The Anthropic Coincidences
Modern cosmology offers us mathematical models of the possible large-scale
structure of the universe. Like any other mathematical model, the actual
features depend on the numbers that we choose to put in the equations.
Different values of the total mass of the universe will give rise to very
different cosmological models. In general, the overall structure of many
physical systems is strongly influenced by the numerical values of a relatively
small number of universal constants (e.g., the gravitational constant), Over
the past couple of decades physicists have become increasingly aware that the
physical conditions that enable life to exist are very sensitive to the values
of a number of these constants. If they had been only slightly different, life
as we know it could not have evolved.
Moreover, the overall chemical composition of the universe was determined by
physical conditions during the first seconds of the Big Bang. The elements on
which life depends such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur and iron are the
product of nuclear reactions within stars. In both situations the processes by
which the chemical elements are formed are governed very precisely by the
strengths of four fundamental physical interactions: gravitation,
electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear interactions.
If the relative strengths of these forces were different, the resultant
universe would also be different. For example, increasing the strong nuclear
interaction by 3% relative to the electromagnetic interaction gives a
cosmological model in which none of the known chemical elements could form.
Conversely, decreasing it by 1% gives a model in which carbon atoms would be
unstable. Both scenarios would preclude carbon-based life. Other tiny
variations in these forces might have given rise to a universe which was 100%
helium or one in which supernova explosions could not occur (since these
explosions are thought to be the chief way in which the chemicals necessary for
life are ejected from stars, this too would preclude the evolution of life). These
precisions in various parameters such as to give rise to life are known as
the anthropic coincidences.
There is no obvious physical reason why these parameters should have the
observed values. However, very small changes in any of these key parameters
would have resulted in a grossly different universe; one in which life as we
know it would almost certainly be precluded. The set of life-permitting
cosmological models is a vanishingly small subset of the set of all theoretically
possible cosmological models.
One response to these enigmas
might be to adopt a hard-nosed empiricism and say, So what? It is meaningless
to speak of our existence as improbable after the event. However, few
cosmologists seem prepared to ignore these cosmological coincidences in this
Another possible response would
be to deny the contingency of physical laws and parameters. For example, some
physicists speculate about possible developments in physics which would
demonstrate that only this precise set of laws and parameters is possible.
A third type of response is to
invoke some form of the Anthropic Principle.
See the Weak Anthropic Principle, Anthropic Design Arguments, Many-Universes
Models, and The Strong Anthropic Principle - also the remarkable uniformity of
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Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the
Cosmos (T&T Clark, 1999)