In the multiverse scenario a vast and diverse array of bubble universes fluctuate into existence inside a larger vacuum. A small fraction of the universes have physical properties conducive to life. Image: Simons Foundation
On an overcast afternoon in late April, physics professors and students crowded into a wood-paneled lecture hall at Columbia University for a talk by Nima Arkani-Hamed, a high-profile theorist visiting from the Institute for Advanced Study in nearby Princeton, N.J. With his dark, shoulder-length hair shoved behind his ears, Arkani-Hamed laid out the dual, seemingly contradictory implications of recent experimental results at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe.
“The universe is inevitable,” he declared. “The universe is impossible.”
The spectacular discovery of the Higgs boson in July 2012 confirmed a nearly 50-year-old theory of how elementary particles acquire mass, which enables them to form big structures such as galaxies and humans. “The fact that it was seen more or less where we expected to find it is a triumph for experiment, it’s a triumph for theory, and it’s an indication that physics works,” Arkani-Hamed told the crowd.
However, in order for the Higgs boson to make sense with the mass (or equivalent energy) it was determined to have, the LHC needed to find a swarm of other particles, too. None turned up.
With the discovery of only one particle, the LHC experiments deepened a profound problem in physics that had been brewing for decades. Modern equations seem to capture reality with breathtaking accuracy, correctly predicting the values of many constants of nature and the existence of particles like the Higgs. Yet a few constants — including the mass of the Higgs boson — are exponentially different from what these trusted laws indicate they should be, in ways that would rule out any chance of life, unless the universe is shaped by inexplicable fine-tunings and cancellations.
In peril is the notion of “naturalness,” Albert Einstein’s dream that the laws of nature are sublimely beautiful, inevitable and self-contained. Without it, physicists face the harsh prospect that those laws are just an arbitrary, messy outcome of random fluctuations in the fabric of space and time.
The LHC will resume smashing protons in 2015 in a last-ditch search for answers. But in papers, talks and interviews, Arkani-Hamed and many other top physicists are already confronting the possibility that the universe might be unnatural. (There is wide disagreement, however, about what it would take to prove it.)
“Ten or 20 years ago, I was a firm believer in naturalness,” said Nathan Seiberg, a theoretical physicist at the Institute, where Einstein taught from 1933 until his death in 1955. “Now I’m not so sure. My hope is there’s still something we haven’t thought about, some other mechanism that would explain all these things. But I don’t see what it could be.”
Physicists reason that if the universe is unnatural, with extremely unlikely fundamental constants that make life possible, then an enormous number of universes must exist for our improbable case to have been realized. Otherwise, why should we be so lucky? Unnaturalness would give a huge lift to the multiverse hypothesis, which holds that our universe is one bubble in an infinite and inaccessible foam. According to a popular but polarizing framework called string theory, the number of possible types of universes that can bubble up in a multiverse is around 10^500. In a few of them, chance cancellations would produce the strange constants we observe.
In such a picture, not everything about this universe is inevitable, rendering it unpredictable. Edward Witten, a string theorist at the Institute, said by email, “I would be happy personally if the multiverse interpretation is not correct, in part because it potentially limits our ability to understand the laws of physics. But none of us were consulted when the universe was created.”