As a cosmologist, I often carry a Universe Or two in my pocket. Not large infinitely large entire universes, but probably across a few billion light years or so. It is enough to have fun.
Of course, these are not “real” universes. Rather, they are worlds that I have simulated on a computer.
The basic idea of simulating the universe is very simple. You need “initial conditions” which, to me, are the state of the universe right after the Big Bang.
To this, I added the laws of physics, such as: how gravity pulls mass, how gas flows into galaxies, how stars are born, live and die.
You hit “go”, then sit back as a file computer calculates All the complex interactions, and evolution of the universe through cosmic time.
What’s even more fun is playing Master of the Universe, fiddling with the laws of physics, like changing the properties of gravity, or how black holes swallow matter. Waiting to see the outcome of these altered universes is always interesting.
I know in my heart that these universes are nothing more than ones and zeros buried inside my computer, but in the movies I make of my own evolving galaxies and clusters, which are included below in this article, I can see the cluster moving around. It looks real!
Computer simulations of complex phenomena are ubiquitous in science, and cosmologists aren’t the only ones to marvel at the artificial bits of the real universe.
It’s also inspiring to watch air flow About a newly designed wing, or how individual molecules make their way through a biological membrane, this simulation has revolutionized science.
Of course, these developments have only occurred with the growth of computer power over the past few decades, and the always-pushing push toward including more complex physics on an enormous scale of scales, from cosmology to quantum.
We are always limited by computing power, but as computers get bigger and faster, so do the details inside our artificial worlds.
Cosmologists aren’t the only ones to marvel at the artificial pieces of the real universe.
But let’s imagine a time in the future, a time when computers are powerful enough to simulate an entire human brain, with a wide array of interconnected neurons.
These neurons obey the laws of physics, and fire when their chemical balances change. Thoughts will resonate around this artificial brain, with electrical signals going back and forth.
Being a philosopher, I will ignore the (seemingly endless) debates about free will and consciousness, but if you take a purely mechanical view of the human brain, an artificial brain will be as “alive” as the organic brain that made it.
Fed with a stimulus from an artificial body that reacts to an artificial universe, he will experience pain, fear, happiness, love, and even boredom and drowsiness.
There are, in fact, some who believe that we will be reborn in a glorious future, where computers are powerful enough to recreate everyone who has ever lived, and then preserve them forever.
While this vision of the sky is described as the ultimate human principle, some have described it more explicitly as the “totally absurd anthropic principle” or CRAP.
But we may not have to wait until the distant future!
In simulations, I can see the mass moving. It looks real!
Quoting the late great Douglas Adams, “Another theory is that this actually happened.”
It’s not that someone on Earth, or even within our own universe, has created a truly artificial universe, complete with beings that you don’t really know are only part of a computer experiment.
No, the startling realization is that we—our very existence, everything we’ve seen, experienced, or ever will experience—might be nothing but creaking bits in an unimaginably supercomputer.
When I write this on a laptop, staring out of the train window at the station as it rolls over, at the people, the trees, the dirt on the ground, surely I’ll know if I’m part of a computer program?
But then again, my brain is simply processing the input, and if the simulated input being fed into my simulated brain is good enough, how do I know that?
It is important to remember that this image is different from the “Brain-in-a-vat” shown in the Matrix films. There, the organic brain is fed information, recreating the synthetic world in which the characters find themselves.
Instead, our picture is that there is no organic brain. We are part of the matrix Itself.
So how do we know if we are part of a computer simulation?
It is important to remember that terrestrial computers are limited in the way they can represent real numbers, and have only a finite number of numbers for typical computations.
What this means is that the simulated universes are quantized, in a sense, with a finite precision printed in the details of the structure being produced.
If we live in a computer simulation, perhaps these precision effects are obvious to us. Our world is not like Minecraft worldand so we would expect the precision scale to be smaller than the scale of individual atoms, rather than the large, cubic blocks the size of footballs.
Just last month, researchers from the University of Bonn, Germany, suggested that we could detect such “clumping” on the small scale by looking at how high-energy particles, known as cosmic rays, cross vast distances in the universe. When these rays bounce through this space, their energy properties change, and by looking at what reaches the Earth, we can calculate the size of the pieces.
But there are problems with this idea.
First, we work on the assumption that the computer we live in works like a normal computer. But these everyday computers are governed by the laws of physics of the artificial universe in which we live.
The unimaginably powerful computer that hosts our universe may work in ways we can’t even think of.
The precision scale of our universe is much smaller than it is in “chunky” Maine Craft Universe.
Another problem is that those trying to understand the nature of very small things have already suggested a quantitative background to the place and time in which we live.
Is the existence of such spacetime simply a property of a real universe, or a tell-tale sign of an artificial universe? How can we differentiate between them? Do we even want that?
One possible way to reveal the true nature of the universe is to look for unusual things — or, in the words of my children, playing video games, “glitches” — where the program does not work as expected.
Perhaps some of the unexplained things we can’t explain are simply glitches in the software (although I’m a fan of scammer Derren Brown and I think the human mind can easily be fooled).
The other alternative is more harsh.
When my artificial universes are working, they can stop suddenly for a variety of reasons, such as full disk space, memory errors, or something as simple as a cleaner that disconnects the computer in order to vacuum the floor.
If my artificial universe works when the power goes out, it simply ceases to exist.
I hope the cleaners in our simulated masters of the hyperdimensional universe will be more careful.
This article was originally published by Conversation.
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