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See Inside January 2010

Looking for Life in the Multiverse

Universes with different physical laws might still be habitable



SLIM FILMS

The typical Hollywood action hero skirts death for a living. Time and again, scores of bad guys shoot at him from multiple directions but miss by a hair. Cars explode just a fraction of a second too late for the fireball to catch him before he finds cover. And friends come to the rescue just before a villain’s knife slits his throat. If any one of those things happened just a little differently, the hero would be hasta la vista, baby. Yet even if we have not seen the movie before, something tells us that he will make it to the end in one piece.

In some respects, the story of our universe resembles a Hollywood action movie. Several physicists have argued that a slight change to one of the laws of physics would cause some disaster that would disrupt the normal evolution of the universe and make our existence impossible. For example, if the strong nuclear force that binds together atomic nuclei had been slightly stronger or weaker, stars would have forged very little of the carbon and other elements that seem necessary to form planets, let alone life. If the proton were just 0.2 percent heavier than it is, all primordial hydrogen would have decayed almost immediately into neutrons, and no atoms would have formed. The list goes on.

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