The Laws of Physics and the Existence of Life

George F. R. Ellis writes in Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology:

The first requirement is the existence of laws of physics that guarantee the kind of regularities that can underlie the existence of life.  These laws as we know them are based on variational and symmetry principles; we do not know if other kinds of laws could produce complexity.  If the laws are in broad terms what we presently take them to be, the following inter alia need to be right, for life of the general kind we know to exist:

  • Quantization that stabilizes matter and allows chemistry to exist through the Pauli exclusion principle.

  • The neutron-proton mass differential must be highly constrained.  If the neutron mass were just a little less than it is, proton decay could have taken place so that by now no atoms would be left at all.

  • Electron-proton charge equality is required to prevent massive electrostatic forces overwhelming the weaker electromagnetic forces that govern chemistry.

  • The strong nuclear force must be strong enough that stable nuclei exist; indeed complex matter exists only if the properties of the nuclear strong force lies in a tightly constrained domain relative to the electromagnetic force.

  • The chemistry on which the human body depends involves intricate folding and bonding patterns that would be destroyed if the fine structure constant (which controls the nature of chemical bonding) were a little bit different.

  • The number D of large spatial dimensions must be just 3 for complexity to exist.

It should not be too surprising that we find ourselves in a universe whose laws of physics are conducive to the existence of semi-intelligent life.  After all, we are here.  What we do not know—and will probably never know: Is this the only universe that exists?  This is an important question, because if there are many universes with different laws of physics, our existence in one of them may be inevitable.  If, on the other hand, this is the only universe, then the fantastic claims of the theists, or at least the deists, become more plausible.

You may wonder why I call the human race semi-intelligent.  Rest assured, I am not being sarcastic or sardonic.  I say “semi-intelligent” to call attention to humanity’s remarkable technological and scientific achievements while also noting our incredible ineptness at eradicating war, violence, greed, and poverty from the world.  What is wrong with us?

G.F.R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.

Constants of Nature

We continue our series of excerpts (and discussion) from the outstanding survey paper by George F. R. Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

The constants of nature are indeed invariant, with one possible exception: the fine structure constant, where there is claimed to be evidence of a very small change over astronomical timescales.  That issue is still under investigation.  Testing such invariance is fundamentally important, precisely because cosmology usually assumes as a ground rule that physics is the same everywhere in the universe.  If this were not true, local physics would not guide us adequately as to the behaviour of matter elsewhere or at other times, and cosmology would become an arbitrary guessing game.

The fine structure constant (α) is a unitless number, approximately equal to 1/137, that characterizes the strength of the electromagnetic force between electrons.  Its value is the same no matter what system of measurement one chooses.  If the value of α were just a little smaller, molecular bonds would be less stable.  If the value of α were just a little larger, carbon—which is essential to life—could no longer be produced inside of stars.

Do constants of nature, specifically dimensionless physical constants such as α, the fine structure constant, and μ, the proton-to-electron mass ratio1, vary with time?  This is an active topic of investigation.  If constants of nature change at all, they change so slowly that it presents a formidable challenge to measure that change.  But if they do indeed change, it would have profound implications for our understanding of the universe.  A lot can happen in 13.8 billion years that might not be at all obvious in the infinitesimal interval of a human life or even human civilization.

“Despite the incessant change and dynamic of the visible world, there are aspects of the fabric of the universe which are mysterious in their unshakeable constancy.  It is these mysterious unchanging things that make our universe what it is and distinguish it from other worlds we might imagine.” – J.D. Barrow, The Constants of Nature. (Vintage, 2003).

I’d like to conclude this discussion of constancy and change with a poem I wrote about the possibility of sentient life having a very different sense of time than we humans do.

Life On a Cold, Slow World

Life on a cold, slow world
On Europa, perhaps, or even Mars
On distant moons and planets of other stars.

A minute of time for some anti-freeze being
Might span a year for us human folk
(A greeting could take a week, if spoke.)

How fast our busy lives would seem to pass
Through watchful eyes we cannot see
Curious about our amative celerity.

The heartbeat of the universe runs slow and deep
We know only violent change, the sudden leap
But that which is most alive appears to sleep.

David Oesper

1μ = mp / me ≅ 1836

Barrow, J.D., Webb, J.K., 2005, Scientific American, 292, 6, 56-63

Ellis, G. F. R. 2006, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology, Philosophy of Physics (Handbook of the Philosophy of Science), Ed. J. Butterfield and J. Earman (Elsevier, 2006), 1183-1285.