Starts With A Bang

It from Bit: Is the Universe a Cellular Automaton? (Synopsis)

Conway's Game of Life is a popular and very simple algorithm for encoding the evolution of a system, leading to complex but stable/quasi-stable patterns. Image credit: MrJavaFrank / YouTube.

“It’s always seemed like a big mystery how nature, seemingly so effortlessly, manages to produce so much that seems to us so complex. Well, I think we found its secret. It’s just sampling what’s out there in the computational universe.” -Stephen Wolfram

In the mid-20th century, computers allowed us to explore a brand new idea: that a discrete space, with a simple set of rules and straightforward initial conditions, could evolve in steps to create a rich, life-like environment. While many of us have played or seen simulations of Conway’s Game of Life, a deeper idea is at the core of such a simulation: that at a fundamental level, the Universe itself may be nothing more than a similar cellular automaton.

Encoded on the surface of the black hole can be bits of information, proportional to the event horizon’s surface area. Image credit: T.B. Bakker / Dr. J.P. van der Schaar, Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Started by Ed Fredkin in the 1960s, a simple idea that digital information could represent reality, and that bits of that information in different states and configurations could correspond to what we perceive as different particles in our physical Universe. Developed further by John Wheeler and David Bekenstein, and later taken to a quantum level to incorporate the full nature of the Universe, it’s conceivable that both matter and energy could be illusions. If the “It from Bit” hypothesis is true, only digital information would truly be real.

The idea of a self-excited circuit was first presented by Wheeler; as an observer views the Universe, it causes reality to self-create in a certain sense. This was the crux of the ‘It from Bit’ idea. Image credit: Christopher Langan.

Is it possible that this is how our Universe actually works at a fundamental level? That the whole shebang is nothing more than a cellular automaton? Paul Halpern explores, and the rest of us get to find out!