You're So Vain, Earthlings


Full Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind from howstuffworks.com.

Robert Lamb: Hey. Welcome to the podcast. This is Robert Lamb.

Julie Douglas: And this is Julie Douglas.

Robert Lamb: Tell me this, Julie Douglas: what is it about the human navel that makes people question the very fabric of existence?

Julie Douglas: Well, you say fabric; I think of lint of course, but beyond that, I think that - I think of the proverbial 16-year-old sitting around wondering why he or she is on this Earth made to endure high school. Or, why am I the daughter or the son of my particular set of parents and so on and so forth.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, and the navel makes one think of this because it's like, "Where does it begin? Where does it end?"

Julie Douglas: That's right; origins. That's where we hooked up in the womb.

Robert Lamb: If you were to pull on the navel, does the person unravel? What does an outie mean; what does an innie mean? Does lint come from without or from within? Because I always thought it came from within, but I could - it comes from without?

Julie Douglas: I think the lint comes from without.

Robert Lamb: Huh.

Julie Douglas: I don't know. I have a self-cleaning belly button, so I can't really -

Robert Lamb: Those are great. I heard those are on the market now. You can get one of those.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. They're kind of expensive, but they're well worth it.

Robert Lamb: I bet.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. But no, I think that when you had proposed doing this podcast, I thought about the navel gazing for sure, but on a cosmological level.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I think on the individual level - and throughout this podcast, we're gonna start with the individual level and sort of span out like powers of ten until we reach the boundaries of understanding.

Julie Douglas: Because we're vain glorious like that.

Robert Lamb: Yes. So it's like on a very simple level it's like yeah, we all get those moments of just this little - generally it's just one little nugget of pure thought, unformed thought where you kind of think, "Here I am. I exist. I'm thinking right now." Just stop for a second and do that, gentle listener. Yeah, that right there. Isn't that amazing?

Julie Douglas: Yeah.

Robert Lamb: And then other stuff comes crashing in and we end up thinking about the grocery list or we throw religion in on top of it and explain everything away to a certain extent, but for that one moment.

Julie Douglas: For that one moment, for that one brief, glorious moment, you get a sense of the gravitas of this moment where we're actually existing. And if you're an astrophysicist, you have been thinking about this probably your entire life; not just navel gazing about it when you were 16 and you're applying it to, not just "Hey, we're sitting here in a podcast booth talking about this. Why are we in particular sitting here on Earth in this solar system? What makes us so special or not special?"

Robert Lamb: Exactly, ye

ah, that's what people keep discussing time and time again, though there was a time when in the same way that we're at the center of any of these questions: why am I here; how did I get to be here? People used to have the same sort of models for the cosmos. You had the geocentric model that was sort of an early scientific way of understanding the visible solar system and how the planets and everything move.

Julie Douglas: And our relationship to it.

Robert Lamb: Right. And so geocentricism is the Earth is the center of the universe and everything else revolves around us. And that was big medicine back in the day, but then you ended up having a new theory come along called the heliocentric theory, which said, "Actually Earth isn't the center of the universe; the sun is the center of the universe."

Julie Douglas: [Noises]

Robert Lamb: I saw something - I forget which thinker it was, but someone had - no, it was Tycho Brahe, the guy with the - he's amazing. He had the fake nose because he lost a nose in a duel.

Julie Douglas: Oh.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, and he had a pet deer lived in the mansion with him or the castle with him or whatever.

Julie Douglas: He's a little eccentric.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. And he would feed the deer beer and the deer drank itself to death and fell down some stairs and then someone may or may not have poisoned Tycho. Or, he may have - his bladder may have exploded because he was too drunk to get up from the dinner table. There are different theories. He was a great man, but he had - he wasn't fully ready to adopt the heliocentric model. At one point, he said, "The sun is the center of the universe. And then the Earth revolves around the sun, but then everything else revolves around the Earth." Or it was a variation on that, but -

Julie Douglas: He wasn't able to commit yet.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, but one of the early guys that really committed to this was Nicholas Copernicus. And to give more of a frame of reference, this guy lived 1473 to 1543. And he was a mathematician, astronomer and he was cool with the idea that Earth was not the center of everything. And out of a lot of his thinking comes this thing called the Copernican Principle. And this just says that there are no special observers. There are no special origins or viewpoints. And so that if you have a theory about humanity's origins or its place in the cosmos that gives humans a privileged position, then from a scientific standpoint at least, that theory is bunk.

Julie Douglas: Okay. All right, so the really intriguing part of this, I think that you had sent me, is something about a little lady named Goldilocks.

Robert Lamb: Yes. And everyone's familiar with the Goldilocks story. Can you tell us the story real quick?

Julie Douglas: Oh yeah. We've got Goldilocks, she of the blond tresses who breaks into this house with three bears are the tenants.

Robert Lamb: Right. And it's a mother and a father and a child bear, right?

Julie Douglas: Yeah. So she's - they're not there so she can't terrorize them, but she does rifle through their stuff; she eats their food; she tests out their beds. And she's very particular, this Goldilocks.

Robert Lamb: It's interesting actually. I read that there are older models of the story because of course, all these folktales are as old as time. But in some of the older models of it apparently, Goldilocks was an old woman and the bears catch her and try and drown and burn her and all these other things. And then I think she still slips out the window. So at some point, she switched from horrible old lady burglar to -

Julie Douglas: Shape shifter.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. She was a shape shifter; that was it.

Julie Douglas: To this young, innocent that we would all be really upset about if the bears mauled.

Robert Lamb: Right, yeah. It becomes more of an innocent thing. And in a way, it's like if you're thinking in cosmological terms, it's like which model of humans; are we the innocent child stumbling through the universe or the nasty old woman who comes in to steal things?

Julie Douglas: Or, are we the bears?

Robert Lamb: Maybe we're the bears.

Julie Douglas: Yeah.

Robert Lamb: Of course, the whole thing is she ends up finding the porridge that's just right, the bed that's just right, the chair that's just right because the other options are either too big or too small, too cold or too hot. And if you look at our solar system, you can identify a similar situation with some of the inner planets. Look at Venus Earth and Mars. Venus: the atmosphere is too thick, too dense. There's insane pressure; crush you like a grape and it's too hot. Go over to Mars: not enough atmosphere and you'll freeze to death. If you happen to land on Earth though, you'll find everything's just right. We have thriving life everywhere because conditions are fine for that to happen.

Julie Douglas: Right, Florida: it's sunny all year long.

Robert Lamb: Right. And there are a number of different - the thing that really gets people thinking is that there are a number of different situations that line up just so. It's like when you start thinking about, "If my mom and dad hadn't met and then hooked up I wouldn't be here today." And then if you started pointing out other things about it like, "Well, if my dad hadn't gone to this school, he wouldn't have met her and if my mom had done such and such, then she wouldn't have" - there are all these different factors you can start laying out.

Julie Douglas: Right. Then you can even kinda go deeper back and say, "If my great grandfather hadn't dodged that stray bullet or his grandfather hadn't done this" and then you can sort of expand out from there and start to apply this to the universe.

Robert Lamb: Right. Just to run through some of the things about Earth: the temperature's just right for there to be liquid water. We have a large enough moon to give us climate stability. The sun is stable and isn't expanding and destroying us or anything, and compared to other suns, it's a pretty stable sun. It's - we have just the right core. Of the inner planets, only Mercury and Earth have a liquid solid core that creates this dynamo effect that produces an electromagnetic shield that ends up protecting us from a lot of the harmful effects of the sun.

And yeah, so we just happen to have that going for us. And then we have the right neighbors. Jupiter shields Earth from a lot of the stellar bombardment we'd end up suffering through otherwise and would have very likely ended evolution before it really got rolling at some point. So yeah, all these things are situations where it's like, "Oh, if it wasn't for that, would we be here? Maybe not."

Julie Douglas: So yeah, chew on this: that's 47 billion years in the making. About a couple million years ago, we came into existence or evolved into what we are today. So it is pretty amazing when you stop and think; when you clear that grocery list from your head or that - whatever else is popping up on your computer to distract you to think again, "Why am I here? Why are we here in this particular universe? Are we unique? Are there other universes out there? Are there other me's? How is that working?" And so I think that's why the Goldilocks principle is so very interesting because it's not a sort of mathematical proof in the sense that we have a theory that we can say, "Okay, we have this overwhelming theory and it's gonna tell us exactly why we exist," but it does lend some credence to the anthropic principle.

And the anthropic principle is basically saying - to paraphrase Stephen Hawking: that things are as they are because we are which sounds a lot like [French], pardon my French which would be therefore I am.

Robert Lamb: Right.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. So you have this principle which a lot of scientists, astrophysicists, theologians, you name it have seized on to try to explain why we are able to hang out here in this universe, observe the fact that we're here and the fact that we're supported by it.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. And you have the Copernican Principle in the background at all times reminding you that there's nothing special about Earth, nothing special about humanity. So when you look at everything being just right on the Earth, it leads to theories that a lot of people [inaudible] about there being other planets where life could potentially evolve because if there's nothing special about Earth, then it couldn't be the only one, right?

Julie Douglas: Right. There would be multiple universes and of course, you go really deep into this and say there are parallel universes. There's another universe where you and I are talking in a completely different place right now, although maybe we're talking backwards. I don't know.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. You get into the whole area of it's kind of a library of babble kind of situation where all possible universes exist with all possible variations.

Julie Douglas: And outcomes.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. One where we're having a different conversation; one where we all wear ball caps; one where our sun was kind of a jerk and blew up before we could evolve.

Julie Douglas: Right.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, because - and we're discussing the Anthropic principle, and again, anthropic means of or relating to human beings, or the period of their existence on Earth. There are several anthropic coincidences. They're kind of like those - the list of things we lined up for the planet. You can make a similar list for the cosmos itself. They just tend to be a little more complex like - and I'm not gonna go into too much depth here because these get kinda crazy, but when you compare the electromagnetic force to gravity, we find that electromagnetism is 30 times stronger. And that's fortunate because if the two powers were more evenly matched, stars wouldn't burn long enough for life to develop on an orbiting planet.

Julie Douglas: Right.

Robert Lamb: So - and they're all things of that nature where if numbers were a little different, if the die roll from the big bang had come out just slightly skewed, then nothing might - nothing could exist, or things would exist in a vastly different shape than they are now.

Julie Douglas: So that's I think why anthropic principle is so intriguing because it does give us a way to say, "Okay, we are in this universe and perhaps everything isn't happening by chance." The problem with this is that when we traipse out of the area of chance, we start to look for some sort of theory - I'm gonna go ahead and say it - super being, God creator. And that's what the anthropic principle sort of points to when you think about it.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. And a lot of people end up using it as an argument for intelligent design and things of that nature and the existence of God and other things that can't actually be proved scientifically. And a lot of this also comes from a guy named Brandon Carter. It was the guy who initially sort of kicked off the anthropic principle.

Julie Douglas: Right, 1974: throws this out there.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. And he actually - I believe he just put out two of these, two variations on the theory: weak anthropic principle and strong anthropic principle. And the cool kids just tend to call it AP for anthropic principle, or if you're talking about weak anthropic principle, you call it WAP, I guess.

Julie Douglas: Right, WAP. That is so WAP.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Or they say WAP is whack if they don't like it. Kids these days.

Julie Douglas: What, what WAP; okay.

Robert Lamb: But weak anthropic principle is probably my favorite because it's just so simple and it doesn't over think itself.

Julie Douglas: It's actually kinda elegant in a way.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Basically, Carter just pointed out that if our universe weren't hospitable to life, then we wouldn't be here to think about it being hospitable to life.

Julie Douglas: That's right.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. It's like if your mom and dad hadn't hooked up, yeah, you wouldn

't exist. You wouldn't be here to think about the fact that you exist.

Julie Douglas: That's right.

Robert Lamb: So it's - I love it because it's kind of like that - the weak anthropic principle's kind of an end to the argument itself. It's kind of like, "Well, stop worrying about it because it's - the answer is in the question."

Julie Douglas: Yeah. I think therefore I am and quit thinking.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: And it's an unconditional truth, so yeah, you're right. It's very simple in that way and it's very comforting. But then you have the strong anthropic principle. So that's basically saying because we live in a universe that supports life, only life supporting life supporting universes exist. Essentially, it's creating the observer.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. It's kind of like if you were inside - you're hanging out in your living room and you'd never been outside of your living room. And you noticed you had a fireplace and if you went with the theory maybe [inaudible] I guess all houses have fireplaces because there's nothing unique about this one.

Julie Douglas: Because it's the only thing that you know.

Robert Lamb: Right. Or, on a more true level, you could be like, "This room has a roof. I guess all living rooms have roofs to them."

Julie Douglas: So I guess that shows where this principle has a bit of weakness is that you can't - if you can't observe beyond your own understanding, then how can you presuppose that there are other universes that exist out there. If you can't see it, then how do you know? Because if you could see it, it would be part of your universe.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's like on one level we have to use ourselves and our world and our view of the world as the model upon which to base our theories and all. That can also develop certain problems.

Julie Douglas: Right. And that's the cool thing about science I think is that we have our five senses and we rely on that, but science sort of takes up where our five senses peter out. Those - our five senses fail us. They're not always accurate. Our instinct isn't always accurate. So you have science; you have mathematicians who are creating these models based on what we know and then sort of trying to predict these other thoughts, universes, constructs that we can try to get our heads around.

And so I think that's why this - the anthropic principle is so important because that's the principle that is being used in M theory or string theory, which presupposes that these other universes exist. And that's also its Achilles heal because well, hey, you've got this sort of stand in theory, the anthropic principle saying, "Well, if we can observe this, then we know we're in it and there's the possibility of other universes just like ourselves existing and yet, we cannot bear this out.

We cannot ring up the whole large Hadron Collider and say, "Hey, can you bear this out for us?" simply because we don't have the technology yet to prove it out. And that's not true of other theories. We have been able to use technology to bear out the results and say, "Ah yes, this mathematic prediction was correct."

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I think the other day when we were talking about this you pointed out that some of these things are kind of like place holders for actual answers. They're like scientific place holders. And the other interesting thing about anthropic principle is that people kind of take it and spin off their own variation of the anthropic principle in sometimes, mind blowing or just crazy directions. There are like 30 of them, I think, based on one estimate I read. But the participatory anthropic principle's pretty wild. Did you -

Julie Douglas: Is that the quantum space one?

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Well, this is the one that spins off from some stuff like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and the whole idea of things not being actualized until they're observed and measured.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, right. And not actually even acting like we think they act simply because at this one state, it happened to be here, it - in other words, you can't predict the results every single time. And not to get into quirks - I don't think anybody wants us to go that deep, but - sorry; go ahead.

Robert Lamb: No. It's just like

basically, the idea is that only universes that have observers in them to observe it exist. It's kind of a tree falls in the forest kind of thing in a weird way. It's like the universe can only exist if there's somebody there to observe it and give it form in a way. It's kinda crazy.

Julie Douglas: Right. Without the observer: poof.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Julie Douglas: Well, I was thinking about this too, you've got Stephen Hawking who obviously, some people think he is God and has created the universes and that may be. We don't know. We don't have a mathematical construct to bear that out, but we do have John Horgan who was the former Scientific American editor who actually took him to task. I thought that was. He has some big spheres for doing that.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's kind of a - it's always a brave move when you go after Hawking or pick at something he said.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. I was like, "Wow, dude. I hope that you have bullet proof glass there." Well, not really. I don't think that astrophysicists are gonna lock and load.

Robert Lamb: Oh yeah, I thought you were implying that Hawking was packing heat.

Julie Douglas: I was thinking more of his followers, but now - and I think they're probably kind and gentle souls. But basically, what he said is, "Okay, you've got Hawking wanting to forward this idea of theory of everything for short and in particular M theory, which is an extension of string theory; just if you look at M it's membranes instead of strings." And Hawking is actually saying, "You know what? We need to use the anthropic principle in order to help bear this theory out."

And Horgan's basically saying, "Hey, there's a real problem with this. We can't - the anthropic is something that we can't actually say that there's any data to bear it out. We don't have the technology again to do this." And essentially - and here's where the - it's kind of the biotch slap - "It's cosmology's version of creationism."

And he's levying that against Hawking. And I think this is not my wheelhouse. I do have to say that there's a point with this. And you can't help but see where you'd want to have a theory of everything, where you'd wanna have something unifying saying, "Finally, we have reached the end of meaning. We understand exactly why we're all hanging out here in this podcast booth at this very moment," but we just - we're limited. Language fails us as well. We can't actually describe where we're at, at this point at least in our evolution.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, we kind of run up against cognitive closure at some point. There's just only so much we can do.

Julie Douglas: Cognitive closure; I like that. Yeah. And then there's another aspect of this, which is called carbon chauvinism.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, this one is really cool and it's just basically the idea that we are carbon based life forms and we often find it hard to imagine that there are other - that there are biochemical forms out there that are based on other recipes if you will.

Julie Douglas: Right. So - in fact, I think I have used the example before of silicon. That's something that you can get actually some complex results from. And they're even saying that that's molecular chauvinism; that we just don't understand that there are other ways maybe to come to the table as a being which makes me wonder about extraterrestrials because in all of this, there's really no discussion about our ETs.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, you look - if you look into science fiction, there are plenty of examples. I know I've read things with silicon based life forms in them, and of course, you're always encountering energy beings and things of that nature. So yeah, it's like if we put the carbon chauvinism aside, we'd be able to potentially imagine - or not imagine, but perceive a world - a universe where there are other varied forms of life out there.

Julie Douglas: I have to ask you a really personal question.

Robert Lamb: Okay.

Julie Douglas: Where are you on the ET scale?

Robert Lamb: I don't know. Well, the ET scale's been interesting throughout my life because I used to be terrified of being abducted by aliens when I was in junior high and before that. I kinda got out of it in high school. So that was a time where it's like I was really terrified of them and

then I decided that I was gonna make a conscious effort to just not believe in aliens. So I was really against the idea of them for a while. And I don't know. Now, I try and keep an open mind.

So I feel like they could be out there. I don't - there's a whole separate podcast to be done on this, but I think that a lot of what we end up perceiving in this world that we think are aliens is actually - there are actually a lot of really good explanations, logical explanations for what those events are or what those experiences are. But no, I think there could be life in this universe elsewhere.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. My -

Robert Lamb: Maybe not intelligent; maybe more intelligent. I don't know.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, and that's what I think is interesting. It could be a very super intelligent being or not so much. I don't know; just hanging out at the bowling alley. There's nothing wrong with bowling alleys by the way. I love bowling, I have to say. But yeah, I just had to throw that out there just because my own world view was tinged by this by my grandmother, who I grew up hearing about how she and my grandfather were on a lonely country road and came across what she called little green men. So I always grew up with this idea of, "Whoa, cool. Maybe these little green men do exist." And so -

Robert Lamb: Oh wow. Yeah, we'll definitely have to get into this in a later discussion.

Julie Douglas: Oh yeah, definitely. But looking at the anthropic principle and looking at ourselves in the universe, you gotta wonder why that isn't a larger part of it, particularly since Stephen Hawking has pulled the trigger on the warning shots to say, "Hey guys. Don't talk to the aliens. Don't let them know we're here."

Robert Lamb: Because if they're anything like us, then they probably really - they're really jerks.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, they're gonna con us. So I think that's why this theory or this principle really is interesting because again, when we get down to this individual level of scrapping all of our grocery lists and everything else and wondering why in the world am I this carbon based life form and allowed to exist? And I think the bigger problem here is that we're mortal. We know that we're gonna die.

And so I think this is why we're grappling with this so much as scientists, as human beings because we know that this universe, 47 billion years in the making is not essentially for us. Or, if we do think it's for us, then we think, "Well, why does it all have to end?" and so on and so forth. So then you begin to reach beyond that and you can see how the pull toward this sort of all unifying and/or creation myth, this godlike super being is so enticing.

Robert Lamb: And there's some really kind of out there ones too like final anthropic principle. It's a variation that says once intelligence - not intelligent beings, but actual intelligence pops up in the universe that it's never going out; that it's gonna pretty much thrive and eventually become God.

Julie Douglas: It's gonna propagate itself.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. And yeah, so take that and run with it with your imagination because that's pretty out there.

Julie Douglas: Well, that always makes me think of the computer simulation. Are we just hanging out in a computer simulated program right now ala the Matrix? Is this even real? Is this a virtual existence which is of course another one of the anthropic principles that people have explored.

Robert

I love thinking about that kind of stuff. I just finished reading a book called Disciple of the Dog in which there is a cult that believes - its members believe that the Earth is actually 50 billion years older than we think it is and the life in the world that we perceive is actually the - we're actually the dreams of quantum computers in the far, far distant future that I guess got really bored and end up dreaming of this past life for them to wander through. And so if we could see through the illusion, we'd see that the sun fills up the entire sky and will consume the Earth at any moment.

Julie Douglas: Wow. So our existence is just fodder for computers to sort of work through their boredom issues.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, the author is R. Scott Baker and he's a philosophy dude, so he's always - all of his books end up bringing all these philosophical questions about who we are and what makes our heads work.

Julie Douglas: Yeah. Well, I don't know. I think obviously in this podcast, we're not gonna reach the end of meaning, b

ut I do feel that we have reached perhaps -

Robert Lamb: The end of the podcast.

Julie Douglas: - the end of the podcast. So - which actually makes me think of another philosophy, Wabi-sabi, which I think most people think of as embrace the imperfection. But another more nuanced reading is that you're either emerging out of nothingness or you're essentially returning to nothingness, which I don't know. That's maybe more comforting to me. And at least, it's a way to say, I think that we are now entering into nothingness.

Robert Lamb: Yes.

Julie Douglas: Yes.

Robert Lamb: So hey, if you listeners have any thoughts on some of this heady material, then feel free to shoo them to us.

Julie Douglas: Yeah.

Robert Lamb: You can e-mail us at blowthemind@howstuffworks.com. And you can also find us on Facebook and Twitter where you can also find us as blowthemind.

Julie Douglas: Yeah, and please if your grandmother told you stories about aliens, we wanna hear about them.

Robert Lamb: Yes.

Julie Douglas: We also wanna hear about your own cosmological navel gazing.

Robert Lamb: Yes, tell us about your navels.

Julie Douglas: Please. Well, not too much, but just enough.

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