The Vastness of Cosmic Reality is Good News, Says Max Tegmark

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Max Tegmark
Max Tegmark

Are we insignificant? Does living on a small planet around an average star leave us lost in the unfathomable vastness of space? Or do our self-conscious minds and complex brains, able to contemplate the vastness from whence we came, actually make us the most noteworthy feature of the cosmos that we know of to date?

It’s a set of questions often answered negatively and pessimistically, notes Max Tegmark, professor of physics at MIT and scientific director of the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi), funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. But in his new book, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, he seeks to make the opposite case. “We humans have repeatedly discovered that everything we thought existed was a small part of a grander structure: a planet, a solar system, a galaxy, a galaxy cluster, etc,” Tegmark says. “Is it not good news, on a desert island, to discover untold hinterlands? So too, the vastness of reality is good news for our future potential.”

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“The history of science shows that we humans repeatedly underestimated not only the size of our cosmos, but also our ability to understand it,” Tegmark continues. Human minds have long flown to the heavens as people gazed at the stars. But it is still only relatively recently that astronomers learned to see neither mythological figures nor inexplicable lights in the night sky, but balls of hydrogen burning according to the laws of physics. “We can understand our universe because nature has turned out to be full of patterns and regularities that can be captured by equations,” Tegmark explains. “Mathematics is a wonderful gift because with it we gain the power to predict, to develop technology, to make progress. I think this is going to keep happening with untold potential for the future.”

And yet, this same potential also makes Tegmark cautious. He believes that we are living at a moment in which humanity faces a fork in the road. Our know-how provides the tools to explore, but it also delivers the means with which to destroy ourselves. “Probably in our lifetimes, we are going to see which way we chose to turn. It’s another reason why we are not insignificant. Our future can be said to rest in our hands.” His book is, therefore, also a call not to squander the grand opportunities our cosmos offers. It argues that the key to realizing rather than ruining this future is to think bigger, to see ourselves in this cosmic context.

Take the extraordinary fact that the oxygen circulating in your blood was made inside ancient stars. It is a detail of life that would have shocked the most brilliant minds who lived before us, and yet today, it is common knowledge. We are connected, materially and actually. So, if one of the most important ways in which we find meaning in life is through our connection to others and the world around us, do we not have good reason to commit to others and the world in which we live?

A parallel connectivity has also been a driving force in the development of modern physics. The cosmos has revealed itself to be increasingly unified: space with time, matter with energy, acceleration with gravitation, life on Earth with the life of stars. “This inspires humility, too,” Tegmark adds. “We have a growing awareness that there may be even deeper connections that we don’t yet understand.”

The theme of the future was taken up in a recent FQXi conference. One section explored issues in science and society, a possible first for a scholarly meeting of physicists. Tegmark notes that many scientists were deeply engaged with the threats that face us from the risks of nuclear war, to biotech disasters, to future superintelligent computers. “If there was one response that we agreed on, it was the need for education,” Tegmark says. “Part of the reason we don’t think about these risks as a society is because we don’t know about them in enough detail.”

And we must also think about them with care, he concludes: “Unlike our ancestors, we have a sense of the billions of years that might stretch before us. I believe that thinking big in this sense too is essential to being better stewards of our capabilities, our technologies, and our planet.”