If we could only build one huge observatory….

[ This blog is dedicated to tracking my most recent publications. Subscribe to the feed to keep up with all the science stories I write! ]

Q: Suppose we can only build one big telescope. Should we look for life among the stars or the origins of the universe?

I participated in an experts’ roundtable for Aeon Magazine, in which we were asked (more or less facetiously) what single project we would support to settle either questions about the very early universe or the existence of life elsewhere in the cosmos. Of course my real answer is that we should support all the science, because discovery isn’t about looking for one thing, but seeing what new things we can find. Throwing all our money at one big project might accomplish something, but it’s a bad way to do science. But anyway, taking the question for what it is — a fun exercise in wishing — here’s my answer, along with thoughts from Ross Andersen and Caleb Scharf.


GLaDOS, the manipulative computer system from the Portal games. The title of this post is a line from the Aeon article that was cut before publication, but I loved it so much I had to use it anyway. [Credit: Half-Life wiki]

It’s one of those nagging thoughts many of us have had: is our existence a reality or an illusion? Philosophers and scientists have grappled with the question, though today much of the discussion focuses on a related question: do we live in a computer simulation? In my (first hopefully of multiple) essays for Aeon magazine, I discussed one possible formulation of the question and how it could be answered — but also why the question may be less scientifically meaningful than many popular accounts would have you believe.

The idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. A pair of philosophers recently argued that if we accept the eventual complexity of computer hardware, it’s quite probable we’re already part of an ‘ancestor simulation’, a virtual recreation of humanity’s past. Meanwhile, a trio of nuclear physicists has proposed a way to test this hypothesis, based on the notion that every scientific programme makes simplifying assumptions. If we live in a simulation, the thinking goes, we might be able to use experiments to detect these assumptions.

However, both of these perspectives, logical and empirical, leave open the possibility that we could be living in a simulation without being able to tell the difference. [read more….]

Sinners in the hands of an angry GLaDOS