Have you ever wondered whether all this--you, your life, the universe--is just a sophisticated computer simulation?
Martin Savage, a physicist at the University of Washington, thinks we can't discount the idea. In fact, he and two colleagues (Silas Beane and Zohreh Davoudi) published a paper in November 2012 exploring the possibility. I spoke to him about why he thinks we may be the byproduct of some sophisticated computer code.
As we spoke, I noticed he used the word they a lot, when referencing the proposed simulators. I couldn't help but ask, "who is they?" His answer will blow your mind.
To hear what he had to say, watch the video above or read the script by clicking on the link below. And don't forget to contribute to the conversation in the comments section at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here, your friendly flesh and blood science correspondent. At least I think I am. But what if I was a computer simulation? What if you, me, all of us, were simulated beings written into some giant simulated universe? It sounds pretty crazy, but Martin Savage, professor of physics at the University of Washington, says we should seriously consider this proposition. When we spoke, I noticed he used the word "they" a lot. "They may have simulated this" or "they would've used that method." I couldn't help but ask: "Who is they?"
MARTIN SAVAGE: As a physicist I don’t think about those things. But that was the first time when you start putting this stuff together, it is the first time where you think, you know, you might result from just a piece of code, writing another piece of code, writing another piece of code. And then you do ask the question about the original simulator, if you like. And so if we are a simulation, we’re probably a simulation from our descendants, right? So, as our universe evolves and becomes more mature, then somebody in that universe launches a simulation to simulate where they came from.
CSM: Mind freaking blown. Seriously. Sit with that a while. If we are, in fact, living in a computer simulation, it's likely that future humans (or whatever we may have evolved to be) are using their advanced technology to reconstruct the past and learn about where they--we--came from. The same way we try to learn about our own origins by digging up fossils in Africa. So, what makes Martin and his colleagues think that we could in fact be a simulation?
MS: This involves starting with the known laws of nature and then using the bigger supercomputers to perform simulations or calculations of the laws to calculate things that are important. And so we do this in very small volumes of space-time, simply because the computers today aren’t big enough to do any more.
CSM: But why would it take so much processing power to simulate a teeny tiny region of space?
MS: If you want to calculate the probability for a particular process then you have to sum up all possible paths to make that process work and that translates into all the values of the quantum fields in that box. So our numerical calculations involve evaluating all the quantum fluctuations in space-time, in the very small volume of space-time. So that’s what our calculations actually do, the biggest computers in the world are evaluating these quantum fluctuations.
CSM: I see. Right now, researchers can only successfully simulate an area of space-time about the size of an atom's nucleus, because there are so many potential energy states a small amount of space can possess, according to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. They're nowhere close to simulating the universe itself. But as technology improves at an exponential rate, we should also see advances in these true-to-physics, and thus, true-to-life simulations.
MS: Because of what we were doing, doing numerical simulations of fundamental laws of the universe, so then the question that we asked ourselves is, if we are a simulation, how could you tell?
CSM: Martin says that according to quantum mechanics, there are finite lengths of matter, called Plank lengths, below which, nothing can exist. Just like if you were to write computer code, you couldn't program anything smaller than a single bit. It simply wouldn't hold any information, because the bit is your fundamental building block. It's how these bits are arranged that give rise to all of the information and complexity in your program. Similarly, the Planck length is as far down as subatomic particles (or even strings, if you're a string theorist) can go. Anything smaller wouldn't hold meaningful information about the universe.
MS: We imagine if our universe was actually an early simulation, for instance like a beta-tested universe, then with finite resources, you would be, one possible option is that they’re using an underlying grid. And so you would have finite distances between your grid points. You’re not going to build an accelerator to probe that length scale. It’s just too small, but ultra high-energy cosmic rays, the various high-energy cosmic rays in our universe, you know they’re potentially sensitive to that. So that’s why that looks like a good place to start looking, is to look for a pattern in the distribution of the various highest-energy cosmic rays because that’s potentially sensitive to having an underlying grid structure.
CSM: And if physicists can find that pattern that shows that the universe is built upon a grid structure, just like the fundamental lattice work that underlies their own experimental simulations, who's to say that we are anything more than a simulation ourselves? Think about it. Mind blown. Right? Let me know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, or by leaving a comment right here on the Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!