Coding the Universe

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Equipped with a printout of the periodic table, we grabbed a collection of magic markers at a nearby drugstore and set to work defining the physical origin of every element in the universe, color-coding each by how it was created. With the fat tips of the magic markers allowing us the freedom not to worry about getting all the percentages exactly right, we managed not to get bogged down in details and produced a hand-annotated version that we waved in the direction of interested astronomers for the rest of the conference.

The chart Inese and I made was our way of distilling the work of a century. In , Sir Arthur Eddington first proposed that the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium powered the Sun.

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Twenty years later, Nobel laureate Hans Bethe used new nuclear physics data to calculate that nuclear fusion could in fact make the Sun shine. Until a year ago, nobody was sure where the gold in jewelry comes from. It took the dogged work of Margaret and Geoff Burbidge, Fred Hoyle, and Willy Fowler in the s to show conclusively that elements beyond helium were fused in stars and dispersed into the universe during stellar death. Although the broad picture was in place by , if we had color-coded the chart by the knowledge of that era, we would have gotten almost all of the details wrong.

Key breakthroughs have been piling up, such as the discoveries that the explosion of white dwarfs produces iron and that the earliest generations of solar-mass stars produce lead.


Observations of the composition of stars, the gases that dying stars blow off, and the flashes of light produced by decaying radioactive elements were combined with the predictions of sophisticated computer models of the expected fusion inside stars to produce the tables of data that Inese and I converted into splotches of teal, orange, and yellow in This periodic table, color-coded to indicate the way each element is formed, distills the work of astronomers over the course of the past century—and it continues to be updated with new discoveries.

This information is useful in a variety of scientific pursuits, such as studying how the Milky Way formed.

Dubner et al. Loll et al. Temim et al.

Where do you fit in the Coding Universe?

Seward et al. But of course the universe is not that simple.

He discovered what looked like error-correcting codes, which are used to check for and correct errors that have been introduced through the physical process of computing. Finding that type of code in a universe that is not computed is "extremely unlikely," Gates said. But Randall noted that a universe in which errors were able to spread would quickly break down. So isn't it logical, she said, that the stable universe we find ourselves in could incorporate that type of feedback? The researchers pointed out that a similar error-correction process works during the replication of DNA; organisms whose genetic material got too mangled would not survive.

The debate also probed different possible simulations and the effects they'd have on our world.

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For example, Tegmark discussed a famous "world as simulation" argument by philosopher Nick Bostrom: If it's possible to simulate a universe in our world, and humanity gets around to it, it's vastly more probable that we're in a simulation than in real life — there would be far more simulated people "in existence" than real people. But the argument strikes Tegmark as flawed.

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  6. For one, he asked, what would prevent an infinite chain of universes each simulating another below it? A universe simulating ours used different physics than those in our universe, or contained an active being changing the simulation as it went rather than being a universe run from first principles, as in the simulations Davoudi builds , the question would become, how much could we figure out about the greater universe from within our own?

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    In other words, it would be like Tegmark's video game character trying to understand the operating system his game runs on. Chalmers added that, if the simulation were perfect, it'd be impossible to get information about the world outside. Only if it were buggy, or interactive, would we be able to find out anything about it. But he'd "refuse to worship" the simulation's creator, regardless of its origin, Chalmers said. Gates pointed out that such a simulation would mean reincarnation was possible — the simulation could always be run again, bringing everybody back to life.

    How Computers Simulate the Universe Infographic.

    Is there a hidden code that rules the Universe?

    When pressed, most of the researchers gave their predictions on how likely the world-as-simulation scenario was. Davoudi wouldn't guess, Tegmark said it was 17 percent likely, Gates said there was just a 1 percent chance, Randall said effectively zero and Chalmers said 42 percent. These estimates reflected a slightly higher likelihood than the guesses they gave just before the debate. Tyson likened understanding the universe to trying to figure out the rules of a chess game by just watching the pieces, as originally described by famed physicist Richard Feynman.