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Last Updated: Monday, 9 October 2006, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
The Goldilocks Enigma
The Goldilocks Enigma - Professor Paul Davies

Professor Paul Davies' The Goldilocks Enigma tackles fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it. Scientific breakthroughs, he argues, have brought us to the brink of comprehending the underlying structure of nature or "a final 'theory of everything'".

In doing so, he suggests, an overarching explanation of existence may be about to replace all previous models - both theological and scientific. And central to finding this solution, he says, is answering the Goldilocks Enigma - why is it that "the universe seems 'just right' for life"?

THE GOLDILOCKS ENIGMA is published by ALLEN LANE, an imprint of Penguin Books.

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By Paul Davies

Extract one:

For thousands of years, human beings have contemplated the world about them and asked the great questions of existence: Why are we here? How did the universe begin? How will it end? How is the world put together? Why is it the way it is? For all of recorded human history, people have sought answers to such 'ultimate' questions in religion and philosophy, or declared them to be completely beyond human comprehension. Today, however, many of these big questions are part of science, and some scientists claim that they may be on the verge of providing answers.

Two major developments have bolstered scientists' confidence that the answers lie within their grasp. The first is the enormous progress made in cosmology - the study of the large-scale structure and evolution of the universe. Observations made using satellites, the Hubble Space Telescope, and sophisticated ground-based instruments have combined to transform our view of the universe and the place of human beings within it. The second development is the growing understanding of the microscopic world within the atom - the subject known as high-energy particle physics. It is mostly carried out with giant particle accelerator machines (what were once called 'atom smashers') of the sort found at Fermilab near Chicago and the CERN Laboratory just outside Geneva. Combining these two subjects - the science of the very large and the science of the very small - provides tantalizing clues that deep and previously unsuspected linkages bind the micro-world to the macro-world. Cosmologists are fond of saying that the big bang, which gave birth to the universe billions of years ago, was the greatest ever particle physics experiment. These spectacular advances hint at a much grander synthesis: nothing less than a complete and unified description of nature, a final 'theory of everything' in which a flawless account of the entire physical world is encompassed within a single explanatory scheme.


If almost any of the basic features of the universe, from the properties of atoms to the distribution of the galaxies, were different, life would very probably be impossible. Now, it happens that to meet these various requirements, certain stringent conditions must be satisfied in the underlying laws of physics that regulate the universe, so stringent in fact that a biofriendly universe looks like a fix - or 'a put-up job', to use the pithy description of the late British cosmologist Fred Hoyle. It appeared to Hoyle as if a super-intellect had been 'monkeying' with the laws of physics. He was right in his impression. On the face of it, the universe does look as if it has been designed by an intelligent creator expressly for the purpose of spawning sentient beings. Like the porridge in the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, the universe seems to be 'just right' for life, in many intriguing ways. No scientific explanation for the universe can be deemed complete unless it accounts for this appearance of judicious design. Until recently, 'the Goldilocks factor' was almost completely ignored by scientists. Now, that is changing fast. As I shall discuss in the following chapters, science is at last coming to grips with the enigma of why the universe is so uncannily fit for life. The explanation entails understanding how the universe began and evolved into its present form, and knowing what matter is made of and how it is shaped and structured by the different forces of nature. Above all, it requires us to probe the very nature of physical laws.

Extract two:

I want to run through some other 'coincidences' of a similar nature. Hoyle's 'put-up job' turned out to be the first of many instances in which seemingly small changes in some basic parameters of physics would prove lethal. A good way to think about this is to imagine playing God and setting out to design a universe. Suppose you had already settled on the basic laws of physics but you still had some free parameters at your disposal. The values of these parameters could be set by twiddling the knobs of a Designer Machine. Turn one knob and the electron gets a bit heavier, turn another and the strong force becomes a bit weaker, and so on. You could do this and see what happened to the universe. When would it make a big difference, and when would it scarcely matter? Although physicists can't actually carry out the experiment (at least not yet!), they can perform simple calculations to see what - all else being equal - such changes would do to the prospects for life. The qualification 'all else being equal' is important here, because we have no idea whether the various parameters of interest are actually free and independent, or whether they will turn out to be linked by a more comprehensive theory, or possibly even determined completely by such a theory. Maybe you can't raise the mass of the electron and lower the strength of the strong nuclear force together because these two properties of nature are connected in some deep way that forbids it. From our present knowledge, however, that wouldn't seem to be the case.

Extract three:

So, how come existence? At the end of the day, all the approaches I have discussed are likely to prove unsatisfactory. In fact, in reviewing them they all seem to me to be either ridiculous or hopelessly inadequate: a unique universe which just happens to permit life by a fluke; a stupendous number of alternative parallel universes which exist for no reason; a pre-existing God who is somehow self-explanatory; or a self-creating, self-explaining, self-understanding universe-with observers, entailing backward causation and teleology. Perhaps we have reached a fundamental impasse dictated by the limitations of the human intellect. I began this book by saying that religion was the first great systematic attempt to explain all of existence and that science is the next great attempt. Both religion and science draw their methodology from ancient modes of thought honed by many millennia of evolutionary and cultural pressures. Our minds are the products of genes and memes. Now we are free of Darwinian evolution and able to create our own real and virtual worlds, and our information processing technology can take us to intellectual arenas that no human mind has ever before visited, those age-old questions of existence may evaporate away, exposed as nothing more than the befuddled musings of biological beings trapped in a mental straightjacket inherited from evolutionary happenstance. The whole paraphernalia of gods and laws, of space, time and matter, of purpose and design, rationality and absurdity, meaning and mystery, may yet be swept away and replaced by revelations as yet undreamt of.

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