Can Life Exist in Alternate Universes?


Just by reading at that title you might have disregarded this article as pure fantasy. And to be honest, I had to read the MIT article twice before I took it seriously.

Although it’s pure speculation, there’s something appealing about considering multiple universes (a scenario known as the “multiverse”) where anything — and I mean anything — is possible. But just because an alternate universe is possible, it doesn’t mean life can exist there.

Now scientists from MIT — obviously not content with searching for life within our own cosmos — have shown that alternate universes could nurture life even if the fundamental nature of these universes is totally different from our own.

Quark Tweaking

Professor Robert Jaffe and his team at MIT recently had their work published on the front cover of Scientific American after they reached this intriguing conclusion. By slightly altering the masses of the fundamental particles that make up the matter in our universe, Jaffe et al. have shown that although the characteristics of the elements may change, organic chemistry should still be possible in the multiverse.

In the multiverse, “nature gets a lot of tries — the universe is an experiment that’s repeated over and over again, each time with slightly different physical laws, or even vastly different physical laws,” says Jaffe.

Focusing only on carbon-based life forms (i.e. Life As We Know It™), the MIT scientists worked out some different scenarios by tweaking the masses of the tiny particles that make up protons and neutrons. These particles are called “quarks” and they come in six different “flavors” but Jaffe only looked at the most common quarks: the ‘up,’ ‘down’ and ‘strange’.

The Right Mix For Life?

Soon after the Big Bang, energy conditions in our universe were ‘just right’ for matter to form, cool and clump together in such a way that it eventually formed the galaxies, stars and planets that we see today.

But say if something was slightly different? What if one of the forces failed to separate from the primordial soup of matter over 13 billion years ago? What if the earliest particles to form — such as quarks — had slightly different masses than we measure today?

In previous studies, researchers have altered the characteristics of just one variable to see how their modified universe would evolve. Most of the time, the resulting universe became radically different, throwing everything into a chaotic mess where the most basic chemistry couldn’t hope to survive.

It was analogous to pulling a critical block (a constant) out of an unsteady Jenga tower (the universe), toppling the stack.

The question of life in these situations never came up, it was impossible for any stable elements or compounds to form.

But in this new research, the idea was to alter mass of all the quarks, not just one of them.

In our universe, the down quark is about twice as heavy as the up quark, resulting in neutrons that are 0.1 percent heavier than protons. Jaffe and his colleagues modeled one family of universes in which the down quark was lighter than the up quark, and protons were up to a percent heavier than neutrons. In this scenario, hydrogen would no longer be stable, but its slightly heavier isotopes deuterium or tritium could be. An isotope of carbon known as carbon-14 would also be stable, as would a form of oxygen, so the organic reactions necessary for life would be possible. — MIT release.

Although the fundamental particles would be very different, organic chemistry would be possible in this case.

It’s All About Compensation

In complementary research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, scientists didn’t ponder the mass of quarks, but totally removed one of the four fundamental forces of our universe instead. Then they allowed the other forces to compensate.

Anti-Spock and Leotard-Kirk? No, the multiverse could be a lot more alternative than that.

In this case, the weak force (the mechanism that allows protons to change to neutrons and vice versa) was removed and the strong force, electromagnetic force and gravitational force were all tweaked to compensate. It appeared to work, allowing stable elements to form.

So the upshot is that the fundamental constants we measure in our universe are likely to differ from the constants measured in the multiverse. But that doesn’t mean that life as we know it can’t exist, it’s just composed of matter governed by different laws.

Unfortunately we are unable to test any of these theories as we cannot experience (and measure) the fundamental constants in alternate universes (if they exist), so this is a speculative study.

However, as we’ve explored our cosmic backyard, hunting for any signs of the building blocks of life, we’ve found organic chemistry on moons, comets, asteroids and distant exoplanets. We are gradually beginning to realize that the potential for life is ubiquitous throughout our galaxy.

Taking this one step further, is life also ubiquitous in the multiverse? There are both zero and infinite answers to that question.

Source: MIT Release.

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