One afternoon some years ago, I was walking through the snow thinking about other universes. More specifically, I was turning over in my mind the fact that the hospitality provided by our universe depends on many extremely special things. For example, if the electric repulsion between protons in the nuclei of atoms were just a bit stronger, then those atoms, and hence chemistry, and hence life itself, could not apparently exist. And there are many other such ‘coincidences’. I had convinced myself that there were four – and pretty much only four – possible explanations for the fact that the laws of physics seem to be carefully chosen to allow us living, conscious beings to be here.
First, perhaps the laws of physics really were designed for us: when the universe began, it (or some superbeing that created it) had us – or at least life – in mind. Second, perhaps it was just an immense coincidence: there was one ‘roll of the dice’ that specified, among other things, the force between protons, and we just got colossally lucky. Third, it could be that many ‘universes’ exist with different laws of physics, and we are perforce in one of the universes that allow life. Fourth, perhaps the coincidences are illusory: perhaps life would somehow find a way to arise in any universe, with any possible set of physics.
A feeling grew in the pit of my stomach that the Universe really is a pretty mysterious place. The mystery is not about why the Universe has some particular properties rather than others, but about the connection between those properties and our very existence as living, conscious beings contemplating those properties. Not only are you intimately connected to the Universe on the largest scales, you are central. This is not to deny that you are in some sense an infinitesimal arrangement of dust on one small planet out of billions of trillions in our observable universe, which might well be one of many universes. But you are also a giant: a thinking, conscious being responsible for giving meaning, and even existence, to the universe you inhabit.
Sometime after, I was recounting my thoughts to a good friend who happens to be a longtime practitioner of Zen Buddhism. He noted that my experience reminded him of Zen koans, vignettes that embody teachings about reality as explored by Zen adepts. Through koans, a teacher can confront a student with a situation that, while initially baffling, can be resolved through added insight rather than more knowledge or previous experience.
I decided to create a set of cosmological koans to explore the connections between us and the Universe – a set of open doors through which you are invited to walk. The selection below interrogates the nature of time, and the way we pass through it in the cosmos at large. [Continue reading…]