News & Politics » Our Town

Weird Science

Physics, God, and Eternal Life



Frank Tipler told me he'd come to give the colloquium at Fermilab in hopes of attracting other physicists to work on his new theory. "Tulane isn't really a top university. We just don't have the resources to do what this requires," he explains as I show him around a room crowded with electronics for the experiment I work on. Tipler gestures enthusiastically while he talks, moving the air to make room for a flood of words about information theory, quantum computing, and the cosmological constant. He lurches from one topic to the next, leaving a wake of sentence fragments in the air behind him. This by itself wouldn't draw much attention at the lab, but Tipler's talk would be well attended. In his new book, The Physics of Immortality, he claims to have derived the existence of God.

Tipler is not the first to have seen more than a new particle in the equations thought to describe the universe. From the logical positivist movement in 1920s philosophy, which paralleled the birth of quantum mechanics, to the "relativity" of the text in literary theory to fractals in art, revolutions in science have often been appropriated by other disciplines. Need a new paradigm or direction? Upheavals in physics happen every couple decades. But this kind of transfer is enough to make most physicists break their chalk and start pulling their hair out. It pains them to see Einstein carelessly applied to Moby-Dick. In some cases the damage is minimal. The use of physics as metaphor doesn't particularly detract from Ahab's struggle, and chaos theory misinterpreted does not, by itself, make bad art. And what goes around comes around. I've seen everyone from Wittgenstein to Madonna quoted in lectures on quantum field theory. Murray Gell-Mann's name for the quark came from a passage in Finnegans Wake.

So it would have been easy to write Tipler off as a kook swayed by the seductive implications of phrases like "the uncertainty principle," "time reversal symmetry," and "renormalization group theory," but oddly, he had credentials. He had studied physics at Berkeley and Oxford, worked under John Wheeler, a renowned theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study, and was now a tenured professor of mathematical physics at Tulane University. And Tipler had been published by others besides Doubleday, which was turning out this questionable opus. His name was on papers in refereed journals like Nature and Physical Review Letters, and he had authored what had become a standard undergraduate textbook. But that was small potatoes. Now he was claiming that "physicists can infer by calculation the existence of God and the likelihood of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life in exactly the same way physicists calculate the properties of the electron." Faith was obsolete; now all you needed was a couple PhDs. The consensus at Fermilab wasn't just that he was reaching. People thought he had hit his head.

Apparently anticipating the opposition he was likely to encounter from his colleagues, Tipler included a 100-page "Appendix for Scientists" filled with equations and derivations. He claims his theory, which makes predictions about two particles very near and dear to the hearts of many at the lab, is testable. The long-sought-after top quark, he claims, will have a mass of 185 +/- 20 GeV (about 198 times as heavy as a proton) and the Higgs particle (as yet unobserved, but whose existence could explain how some particles acquire mass) will weigh in at 220 +/- 20 GeV (235 times as heavy as a proton). When he stood up to give his talk, he faced 150 physicists, many tenured at the nation's top universities, who had gathered as much to hear what he had to say as to gape at what seemed likely to be a train wreck of a critical mind.

"I suppose I'm here to convince you that I'm a physicist and not a madman," he began in a slight drawl. He's tall and was wearing gray slacks, thick-soled white shoes, and a buttoned blue blazer that occasionally constrained his movements. "I'm going to leave all the theology out of my talk and just give you the physics. I don't want to waste this wonderful opportunity." Tipler put up a transparency written with a shaky hand in green permanent marker. "You see," he said, folding and unfolding his long fingers, "the universe has just begun. By all accounts, the future is likely to be 30,000 times as long as the past. For too long we have grounded ourselves, our studies, with the big bang, with the beginning. What I am proposing is that we shift our gaze, our focus, to the other boundary, to the end of time. As you all know, the laws of physics seem to be symmetric under time reversal, and it is therefore just as valid to start at the end."

"I find that a little misleading," came a dissenting voice from the back of the room. Tipler, slightly ruffled, debated what he thought was a matter of semantics with the man for a moment but realized he was getting nowhere. "Let me just push on," he said. "I have a lot to go through."

To the great dismay of many in the crowded lecture hall, Tipler delivered the rest of his talk from the wrong side of the overhead projector. His shadow loomed on the screen, occluding much of what he had written. At the urging of someone in the audience he would pick up and use a pointer, but then quickly become distracted and set it down again. It happened seven times. Fiddling with the wireless microphone ("This thing is amazing!"), he also managed once to disable it. It was like having Jimi Hendrix get on stage and forget how to play a D chord. Still, all these things could have been signs of an incredible lecture. Incredible was not a bad word for it.

Tipler's "Omega Point" theory starts from the premise that life must continue forever. OK, so the first step is a doozy. Press on. What is life? "We have to think of life as a kind of finite state machine that can pass the Turing test [the British computer scientist's famous test for artificial intelligence]. Life is, at its root, information processing," Tipler remarked in one of his more lucid moments. Since life must go on forever, the thread goes, the universe must be closed, i.e., having enough mass that it will eventually contract again, not so little so that it expands forever or remains stable. Its collapse, he adds, must be asymmetric, otherwise there won't be enough energy available to sustain the information processing that he calls life. Second, humans must leave the earth. "For the very simple fact of the matter is, the planet earth is doomed," he notes with apocalyptic flair in the book. The immediate worry is that the sun will make earth uninhabitable one billion years down the road, but for Tipler, that's just the first deadline. His real concern is what to do with the Big Crunch. "Don't worry," he said in his presentation, finally hitting his stride. "I'm going to beat the contracting universe in about three transparencies." Once life has left the womb of the planet earth it must spread and colonize the universe at a speed nine-tenths the speed of light, preferably propelled by a matter-antimatter rocket. In this way, life can engulf the universe before it collapses to a singularity that he calls the Omega Point. At the Omega Point, all the light rays that have ever existed, and hence all the information about the history of the universe, will come together, having no place else to go. The Omega Point, which now takes on the guise of a benevolent universal computer, can use this information to resurrect everyone who has ever lived, creating a virtual simulation of eternal life--like a flawless game of Sim City. The Omega Point won't be around forever, but in the computer "personal time" (which the audience now sensed he was taking up a lot of), as perceived by the simulated people, would never have to end. "The Omega Point loves you," he says in the book. "If any reader has lost a loved one, or is afraid of death, modern physics says: 'Be comforted, you and they shall live again.'"

In many ways watching Tipler's presentation was like going to see performance art. Alternately amazing and excruciating, he would follow reasonable statements about the age of the universe with an offhand remark about God being simply a "relativistic version of the uncertainty principle cast in information theory." He seemed to be saying, "I could explain it to you, but it would take longer than I have here today." His logic, where you could follow it, tended to go in circles. (Physics is the study of the universe; everything is in the universe; therefore God is in the universe; therefore physics is the study of God.) Structurally, it recalled a typical physics presentation. He had graphs, familiar equations, little arrows drawn in different colored pens, and results of calculations boxed off for emphasis. Yet the sleight of hand he repeated over and over was to present empirical fact followed by wild supposition without missing a beat. In the book he jumps adroitly from a well-reasoned discussion of how long it takes a star to become a white dwarf to a statement that life will, by that point, be able to take apart stars and use them as energy in its crusade against the cold vacuum of space. Underneath it all was a fundamental inversion of how science views the world: "Life, far from being insignificant, can be regarded as the ultimate cause of the very existence of the universe itself." It was a brilliant miscarriage of the scientific method.

There were moments when you could see him struggling with the whole endeavor, when he would pause and doubt would leak into his voice. Some part of him acknowledged that life, resurrection, God were all intractable concepts as far as physics went. Some part was uncomfortable with the contortions he was going through to accommodate them. Metaphysical or theological terms he would rather creatively redefine in scientific language; the Holy Spirit, he claims in the book, can be interpreted as the universal quantum wave function, heaven can be drawn on a space-time map, angels are the subprograms of the Omega Point. Science can't even predict the weather for more than two days, yet here he was trying to reverse engineer the universe, to prove that life would persevere another 5 x 1018 years. When his argument ran into a particularly large logical pothole, he would pull himself out with a quote. The book cites some 250 references, from John Updike to Saint Thomas Aquinas to Murray Gell-Mann. When pressed, he defers to them. "Well, I'm not really an expert in that area, but you don't have to believe me. I mean Gell-Mann, Feynman, they're all the tops!" he told me during our discussion.

You had to be moved by his determination to use science as a metaphor and the elaborate edifice he had constructed. He was trying to reinvent religion through the very medium that was probably contributing to its erosion.

While Christianity awaits the Second Coming, Tipler needs only the discovery of the Higgs.

By the time Tipler had finished, most of the audience had given up trying to follow the details. A few had fallen asleep. From the back of the room someone ventured a question: "How do you imagine all this information processing going on in the incredibly hot quark-gluon plasma at the end of the universe?" Tipler responded that new, stable structures would have to appear, like the atoms we have today but at higher binding energies. Never mind that such a proposition would probably be incompatible with every grand unified theory ever dreamed up, that it would require forces no one had ever heard of--life was the only force of consequence here. During the lecture there had been amused chuckling, but when Tipler stepped down, and the polite applause subsided, the room emptied with a certain urgency. Amusement had turned to discomfort.

The reason was clear enough. Tipler had dressed it up in jargon and equations, but the Omega Point simply wasn't physics, and that hit a sore spot. The worry in the community is that with the decline of scientific literacy most readers won't be able to judge Tipler for themselves. For the many whom science has failed to reach, the Omega Point may seem as valid as the big bang.

Extreme, even humorous examples of our failure to educate are everywhere these days. Almost all the comments on the corkboard at the Field Museum's "From DNA to Dinosaurs" exhibit deride evolution as nonsense. It's not the Bible they're wrestling with, but the idea that humans could have evolved from apes. And earlier this year I heard the following exchange on WBEZ during a discussion about the Hubble telescope:

"Why don't you turn that thing around at the earth?" the caller inquired suspiciously.

"Well, we have lots of satellites looking at the earth."

"Yeah, but those pictures look kind of funny. Why don't you take a good one?"

After a while, the allegation became clear: the round-earth thing was a hoax.

You could write these off as rare occurrences, but the belief that science is a kind of self-supporting ruse has been inching its way through academia of late. In a recent speech in Philadelphia Vaclav Havel applauded as good science a book that Tipler coauthored called The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. (Its claim, that the earth is a kind of huge organism, is less ambitious than deriving the afterlife but just as empty from a scientific perspective.) This month Harper's magazine ran an article ("Without Earth There Is No Heaven: The Cosmos Is Not a Physicist's Equation") suggesting that physicists see what they want to see, that scientific results have as much to do with the world as they do with the human will to see order and unity. Add to this books about how NASA faked the moon landing, and I'm afraid to ask my friends if they believe in quarks.

Yet even as someone who does this kind of research, I'm sympathetic to the struggle. Sometimes late at night, staring into a blinking computer screen, I have my doubts. I hallucinate quarks that look like large plastic balls on some Nova special and wonder if I believe quantum mechanics, wonder if I believe relativity. But then in the morning, looking at all the evidence, at all the independent measurements and endless confirmations, I find little room for doubt. Toichiro Kinoshita at Cornell spent years calculating how an electron should behave in a magnetic field (a property called the magnetic moment). After long computer-intensive evaluations of infinite integrals and sums, Kinoshita used the Standard Model theory to calculate the magnetic moment to 12 decimal places. (Even checking the calculation is like trying to audit all the tax returns of everyone in Manhattan.) Get an electron, take a couple years, and measure it yourself. Then compare to the theory. The results agree, amazingly, to all 12 digits. It's like predicting the GNP and getting it right, down to the dollar. Today the Standard Model is so accepted, physicists long for something else. For more than 20 years, experiments have confirmed the Standard Model over and over again. Convincing ourselves is easy; how to convince other people is something we still haven't quite figured out.

But Tipler has done more than touch a contemporary nerve about the growing esoterica of basic research. By trying to apply physics beyond its limits, he has laid bare its limitations. The great beauty of physics--the way it represents something we can unequivocally understand about the world around us--also makes painfully obvious what we don't understand. What makes us human? What are we doing here? Talk to physicists about science and existence and many will drop their eyes and lower their voices. It's not science's realm; no one wants to speculate. In a field where economics is considered too messy an endeavor, God isn't even on the agenda.

And yet we all wonder. Physicists run the spiritual gamut from Pentecostalism to Jewish mysticism, though most of the ones I know are resigned to a kind of agnosticism. Most take their existential questions less seriously than their work. Most have read their share of science fiction; a significant number tape Star Trek. It's only natural that Tipler pursue his longings for metaphysical certainty by way of the equations that he has always used to examine the world. To deny him that would be to rob a painter of pigments. Physicists just wish he wouldn't paint so close to the lab.

A possible clue to the origin of Tipler's need for this strange form of magical realism lies on the first page of his book. Here he dedicates the work to three relatives killed in Poland by the Nazis, "who died in the hope of the Universal Resurrection, and whose hope, as I shall show in this book, will be fulfilled near the End of Time." As Tipler was leaving Fermilab to prepare his talk for the Lutheran School of Theology the next day, I asked him about something in the Omega Point Theory that had puzzled me. If we failed to find the Higgs particle at the mass he predicted, would that invalidate his theory? Would it disprove the existence of God? "No, I think I could survive that," he said after a moment's thought. If you believed what he said, his survival and the survival of his theory were one and the same. It was both valiant and comic, a tribute to the struggle that makes us all human. But the sad truth was that long before the sun engulfs the earth Tipler's book will be out of print, and all of our constituent atoms will have gone on to make other things. Physics does not make us immortal, but in some small way it may make mortality more tolerable. On his way out I asked him to sign my book.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Paul Daigrepont.

Add a comment