Big Bang demiurges (was: Re: El Aleph)

Damien Broderick (
Sun, 03 Jan 1999 11:57:08 +0000

At 10:16 PM 1/1/99 +0100, Christophe wrote:

>Perhaps we could tell the story of such beings... their friends, the friends
>of their friends, their enemies, the enemies of their enemies, their
>artifacts, their worlds, their thoughts. The great pursuits through universes
>between races at war in a meta-universe. Is the SF writer of such a
>tremendously difficult story to tell already born ;)? (i mean a good story, a
>quite complete description of such a fun and abstract world in a +150 pages
>format ;).

I'm working on it... :)

As Anders noted, this line of thought is explored briefly in THE SPIKE. It's also implicit or explicit in various sf novels, such as Pratchett's STRATA, Stapledon's STAR MAKER, and some of the books by McAuley, Steve Baxter, and perhaps the latest volume of Brin's Uplift sequence (which I haven't read). Here's a few bites from THE SPIKE (apologies to those who've seen bits of this posted a year or two back):

If the prospect of the post-Spike condition sketched in this book is correct - awesome, truly godlike powers wielded by Powers - then in another billion years our descendants will surely have plaited the stars into braids of their own design, if they wish to.79 Tipler and Barrow, as we've seen, argue that an AI deity might, even must, emerge in the final nanoseconds of the Big Crunch after its predecessors have redesigned the dying cosmos. By reverse engineering, can we gaze outward now and see that the stars already bear the marks of cosmic engineering?

The Very Fast Evolution Machine

Here's an even more startling conjecture. Tipler's Omega Point deity, plunging into the forever of infinite compression, has an effectively infinite number of discrete clock ticks within which a `god' may Do All Things. But similar conditions existed during the initial 10^-43 of a second when time and space were smeared together, or so Stephen Hawking assures us. Might life of some quite different ilk have crystallised in the strange, terrible epochs before our kind of matter settled out in the inflation rush of the expanding cosmos?80

In the earliest zillionths of the Big Bang eruption, time was effectively multiplied to infinite speed, but it slowed fast as spacetime expanded and cooled. Inconceivably vast numbers of exchanges occurred almost instantly in a densely compacted and connected spacetime where the four known forces of physics only `slowly' decoupled from a unitary force now lost forever, or at least until the Big Crunch at the end of the universe. Might not there have been virtual time enough, effectively, for a superintelligence to evolve from scratch? Even a whole bunch of them, but perhaps they would inevitably remain merged in a swarm-mind until the cosmos was big enough for light-transmission delays to disrupt module communication...

It is a suggestion that eerily resembles the teachings of the ancient Gnostics, in a way. The Gnostics held that our world is not the creation of an original supreme deity, but is the rather botched handiwork of a less god, a demiurge. Imagine not one but many angelic demiurges, the first-evolved minds in our cooling universe, tumbling from the furnace of the Big Bang, cast out into the freezing dark. Perhaps placing their impress upon the new regimes of matter and light. Yes, now there is a god...

But, if so, that was then. What of today? Would such `angels' still have any impact on the universe?81 Would their works persist in the fabric of spacetime? The galaxies extend into space in colossal strings made of billions of stars wrapped about dark bubbled gaps, an arrangement that deeply puzzles cosmologists. Might this strange architecture be the remnant of some ancient design of the earliest life born of the Big Bang? More to the point, is the evolution of such `angels'remotely possible in the light of current physics?

Could any kind of high-level structure emerge under such appallingly volatile conditions, however many virtual steps or epochs it contains? It's one thing for life to persist into the Big Crunch, as Tipler proposes, using `shear energy' (the gravitational ebbs and flows of shockingly twisted spacetime). Presumably it's quite another for complex `life' to bootstrap into existence from nothing under the same conditions. Or is it?

Mitchell Porter agrees that the main barrier to Big Bang superintelligences is the absence of structure in the fantastically hot primordial plasma. `But conceivably,' he notes, `there may have been epochs of structure in the course of the many phase transitions which are part of modern cosmological models of the early universe, and perhaps things were evolving rapidly enough for replicators to evolve.' That catches it exactly. The contrast has been pointed up by Charles Stross, a British writer and software specialist: in Tipler's scenario the pre-Omega entity deliberately sets up oscillations in the collapsing universe, extracting usable energy. But did the Big Bang have equivalent energy gradients, available to drive such computational processes?

The cosmos shortly after the Bang was a homogeneous soup of radiation looking the same in all directions, Stross notes. On the other hand, the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite (COBE) detected ripples in the background radiation that suffused the universe. These are the enduring traces of lumpiness left in the pervasive radiation residue from the Big Bang. Recent data from the COBE satellite suggests that they are, indeed, fractal in nature, ripples within wrinkles - perhaps enough to provide the gradients necessary to jump-start a primordial replicator.

The earliest ages of the universe

The opening fractions of a second in this universe contained ample variety. `GUT Age, Quark Age, Hadron Age, Nucleosynthetic Age, Plasma Age, Fireball...' Jonathan Burns, a La Trobe University computer scientist, suggests with a certain whimsy that, given these phases, `the blindest watchmaker would have had opportunity enough.' He adds:

What are the odds for an intelligent ontology? On Darwinian grounds one seems to need:

(1) A substrate stable enough for some Selfish Form to persist and multiply in competitive variation.

(2) A phenomenon which can be coded, and decoded, into a genotype which replicates the code.

(3) Time for enough iterations that the code space can be explored by the population, long enough to find the breakthrough points to higher organization.

(4) Time enough for the higher organization to explore its environment, and exploit the opportunities for technological enhancement.

(5) A radically uncertain measure of good luck.

And Burns took up the idea of ancient demiurges with a poetic burst of his own: `The Benefactors... skating the contours of zero tidal force... their wingtips deep in blazing quicksand...'

Could such a selfish code-string persist though the fires of the Big Bang, and in the cooling cosmos left as its ashes? For a selfish signal to survive in a sea of noise, it has to perform its own noise reduction. Emergent exotica might stabilise briefly vortices, frequency bands, phase boundaries to form a first substrate. Efficient signal self replication would use digital encoding, the simplest possible but sufficiently rich to do the job. After all, we know that populations of data structures inside computers can already evolve, exploring combinational spaces efficiently, turning combinational complexity to advantage.

Is this kind of digital evolution plausible for the primordial universe? `The bulk properties of Grand Unified Theory plasmas are speculative, to say the least,' Burns notes. `Electromagnetic plasmas, yes, there are stable structures, Alfven waves, in the right conditions. And in cold bulk matter, we get quantized magnetic flux tubes, and liquid-helium quantized vortices.'

Physics has only vague ideas of how quark-gluon plasmas might behave. `One place to look for a clawhold might be at the point where the quark-gluon plasma is breaking into clusters. In the "big bag" of the plasma, one gets incursions of vacuum, which acts as a superconductor for colour charge. For a sufficient epoch, just maybe the plasma is riddled with quantized chromodynamic flux tubes in bunches. Asymmetry. Structure. Bistability. Gates and switches. Chemistry. New tubes being generated all the time, those which don't match our patterns discarded, the rest assembled into new entities.'

Similarly with a conjectural breakup of the GUT plasma, or the compactification of the hidden dimensions. Emergent novelties, as Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine argues, are often found at phase boundaries where energy is being exported into the environment. But still we wouldn't expect to find an infinite number of successive phase changes from the Bang to very shortly afterward, the literally uncountable sort required for a Tipler scenario. At the smallest scale we can image the universe existing at the start of time, quantum theory tells us we would find everything-at-once, space and time smeared together and confused. If you can't count the ticks between one interval and the next, or determine one place from another, it is impossible to create the structure needed for an intelligence.

An infinite number of steps might not be required. After all, life has evolved and flourished on Earth in less than four billion years - which is quite a lot of separate clock ticks, but not a good deal fewer than infinity. The ancient minds might have evolved and left their mark.

Traces of primordial engineering?

What legacy might such demiurges leave for us to find? It could range from the very large, such as cosmological gravitational waves, or the very small, such as strange matter in pulsars. `If the angels broke through to the mid range, they could build just about any material structure,' Burns comments. But is there anything in our stellar environment that can't be accounted for by available science? Well, there remain those mysterious cosmological features, the vast empty voids, and the so-called Great Attractor that appears to be dragging all the local galaxies toward a particular place in the heavens. And dark matter, up to 90 percent of the mass of the cosmos, remains an unsolved question.

`If I were an angel,' Burns remarks wryly, `I'd be inclined to look out for my own skin. Maybe I could replicate myself on the cooler, rarer strata of the heat death. But in my epoch, the alternative of forming exotic black holes and maybe impressing myself on a new universe, if that's possible, would seem a lot more practical than it does to us atom-age relics.'

Still more delightfully bizarre is a conjecture based on Tipler's cosmological deity, advanced by Anders Sandberg:

life evolves towards the Omega Point, but in the vicinity of the final moment `angels', life based on back-propagating causality (which Tipler's theory seems to imply) are created and move backwards through time. They are unobservable in the present, since they are acausal from our perspective... and probably very thinly spread (possibly `extinct'). Eventually conditions become better and better for them, they spread across the universe and use the shear energy to create the Alpha Point - which is isomorphic to the Omega Point and creates `angels' moving forward in time. Note that if the backwards-moving beings use shear energy from the `collapse' of the universe they see, this may explain the homogeneity and isotropy of the universe despite the chaos of the Big Bang - from our perspective they smoothed the early universe!

In terms of scientific cosmology this entire arabesqued line of thought is strictly unnecessary, since science does not lack in more modest explanations for its outstanding conundrums. Still, improbable as it is, it does bear a piquant resemblance to the issues that might arise when Powers in a post-Spike history start to reformat their virtual and real environments.


Re-writing the cosmic laws

Polish polymath Stanislaw Lem once made a similar suggestion.84 Then why don't we find all those archaic galactic civilisations?

...because they are already everywhere... A billion-year-old civilization employs [no instrumental technologies]. Its tools are what we call the Laws of Nature. The present Universe no longer is the field of play of forces chemical, pristine, blindly giving birth to and destroying suns and their systems... In the Universe it is no longer possible to distinguish what is `natural' (original) from what is `artificial' (transformed).

The primordial cosmos might have possessed different laws in different regions (a notion common to current claims by Hoyle and Linde). If so, only in certain remote patches might life arise. Attempting to stabilise its environment, each early Spiked culture would jiggle the local laws of physics to its taste, until in their hungry expansion for living space they begin to encroach upon each other's territories.

Vast wars would follow: `The fronts of their clashes made gigantic eruptions and fires, for prodigious amounts of energy were released by annihilation and transformations of various kinds... collisions so powerful that their echo reverberates to this day' - in the form of the 2.7 degree Kelvin background radiation, mistakenly assumed to be a residue of the Big Bang. It is a charming cosmogony - an explanation for the birth and shape of the observed universe - and it fits all too neatly with the colossal intergalactic filaments and voids first detected years after Lem published his jape...

This universe of Lem's, torn asunder in conflict over its very architecture by titanic Exes and Powers, is saved from utter ruin by the laws of game-theory, which ensure that the former combatants must henceforth remain in strict isolation from each other. The chosen laws of physics that prevail, as a result, are those restrictive rules we chafe under today: a limited speed of light, an expanding spacetime (good fences make good neighbours, don't you know). We live upon a scratchy board abandoned by the Gamers. The Universe observed and theorised by science is no more than `a field of multibillion-year labours, stratified one on the other over the eons, tending to goals of which the closest and most minute fragments are fragmentarily perceptible to us.'

This delicious logic was not a bid by the distinctly atheistic Stanislaw Lem to reinstate a religious perspective in his then-communist country - something that the triumphant revival of Catholicism has done in the meantime, no doubt to Lem's chagrin. Nor am I seriously suggesting that this is how our universe really began. But the scenario does sketch out rather brilliantly just the kind of universe we can expect this one to become, following the human Spike - and long after its advent, of course, perhaps millions or even billions of years later.

On the other hand, it's bracing, I suspect, to acknowledge in due humility that, for all we know, actually there are other Powers in the cosmos, right now, who have passed through the veil of the Spike. And perhaps they do move upon us, vast and heedless, as fire moves across the tops of a field of cropped and stubbled wheat...85


Dr Damien Broderick / Fellow, Department of English and Cultural Studies
	University of Melbourne,  Parkville 3052, AUSTRALIA
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