Developing quantum-gravity technologies may elevate us to a “class A” civilization, capable of creating a baby universe
Avi Loeb is former chair (2011-2020) of the astronomy department at Harvard
University, founding director of Harvard's Black Hole Initiative and
director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He also chairs the Board on
Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies and the advisory board
for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a member of President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Loeb is the bestselling author of Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
The biggest mystery concerning the history of our universe is what happened before the big bang. Where did our universe come from? Nearly a century ago, Albert Einstein searched for steady-state alternatives to the big bang model because a beginning in time was not philosophically satisfying in his mind.
Now there are a variety of conjectures in the scientific literature
for our cosmic origins, including the ideas that our universe emerged
from a vacuum fluctuation, or that it is cyclic with repeated periods of contraction and expansion, or that it was selected by the anthropic principle out of the string theory landscape of the multiverse—where, as the MIT cosmologist Alan Guth says “everything that can happen will happen ... an infinite number of times,” or that it emerged out of the collapse of matter in the interior of a black hole.
A less explored possibility is that our universe was created in the laboratory of an advanced technological civilization. Since our universe has a flat geometry with a zero net energy, an advanced civilization could have developed a technology that created a baby universe out of nothing through quantum tunneling.
This possible origin story unifies the religious notion of a creator with the secular notion of quantum gravity. We do not possess a predictive theory that combines the two pillars of modern physics: quantum mechanics and gravity.
But a more advanced civilization might have accomplished this feat and
mastered the technology of creating baby universes. If that happened,
then not only could it account for the origin of our universe but it
would also suggest that a universe like our own—which in this picture
hosts an advanced technological civilization that gives birth to a new
flat universe—is like a biological system that maintains the longevity
of its genetic material through multiple generations.
If so, our universe was not selected for us to exist in it—as suggested by conventional anthropic reasoning—but
rather, it was selected such that it would give rise to civilizations
which are much more advanced than we are. Those “smarter kids on our
cosmic block”— which are capable of developing the technology needed to
produce baby universes—are the drivers of the cosmic Darwinian selection process,
whereas we cannot enable, as of yet, the rebirth of the cosmic
conditions that led to our existence. One way to put it is that our
civilization is still cosmologically sterile since we cannot reproduce
the world that made us.
With this perspective, the technological level of civilizations
should not be gauged by how much power they tap, as suggested by the scale envisioned in 1964 by Nikolai Kardashev.
Instead, it should be measured by the ability of a civilization to
reproduce the astrophysical conditions that led to its existence.
As of now, we are a low-level technological civilization, graded class C on the cosmic scale, since we are unable to recreate even the habitable
conditions on our planet for when the sun will die. Even worse, we may
be labeled class D since we are carelessly destroying the natural habitat on Earth through climate change, driven by our technologies. A class B civilization could adjust the conditions in its immediate environment
to be independent of its host star. A civilization ranked class A could recreate the cosmic conditions that gave rise to its existence, namely produce a baby universe in a laboratory.
Achieving the distinction of class A civilization is nontrivial by
the measures of physics as we know it. The related challenges, such as
producing a large enough density of dark energy within a small region,
already have been discussed in the scientific literature.
Since a self-replicating universe only needs to possess a single
class A civilization, and having many more is much less likely, the most
common universe would be the one that just barely makes class A
civilizations. Anything better than this minimum requirement is much
less likely to occur because it requires additional rare circumstances
and does not provide a greater evolutionary benefit for the Darwinian selection process of baby universes.
The possibility that our civilization is not a particularly smart one
should not take us by surprise. When I tell students at Harvard
University that half of them are below the median of their class, they get upset. The stubborn reality might well be that we are statistically at the center of the bell-shaped probability distribution of our class of intelligent life-forms in the cosmos, even when taking into account our celebrated discovery of the Higgs boson by the Large Hadron Collider.
We must allow ourselves to look humbly through new telescopes, as envisioned by the recently announced Galileo Project, and search for smarter kids on our cosmic block. Otherwise, our ego trip may not end well, similarly to the experience of the dinosaurs, which dominated Earth until an object from space tarnished their illusion.