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About the Author
James Gardner, a well known and widely published complexity theorist, lives in Portland, Oregon. His first book, Biocosm, was selected as one of the ten best science books of 2003 by the editors of Amazon.com and was featured in major stories in TIME, U.S. News & World Report, Harper's, and National Geographic and other major publications. Gardner's path-breaking scientific articles have appeared in Complexity (the scientific journal of the Santa Fe Institute), Acta Astronautica (the scientific journal of the International Academy of Astronautics), the International Journal of Astrobiology, and the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. He is a regular lecturer at prominent institutions around the world.
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HITCHING A RIDE ON THE SOFTWARE OF EVERYTHING
It is hardly surprising that Galileo conceived of the cosmos as a book, open to all and waiting to be read. Printing and bookmaking, after all, were high technological accomplishments in his era — enablers of enlightenment and progenitors of the very concept of law in both natural and judicial contexts. Writing in the 1760s, the Italian jurist Cesare Becarria concluded that the most significant factor behind Europe's emergence from a dark age of lawless tyranny was not better rulers, better judges, or even better laws. It was rather "the art of printing, which makes the public, and not a few individuals, the guardians of the sacred laws."
The art of printing played an equally critical role in catalyzing the birth of modern science. Galileo himself had been inspired by an early astronomical text — On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus, considered to be the father of modern astronomy. Galileo had been required to censor his personal copy of Copernicus's classic book in compliance with very specific instructions issued by the Vatican in 1620, though he made sure the deletions were sufficiently faint that the original text remained legible. With respect to the heavenly book inscribed in the form of mathematical formulae tracking the movements of stars and planets, Galileo surely realized that no such strategy of evasion was required — the universal text was written in indelible ink,and no erasure or redaction would ever be possible, whatever Rome might decree.
Each era in history, it seems, has its own favorite metaphor with which to imaginatively conceive of the basic nature of the universe. Moreover, these metaphors seem to embody a key artistic or technological achievement of that era. For Galileo, the universe was a book, reflecting the crucial importance of printing and publishing to the dissemination of scientific theories and discoveries. In an earlier era, the Greeks conceived of the cosmos as a musical composition, reflecting the importance of music in their culture. For Isaac Newton, the cosmos was a vast clock, ticking off the moments of absolute time with the invariant precision that Einstein would subsequently show to be illusory.
The highest technological achievement of our own era is arguably software and computer fabrication, so it is not surprising that many leading thinkers have begun to speak of the universe as a kind of ultimate laptop, running on a mysteriously well-crafted operating system.
So let's consider the possibility that, contrary to Galileo's speculations, the universe is not actually a vast open book, but rather a massive natural computer. Its operating system would consist of the fundamental laws and dimensionless constants of physics. Its processing units would be the collage of stars, galaxies, planets, black holes, dust particles, molecules, and physical forces that populate the cosmos and shape its ongoing physical evolution. That's not as crazy as it sounds, as we'll see in a moment.
Stephen Wolfram and the Software of Everything
This seemingly bizarre conception of nature — the cosmos as a giant computer — is not as far-fetched as it might at first seem. In 2002, computer scientist and multimillionaire entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram self-published a massive tome that is indisputably the weightiest (literally and figuratively) popular science title. Roughly the size and weight of a large concrete building block, Wolfram's A New Kind of Science put forward an exceedingly simple — not to say lightweight — thesis. His basic idea, reiterated ad nauseum, was that:
... beneath all the complex phenomena we see in physics there lies some simple program which,if run for long enough, would reproduce our universe in every detail.
Wolfram argued that the Holy Grail for which cosmologists should be searching is not a so-called Theory of Everything — a set of equations akin to E = mc that might conceivably provide a unifying explanation for the diverse natural phenomena that are now the province of incommensurable scientific paradigms such as quantum physics and general relativity. Rather, Wolfram contends,scientists should be seeking a kind of Software of Everything — an elusive program that, if run long enough, would duplicate the entire cosmos and everything in it.
Wolfram's Software of Everything would be the mother of all source codes, generating not only the movements of stars and planets but also the emergence and evolution of life and intelligence:
[W]ith such a program one would finally have a model of nature that was not in any sense an approximation or idealization. Instead, it would be a complete and precise representation of the actual operation of the universe — but all reduced to readily stated rules. In a sense, the existence of such a program would be the ultimate validation of the idea that human thought can comprehend the construction of the universe. But just knowing the underlying program does not mean that one can immediately deduce every aspect of how the universe will behave. ... [T]here is often a great distance between underlying rules and overall behavior. And in fact, this is precisely why it is conceivable that a simple program could reproduce all the complexity we see in physics.
The idea may seem wacky, but Wolfram possesses unassailable credentials in the fields of science and technology. His impressive resume lists a Ph.D. at age 20 from Caltech, and a MacArthur Fellowship (often called a "genius grant") at age 21 (he's the youngest person ever to receive this prestigious honor). At age 23, Wolfram arrived at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies (Einstein's old haunt) with an audacious goal: to reduce the emergence of all of nature's complexity to the ceaseless operation of peculiar pattern-generating mechanisms called cellular automata.
Cellular automata are a special class of software programs that were discovered by the mathematician and computer pioneer John von Neumann. A cellular automaton is nothing but a simple computational mechanism that alters the state of a cell on a checkerboard-like grid — for instance, changing its color from white to black — depending on the state of other cells on the grid that are either adjacent to or near the target cell, in accordance with a simple transformational rule (such as the immediately prior colors of the target cell and its neighbors). The program is called an automaton because it blindly follows the simple rule with which it has been programmed over and over.
The truly astonishing thing about these simple little programs is their ability to generate a stunning degree of pattern diversity if allowed to operate long enough. Churning away mindlessly, cellular automata (CAs, for short) can disgorge intricate physical representations that bear an uncanny resemblance to complex and beautiful features of the natural world. Wolfram once inadvertently reproduced the stunning pattern of certain mollusk shells, for instance, just by running a simple little CA program repeatedly. He later discovered that other parallels to nature's own patterns began appearing like magic on his computer screen, including patterns indistinguishable from the geography of river basins and the intricate shape of snowflakes.
It turns out that this was no coincidence. It is now becoming clear that, at a deep level, the pattern-generating processes of nature operate very much like Wolfram's little cellular automata. Consider those mollusk shell patterns, for instance. They are generated by biological versions of exactly the same type of CA computer program that Wolfram was using in his laboratory. Nature, it seems, is doing something that looks suspiciously similar to computation.
Edward Fredkin and Digital Physics
Wolfram is not the only serious scientist who believes that the universe is a kind of vast natural computer with parallels to human-designed laptops. Computer guru Edward Fredkin famously advocates a vision of nature that he calls digital physics. The essence of Fredkin's vision, expressed in an audacious scientific paper, is his hypothesis that there will eventually be discovered a "single cellular automaton rule that models all of microscopic physics, and models it exactly."
Fredkin, an eccentric multimillionaire entrepreneur, is a self-taught computer genius who views the world from a decidedly unusual perspective. But he's no crank. His intellectual skills are such that he was made a full professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology without ever having acquired a bachelor's degree. And his lifelong obsession with using the tools of computer science to illuminate the basic processes studied by physicists has yielded some unusual insights. His basic concept — that information is the basic stuff of which the universe is made, and that matter and energy are derivative phenomena — takes some getting used to.
Still, the idea has slowly gained credibility since Fredkin first articulated it decades ago. It is at the foundation of the new sciences of complexity that a bevy of Nobel laureates are eagerly exploring at the famous Santa Fe Institute. And if you tilt your head and squint at the idea from just the right angle, it displays a certain undeniable plausibility.
Here is how Fredkin described his theory in an interview with science writer Robert Wright:
What I'm saying is that at the most basic level of complexity an information process runs what we think of as physics. At the much higher level of complexity life, DNA — you know, the biochemical functions — are controlled by a digital information system. Then, at another level, our thought processes are basically information processing.
That seems eminently reasonable, indeed, uncontroversial. But then Fredkin goes off the deep end, plunging into treacherous and murky metaphysical waters that most scientists avoid like the plague. It's not that Fredkin is simply arguing that computation and computers are useful metaphors that can aid our understanding of nature (similar to the metaphor of artificial selection that helped Darwin formulate his theory of evolution through natural selection). No, Fredkin believes that the universe really is a giant mainframe. As Wright puts it:
Fredkin believes that the universe is very literally a computer and that it is being used by someone, or something, to solve a problem. It sounds like a good news/bad news joke: the good news is that our lives have purpose; the bad news is that their purpose is to help some remote hacker estimate pi to nine jillion decimal places.
What is the cosmic computer actually computing? What is it trying to figure out? Fredkin admits he has no idea and indeed insists that there's no way to discover the answer to this ultimate question — or, for that matter, the identity of the Cosmic Programmer — without waiting around for the program that constitutes the evolving universe to complete its entire operating cycle. As Fredkin puts it:
There is no way to know what the future is any faster than running [the universe] to get to that [future]. Therefore, what I'm assuming is that there is a question and there is an answer, okay? I don't make any assumptions about who has the question, who wants the answer, anything.
The longer Fredkin goes on explaining the implications of his theory, the more he seems to veer off into a weird techno-religious zone that bears an uncanny resemblance to the scientifically disreputable intellectual territory populated by the Intelligent Design crowd:
Every astrophysical phenomenon that's going on is always assumed to be just an accident. To me, this is a fairly arrogant position, in that intelligence — and computation, which includes intelligence, in my view — is a much more universal thing than people think. It's hard for me to believe that everything out there is just an accident. ... What I can say is that it seems to me that this particular universe we have is a consequence of something I would call intelligent. ... There's something out there that wants to get the answer to a question. ... Something that set up the universe to see what would happen.
Especially quirky is Fredkin's fervid insistence that the religious concept of soul can be reformulated in terms of computational theory:
The soul in every living thing is the informational part of that thing that is purposefully engaged in the informational aspects of its ability to be conceived or germinate, grow with cells differentiating, grow further in size, move, make use of sensory information, react reflexively, learn, behave instinctually, think intelligently, communicate with other beings, teach, reproduce, evolve and in general carry out informational interactions starting with the combining of parental DNA, informational interactions with itself, with things external to itself through senses, actions, constructions, creations and communications, and with its progeny through contributed DNA. A soul can learn from experience, from reflection or by being taught by other souls. In short, a soul can teach other souls.
If this sounds like the ranting of some weirdo who has cobbled together an intellectual hodgepodge consisting of bits and pieces of the spiritual teachings of the Dalai Lama, the sermons of Pat Roberts, and lessons learned in Computer Science 101, then you need to remind yourself that truly original thinkers often stray into what professional skeptic Michael Shermer calls the borderlands of science — or even far beyond the legitimate borders of science into the realm of spiritualism and rampant religious speculation.
Isaac Newton's theological ruminations, for example, dwarf in page count the content of his famous Principia Mathematica.
The Secret Religious Writings of Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton is the father of modern physics, and arguably the greatest scientific genius who ever lived. His storied mathematical depiction of the force of gravity in the Principia Mathematica required him to first invent calculus. The elegance and simplicity of his formulations furnish the standard by which the quality, and indeed the very beauty of scientific work, has been judged ever since.
It comes, then, as a bit of a shock to learn that Newton's deepest passion was not unraveling the mysteries of the ubiquitous gravitational force, but rather attempting to discover hidden messages in the Bible. The secret writings in which he distilled the fruits of his biblical scholarship are only now coming to light.
For instance, Newton wrote a 300,000-word commentary on the Book of Revelation (available online at www.newtonproject.ic.ac.uk). Somewhat ominously, near the end of his life he casually predicted that the most dramatic events of the Apocalypse would begin to take place in the year A.D. 2060.
More recently, respected cosmologist Frank Tipler published a book entitled The Physics of Immortality that seeks to prove the teachings of the Christian faith on the basis of mathematical physics. And Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate who co-discovered the molecular structure of DNA — arguably the most important triumph in biology since the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species — enthusiastically endorsed the oddball notion that intelligent extraterrestrials deliberately seeded Earth with primitive life (the idea is called directed panspermia). So perhaps genius should be accorded the privilege of occasional eccentricity.
Make no mistake, Fredkin is a genuine genius. As MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky put it, the creators of new scientific paradigms are unlike most working scientists. For such radical innovators,"there's no point talking to anyone but a Feynman or an Einstein or a Pauli. The rest [of working scientists] are just Republicans and Democrats."
Seth Lloyd and the Cosmos as a Quantum Computer
The newest and most sophisticated advocate of the view that the entire cosmos should be regarded as a massive computer is Seth Lloyd. Lloyd is a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, principal investigator at the Research Laboratory of Electronics, and designer of the world's first feasible quantum computer. He frequently contributes to prestigious journals such as New Scientist and Scientific American.
As with Wolfram and Fredkin, Lloyd thinks the cosmos is a giant computational device. But he takes this proposition one step further, asserting that the universe is a huge quantum computer.
The difference between a quantum computer and an ordinary PC is that the former exploits all the weird aspects of quantum physics to conduct super-fast calculations that are simply impossible on a traditional digital computer. For instance, rather than churning through various numerical combinations that might crack a top-secret National Security Agency code, a quantum computer can explore all the possibilities simultaneously. (It is hardly surprising that the NSA is one of the top sources of funding for quantum computing research.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Intelligent Universe"
Copyright © 2007 James Gardner.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I - ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE,
Chapter 1 - HITCHING A RIDE ON THE SOFTWARE OF EVERYTHING,
Chapter 2 - STAGES ON ARTIFICIAL LIFE'S WAY,
Chapter 3 - SINGULARITIES BEYOND SINGULARITIES,
Part II - EXTRATERRESTRIALS,
Chapter 4 - THE FERMI PARADOX REVISITED,
Chapter 5 - COLONIZING THE COSMOS AT LIGHT SPEED,
Chapter 6 - THE COSMIC MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE,
Part III - THE EMERGING MIND OF THE COSMOS,
Chapter 7 - WILL RELIGION SURVIVE CONTACT?,
Chapter 8 - THE UNIVERSE IS COMING TO LIFE,
Chapter 9 - ALPHA <-> OMEGA,
Appendix A - THE PHYSICAL CONSTANTS AS BIOSIGNATURE: AN ANTHROPIC RETRODICTION ...,
Appendix B - COEVOLUTION OF THE COSMIC PAST AND FUTURE: THE SELFISH BIOCOSM AS ...,
Appendix C - THE SELFISH BIOCOSM: COMPLEXITY AS COSMOLOGY,
About the Author,