Our earth seems special – maybe because it is.  Some astronomers are seriously considering that life might be rare or unique on our rare (or unique) planet.  If so, hopes for finding sentient aliens on the celestial radio dial drop accordingly.  The 50th anniversary of the first SETI search came, unfortunately for search enthusiasts, at a time when funding is harder to get.

New Scientist has been running a series called “Existence” for the purpose of examining big questions about the origin of the universe, life, and consciousness.  Most of the articles try to give atheist answers to arguments of intelligent design.  In “Why is the universe just right for us?” for instance, Marcus Chown tried to explain away fine-tuning arguments with responses that physical constants might be interconnected, or are not as finely tuned as they seem, or that the multiverse hypothesis provides a way out.  Even so, he could not explain away the incredibly “fortuitous” dark energy parameter.

In “Where did we come from?” Stephen Hawking presented the standard big bang scenario with inflation, but admitted at the end that “many huge mysteries remain,” leaving the solution in the future.  In “Why is there a universe?” Amanda Gefter tried to explain how something can come from nothing via quantum fluctuations.  MacGregor Campbell posted a cartoony animation trying to convince puzzled readers that “nothing” and “something” might be one and the same – i.e., that our physical universe, including us, might really be nothing.  At the end, though, Gefter realized this is not a satisfactory answer:

None of this really gets us off the hook, however. Our understanding of creation relies on the validity of the laws of physics, particularly quantum uncertainty. But that implies that the laws of physics were somehow encoded into the fabric of our universe before it existed. How can physical laws exist outside of space and time and without a cause of their own? Or, to put it another way, why is there something rather than nothing?

Readers of these articles might well ask how nothing could know anything….

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