“What really interests me,” Einstein once remarked, “is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world.” In other words, is there any reason why an electron weighs exactly .00000000000000000000000000091096 grams? Does the speed of light have to be 299,792.456 kilometers per second? Or might these numbers have been a little different? Could electrons weigh a little more, light travel a little faster?
Although these questions may seem impossible to answer, it is a startling fact that physicists are beginning to believe that the universe and all its complexity derives from quite simple rules applied and reapplied over vast periods of time, and that this universe is the only one possible. If this is true, what are the rules? How can we figure them out and see how they work? Is there anything in our everyday experience that can show us how the unimaginable complexity of the universe could have grown out of the application of simple laws? Poundstone approaches these questions from a unique point of view: by analogy with the computer hackers’ pastime called “Life.”
“Life” is in no sense an ordinary computer game. It has no winners, no losers, and no end. It is less a game than a demonstration of logical possibilities. It is based on three simple rules, which, applied repeatedly – “recursively” to use the mathematical term – produce complex, unpredictable, and even quite beautiful patterns of light and dark on a computer screen – a complexity, unpredictability, and beauty that perfectly reflect those very qualities of our own universe.
In alternating chapters, Poundstone illuminates the discoveries of modern physics and demonstrates the intricate patterns that the rules of “Life,” produce. Can we draw an analogy between the rules of “Life” the game and the rules that have resulted in the creation of life itself? Is creation, in this sense, simple? It is the lucid discussion of this question that makes The Recursive Universe one of the most compelling books about science ever written.
William Poundstone, who studied physics at M.I.T., is a writer who lives in New York City. He is the author of Big Secrets (Morrow) and has published articles in the Los Angeles Times and in Esquire, Harper’s, New West, Oui, and other magazines.