overrated and not a revolutionary manifesto. There is no question that the patterns that Wolfram extends for page after page are not sufficient to release an evolutionary process. Algorithmic complexity? For whom hasn't this flash of recognition occurred in the shower. Over coffee and cookies the space program sneaks into the conversation. It is an undertaking that doesn't delight cosmologists so much as amuse them. One of the thinkers jokes that it is as advanced as the Cuban auto industry. Another says that it is pure performance art, only a blessing for business in Houston. There is space travel so that, and because, there is space travel, jokes a third.

Passing the tennis court, which a farm like this can't do without, the digestive walk continues through a pine forest and to a deep green pond. On the way back Ray Kurzweil, the Messiah of spiritual machines, reveals why cosmological speculations will soon be redundant. When in the near future the Singlarity is reached, a transhuman level of intelligence whose existence relies on the melding of man and machine, the destiny of the universe lies in both our hands and the hands that we ourselves shape. At that time we will be able to manipulate the universe according to our desires and whims. Consequently, neither the inclination towards expansion nor the dangers of contraction will be of great concern.

Back under the maple tree, in whose shade the group of five reconstructs itself, Marvin Minsky, the legendary co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, takes his turn. He devotes his talk to the emotional universe, but does not avoid questions that people no longer dare to ask: Who created the universe? And why? His answer: The universe is much too complex to have a single explanation - or should we actually say universes? Our universe is very possibly one among many, extraordinary only because we use it for eating, drinking, and loving, for thinking and feeling, and briefly for living - if we live in it at all. In the end perhaps we are only embedded in a simulation. Who would have designed the program? Even Minsky cannot say.

The last chance for a final revelation is Ray Kurzweil. His intelligent universe is driven by the exponentially accelerating process of technology, which he trusts will even surpass the speed of light. His colleagues from the academy look on skeptically, but do not voice any dissent. We will unlock the mysteries of intelligence, Kurzweil continues, and thanks to the fusion of biological and non-biological intelligence, we will in three hundred years' time rule the universe. Because of this he really doesn't trust the past as a competent guide for the future.

So much optimism nearly drives the participants to end the conversation. They begin a free floating debate, which drives them back and forth across the universe. Guth encourages the exploration of black holes, not to be confused with cosmic wormholes, which Kurzweil - just like the heroes of Star Trek - wants to use as a shortcut for his intergalactic excursions and as a means of overtaking light. Steinhardt suggests that we should realize that we are not familiar with most of what the cosmos consists of and do not understand its greatest force, dark matter. Understand? There is no such thing as a rational process, Minsky objects; it is simply a myth. In his cosmos, emotion is a word we use to circumscribe another form of our thinking that we cannot yet conceive of. Emotion, Kurzweil interrupts, is a highly intelligent form of thinking. "We have a dinner reservation at a nearby country restaurant," says Brockman in an emotionally neutral tone.

JORDAN MEJIAS covers the United States in his capacity as arts correspondent of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He studied music and Romance languages and literature on both sides of the Atlantic. He has lived in New York since 1974. He is the author of therecently published collection of his German writings under the title Amerika. Ein Porträt in Porträts.

(See Jordan Mejias' EDGE bio page)

[translation: Christopher Williams]

Copyright © 2002 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung GmbH Frankfurter

[Original German text]