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Conditions for life may hinge on how fast the universe is expanding

Scientists have known for several years now that stars, galaxies, and almost everything in the universe is moving away from us (and from everything else) at a faster and faster pace. Now, it turns out that the unknown forces behind the rate of this accelerating expansion—a mathematical value called the cosmological constant—may play a previously unexplored role in creating the right conditions for life.

That’s the conclusion of a group of physicists who studied the effects of massive cosmic explosions, called gamma ray bursts, on planets. They found that when it comes to growing life, it’s better to be far away from your neighbors—and the cosmological constant helps thin out the neighborhood.

“In dense environments, you have many explosions, and you’re too close to them,” says cosmologist and theoretical physicist Raul Jimenez of the University of Barcelona in Spain and an author on the new study. “It’s best to be in the outskirts, or in regions that have not been highly populated by small galaxies—and that’s exactly where the Milky Way is.”

Jimenez and his team had previously shown that gamma ray bursts could cause mass extinctions or make planets inhospitable to life by zapping them with radiation and destroying their ozone layer. The bursts channel the radiation into tight beams so powerful that one of them sweeping through a star system could wipe out planets in another galaxy. For their latest work, published this month in Physical Review Letters, they wanted to apply those findings on a broader scale and determine what type of universe would be most likely to support life.

The research is the latest investigation to touch on the so-called anthropic principle: the idea that in some sense the universe is tuned for the emergence of intelligent life. If the forces of nature were much stronger or weaker than physicists observe, proponents note, crucial building blocks of life—such fundamental particles, atoms, or the long-chain molecules needed for the chemistry of life—might not have formed, resulting in a sterile or even completely chaotic universe. Some researchers have tried to gauge how much “wiggle room” various physical constants might have for change before making the cosmos unrecognizable and uninhabitable. Others, however, question what such research really means and whether it is worthwhile.

Jimenez and colleagues tackled one, large-scale facet of the anthropic principle. They used a computer model to run simulations of the universe expanding and accelerating at many different speeds. They then measured how changing the cosmological constant affected the universe’s density, paying particular attention to what that meant about gamma ray bursts raining down radiation on stars and planets.

As it turns out, our universe seems to get it just about right. The existing cosmological constant means the rate of expansion is large enough that it minimizes planets’ exposure to gamma ray bursts, but small enough to form lots of hydrogen-burning stars around which life can exist. (A faster expansion rate would make it hard for gas clouds to collapse into stars.)

Jimenez says the expansion of the universe played a bigger role in creating habitable worlds than he expected. “It was surprising to me that you do need the cosmological constant to clear out the region and make it more suburbanlike,” he says.

Beyond what they reveal about the potential for life in our galaxy and beyond, the findings offer a new nugget of insight into one of the biggest puzzles in cosmology: why the cosmological constant is what it is, says cosmologist Alan Heavens, director of the Imperial Centre for Inference and Cosmology at Imperial College London.

In theory, Heavens explains, either the constant should be hundreds of orders of magnitude higher than it appears to be, or it should be zero, in which case the universe wouldn’t accelerate. But this would disagree with what astronomers have observed. “The small—but nonzero—size of the cosmological constant is a real puzzle in cosmology,” he says, adding that the research shows the number is consistent with the conditions required for the existence of intelligent life that is capable of observing it.

Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, and a skeptic of the anthropic principle, says the paper’s argument is a novel one and that on first reading he didn’t see any obvious mistakes. “I’ve not heard it before, so they’re to be praised for making a new argument,” he says.

However, he adds, all truly anthropic arguments to date fall back on fallacies or circular reasoning. For example, many tend to cherry-pick by looking only at one variable in the development of life at a time; looking at several variables at once could lead to a different conclusion.

Jimenez says the next step is to investigate whether gamma ray bursts are really as devastating to life as scientists believe. His team’s work has shown only that exposure to such massive bursts of radiation would almost certainly peel away a planet’s protective ozone layer.  “Is this going to be catastrophic to life?” he says. “I think so, but it may be that life is more resilient than we think.”
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