December 12, 2012

The Anthropomorphic Principle

The anthropic principle, I think, is one of the more pleasurable mind games embraced by new physics. Be it strong (conscious life is inevitable in this universe) or weak (a universe compatible with conscious life will be inevitably beheld by that conscious life), the "anthropy" implied is us: not just conscious life in general, but carbon-based human beings capable of questioning the parameters of our existence. I'm amused that Wikipedia cites Douglas Adams on this (though, haven't we all?): "English writer Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, used the metaphor of a living puddle examining its own shape, since, to those living creatures, the universe may appear to fit them perfectly (while in fact, they simply fit the universe perfectly)." The percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere supports our respiration system exactly; the amount of dark energy in the universe inflates space at just the right speed to enable life-supporting gravitational pull; the quantity of buffalo mozzarella Lombardi's tops its pizza with is precisely suited to our taste buds. And so on. It's Descartes repackaged (j'observe, donc je suis) and Heidegger redux ("Man only inhabits the keeping of what gives him food for thought--he does not create the keeping.") It's also theoretical evidence that there must be other universes, and therefore, other forms of life--but unique to their environments. Cue Brian Greene's elaboration on the multiverse theory, and Seth Lloyd's interpretation of quantum information theory, and you've got a universe filled with flipping bits quantum-mechanically powered to produce increasingly complex life forms.

Swing over to the subatomic, and you've got another element of existential observation: the Higgs particle. Advertised to endow electrons and W and Z bosons with mass, the Higgs is one of many entangled factors that allowed this universe to evolve in our favor. It's also an experimental holy grail, as it completes the Standard Model; even more intriguing would be data that hints at a physical framework beyond the SM. Tomorrow's forum at CERN may reveal that 2012 data from ATLAS and CMS shows discrepancies from what the SM predicts, bolstering some of my favorite theories, including some kind of supersymmetric standard model. 

The real fun, though, has already begun as pop culture takes an anthropomorphic turn: the Higgs particle was nominated by Time Magazine as its "Person of the Year" for 2012! Posthumanists unite. (Regrettably, Time's writer got his facts about the Higgs all kinds of wrong, a low moment for science journalism.) It's silly, but also a stunning indication of how far quantum physics has come in terms of layman awareness; four years ago, when I started writing this blog, my romance with the Higgs was an outlier. Now the Higgs memoir can be titled Collective Paraphilia: Why I Revealed Myself. Because isn't that the implication of such a nomination, that the Higgs played a role in its own discovery? I'm kidding, I think the decision rested more with the controversy of identifying one physicist as the hero, and not Peter Higgs and all of CERN, but still. I dig it, and it makes me wish so hard that Barbara Johnson were alive to write a book about it. A probabilistic object: the ultimate deconstruction.

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