by Andrew Masterson
July 10, 2016
Among all the extraterrestrial species featured in the late
Douglas Adams' excellent
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
novels there is one called a
Hoovooloo, described as "a
super intelligent shade of the color blue".
Oddly enough, this utterly abstract sort of alien might yet turn out
to be the author's most perspicacious invention.
...for video click above image...
What if alien life is 'information'?
A leading Australian physicist has co-authored a new paper proposing
a radical new theory of life.
If a new paper co-written by prominent Australian physicist
Professor Paul Davies is on the money, every other fictitious
ET, from Star Trek's Vulcans to Star Wars' Yoda, are the products of
depressingly limited imaginations.
Pretty much all cinematic aliens - think Dr Who's Sontarans, the
bubble-headed things from Mars Attacks!, the giant worms from Dune -
have something recognizably "life-like" about them:
they have a chemical structure
broadly similar to those found in earth species, and (it is
implied) some kind of DNA-ish apparatus that facilitates
has a radical theory
about the building blocks of life.
They are reasonable enough assumptions to make, but what if they are
Davies and co-author Dr Sara Imari Walker, both from the
Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at the Arizona State
University, suggest that fleshiness and double-helixes might be
things confined only to life on Earth. Life in the rest of the
universe, they venture, could be based on something much more
What's more, Davies and Walker leave the door open - some say - to
the involvement of a non-physical, perhaps godlike, influence in the
life in the Cosmos.
The questions the pair raise might seem abstruse, but they are
critically important. If humanity ever does encounter alien life it
almost certainly won't look like the dreadlocked guys or
insect-monsters in Alien vs. Predator.
It will be life, Jim, but not as we know
Real aliens may well be completely unrecognizable as living.
Dr Sara Imari
Walker, from Arizona State University,
has co-authored a
paper with Paul Davies
information rather than chemicals
could be the basis
"Without an understanding of 'life'," Davies and Walker write,
"we can have little hope of solving the problem of its origin or
provide a general-purpose set of criteria for identifying it on
The nature of
Their paper -
The "Hard Problem" of Life - has
yet to be formally published.
Last month the pair posted it on a science pre-print server called
arXiv, and already it is generating discussion among
astrophysicists, bioastronomers and science philosophers.
The reason is clear:
If "information" is shown to be the fundamental
building block of life, the discovery will be a scientific
revolution as game-changing as those of classical physics and
Mind you, it's a very big "if", and one that is attracting curt
dismissal from some of Davies' peers.
"I think their idea is interesting,
but it begs the enormous question of how information can be
causal in a physical system," said Dr Charley Lineweaver, of the
Planetary Science Institute at the ANU's Research School of
Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Mt Stromlo Observatory in the
"I see no way to get around this obstacle."
Charley Lineweaver's objection
was echoed by many - though not all - scientists and philosophers
contacted for this story.
It can be illustrated by a simple example.
The fundamental unit of DNA is the gene - humans have around 25,000
of them. If you were to make a computer model of the human genome
you could represent each gene with the smallest unit of computer
code, known as a "bit".
One gene equals one bit.
says the theory
about how information
can be causal
in a physical system.
Photo: David Moir
But the gene exists in the real physical world, and does stuff -
like giving you brown eyes or red hair, for instance.
The bit is a description of the gene. It
does nothing, because it does not exist in the physical world.
Davies and Walker, however, raise the possibility that this basic
distinction between real and not-real might be way wrong.
It is a contentious suggestion.
"This is a category error," said Dr
John Wilkins, honorary fellow at Melbourne University's School
of Historical and Philosophical Studies.
Wilkins specializes in studying the relationship between information
and evolutionary theory.
Davies and Walker's paper, he noted,
being speculative, falls as much into the realm of philosophy as
"It's a long-standing category error
that goes back a very long way in philosophy - arguably back to
Plato," he said. "It's the idea that the way we represent
something is somehow the essence of the thing being represented.
It's mistaking the map for the territory."
Wilkins suggested that the authors had
fallen into the trap of failing to distinguish between the complex
mathematical modeling that physics demands and the actual physical
world being thus modeled.
Their conclusions, he said,
"are not philosophically well
Which brings us, in a weird kind of way,
to the bit about gods.
Wilkins' assertion that mathematics
model and measure a separate physical reality seems obvious - in the
same way that you wouldn't confuse a map of a town with the town
itself. Surprisingly, however, it is not a universally held view,
even among hard-nosed scientists.
the Big Bang onwards, the universe
has developed in line with precise mathematical laws, leading to the
idea (seductive or repulsive, depending on your point of view) that
maths is not a human invention but a fundamental force.
"Scientists have embraced a kind of
mathematical creationism," wrote New York Times science writer
George Johnson back in 1998, "God is a great mathematician, who
declared, 'Let there be numbers!' before getting around to 'let
there be light!'"
Davies and Walker come intriguingly
close to allowing a Great Mathematician to enter the story of how
the universe, and thus life, came into being.
From one perspective
it is the central assertion - revolutionary or shocking, take your
pick - in their paper.
Bear with us here. This requires a short diversion.
By using the term "hard problem" to describe life Davies and Walker
are deliberately echoing the landmark work of Australian philosopher
and cognitive scientist Dr David Chalmers.
In 1995 Chalmers declared consciousness
to be a "hard problem" - by which he meant that although it is
theoretically possible to measure precisely every neuron in the
human brain, and track the sparks that flash between them, this
understanding still doesn't explain how thoughts, daydreams, or
states of mind arise.
Self-awareness, he said, is not an obvious product of the electrical
activity inside your head.
Davies and Walker see a possible similarity with life.
Assuming things live on other planets,
they say, the question is whether all types of alien can be,
"accounted for in terms of known
physics and chemistry, or whether certain aspects of living
matter will require something fundamentally new".
The "hard problem" in this instance,
"is the problem of how 'information'
can affect the world." It is a problem that they suspect "will
not ultimately be reducible to known physical principles."
Or, in plainer terms, physics and
chemistry won't cut it alone:
there's something else in the mix.
That something, they think, is
"information" - but what exactly is that, and where did it come
The Reverend Dr Stephen Ames thinks he might have an idea.
is a canon at St Paul's Cathedral in Melbourne, and a lecturer at
Melbourne Uni who holds dual doctorates in physics and the history
and philosophy of science.
"I do think of the universe as being
structured towards an end, and part of that end is that it is
knowable through empirical inquiry," he said.
In other words, the laws of physics are
what they are - but studying them, in time, over generations of
scholarship, will lead to the understanding that in a fundamental
way the universe was kick-started by what Ames terms a "powerful
agent" - or, in more traditional terms, God.
Regardless of what anyone chooses to call it, the interesting (and
to many scientists troubling) thing is that by suggesting that life
may not be completely explicable through physics and chemistry,
Davies and Walker implicitly leave open the possibility of some sort
of metaphysical force playing a hand.
The pair is quick, however, to rule out
one popular, contentious idea.
Basic logic (and math) tell us that in order for the universe, and
life, to develop in the way that it has, there must have been very
precise initial conditions at the instant of
the Big Bang.
Even the most minuscule difference in
any one of scores of things - the number of electrons, for instance,
or the ratio of matter to antimatter - would have resulted in a
universe in which planets and people were impossible.
The problem, say Davies and Walker, is that to get to where we are
today those initial conditions,
"must be selected with extraordinary
care, which is tantamount to intelligent design: it states that
'life' is 'written into' the laws of physics".
There is no evidence, they conclude, of,
"this almost miraculous property".
Ames agrees with them in dismissing
ideas of intelligent design, a largely creationist idea equally
unpopular among mainstream physicists and theologians (of which, of
course, he is equally representative).
"The word 'design' brings to mind
too many ideas of engineering and blueprints," he said.
"But I'm personally very interested in Davies' endeavors to give
an account of the universe in terms of information and in terms
that would appear not to need any special initial conditions. If
he can do it, that would be remarkable."
For many in the physics and astrophysics
games, however, even the simplest suggestion that hard science can't
ultimately account for the entire universe and everything in it -
alive or not - sets off warning bells.
And in this area, it should be noted, Davies has form.
You would struggle to find a definite
pro-deity statement is any of his writing, but he is very fond of
religious metaphor - one of his books is called The Mind of God
- and some of his statements are, well, a tad ambiguous.
"If there is an ultimate meaning to
existence, as I believe is the case, the answer is to be found
within nature, not beyond it," he wrote in a 2007 newspaper
For mainstream physicists any suggestion
of "ultimate meaning" is close to salivating, revival tent
"He's on that edge of philosophy and
physics all the time," said Ames.
Sydney astrophysicist and bioastronomer Dr Maria Cunningham,
of the UNSW School of Physics, said she found Davies and Walker's
paper fascinating but was troubled by its possible theological
"Davies' ambiguity is deliberate, I
think," she said.
"Since before the term intelligent
design was coined - going back 25 years or so - he has
maintained that the parameters and constants of our particular
universe are so finely tuned that it does make you wonder
whether this is just a random thing.
"It's something that physicists and philosophers have been
talking about for a long time. I think maybe [Rene] Descartes
was one of the first to actually come up with the idea that
there had to be something separate for life - that it couldn't
just be a mechanistic process."
Cunningham described herself as a
"hard-headed reductionist" who sees neither a way, nor a need, for
information to exert an influence.
Eventually identifying the deep laws
that govern life - which she feels to be rare in the rest of the
universe, but there, nevertheless - will not need the "new physics"
Davies and Walker suggest.
"I don't feel comfortable with the
suggestion that because living things exist there has to be new
physics explaining living things," she said.
She pointed to recent studies revealing
that hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulfide - both floating around in
outer space - when exposed to ultraviolet light can form nucleic
acids, amino acids, and lipids, the basic building blocks of life.
These and similar research projects may
one day sufficiently answer the question of how life comes to exist,
without reference to new science or old gods. Of course, perhaps
somewhere in the universe, a few dozen light years away, one of
Douglas Adams' Hoovooloos already knows that answer.
The trouble, as people familiar with Adams will be aware, is that it
is very likely to be "42".
Which doesn't help at all...