On the surface, this sounds like a ridiculous title. Everyone knows that the dinosaurs were wiped out in a mass extinction event about 65 million years ago. An asteroid hit the Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula, and the debris displaced by the impact caused an extended global winter. The dinosaurs, being cold-blooded, were unable to maintain their body temperature as the Earth started cooling, and they eventually died.
So, what’s boredom got to do with anything? As you know, this is The Bob Angle, so naturally there has to be another way of looking at it…
A few years ago, I was watching the movie Men In Black. Toward the end of the movie, there is a CGI scene in which the camera zooms out from Battery Park in Manhattan, into orbit, past our solar system, beyond the Milky Way … until it reaches the edge of the universe itself. Then it keeps zooming out until it is revealed that our universe is actually contained within a marble-like object, which is resting on the ground of a world from a higher plane of existence.
I found this sequence fascinating because it reminded me of Stephen Hawking’s concept of multiverses – multiple universes. Hawking speculated that ours isn’t the only universe; there might be hundreds or thousands of other universes, each formed by their own Big Bang, and each governed by different laws of physics.
This scene also proposes the notion of life on a higher plane of existence. Instead of a singular, managerial God, an entire society of superior beings may exist on some unreachable, god-like realm. In fact, our entire universe may be nothing more than a sophisticated physics experiment to the creatures who inhabit this plane. Naturally, every one of these creatures would be considered a god to us mere mortals.
If our snow-globe universe is a classroom experiment, then it’s possible that we are being observed by several of these god-like creatures, or perhaps an entire room full of them. That thought alone should make you want to be on your best behaviour – if Humankind destroys itself in a nuclear war (after evolving from single-celled organisms) the superior being in charge of our celestial marble may receive a lower grade for this science project.
The Game of Life
No, I’m not talking about the board game that you probably played during your childhood; this is a more esoteric life simulation that’s also known as cellular automata. If you took computer science in university, then you will undoubtedly be familiar with it.
The concept was developed in the 1940s by John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam, and was turned into a simulation by John Conway during the 1970s. Calling it a game is a bit of a misnomer, since there is no continual user interaction. It’s essentially a simulation. It can also be run within a browser, if you’d like to give it a try.
You begin with a blank grid. Each square, or cell, represent a life form. You add one or more lifeforms by highlighting some of the sells. Each cell has eight neighbouring cells. Whether a particular cell survives to the next generation depends on the following set of rules:
- 0-1 Neighbours: The cell dies from underpopulation (or loneliness).
- 2-3 Neighbours: The cell survives until the next generation.
- 4-8 Neighbours: The cell dies from overcrowding.
- A dead cell with three neighbours will come to life in the next generation.
It seems absurdly simple, but this simulation can generate some surprisingly complex behaviour. Cellular automata are used in encryption, random number generation, and the arrangement of processing elements in CPUs. If you’d like to take a deep dive into this topic, M. Mitchell Waldrop’s book, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos is an excellent place to start. Waldrop elaborates on research into complex systems, done at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Systems with just a few simple rules can generate complex, even unpredictable behaviour, and even act as if they’re intelligent.
In the Game of Life, the initial configuration of cells is called the seed. Seeds can evolve into stable, complex or chaotic patterns. However, many will becomes static patterns and others will simply oscillate forever.
The Dinosaur / Cellular Automata Connection
Dinosaurs reigned the Earth from 225 – 65 million years ago, a period lasting 160 million years. During this time, they were in perfect harmony with nature, having established an ecological equilibrium. In fact, one might argue that the dinosaurs were better stewards of the planet than we are, despite our larger brains and lofty perch at the top of the evolutionary ladder.
What the Game of Life is to us – a simplistic model of evolution – is probably what our universe is to these superior beings. It’s just a dark snow globe, or perhaps a novelty item sold in their museum gift shops. It might be a science experiment or a game: generate an initial seed value by adjusting the laws of physics (and other parameters), and then sit back and watch the universe unfold – see if life develops, or how advanced the civilizations will become before they destroy their environment or themselves. On a god-like plane of existence, this might actually be amusing!
Once the simulation began, and the primordial ooze coalesced into stars and planets, circumstances on Earth were interesting as it slowly took shape and developed. Life began, and started to evolve, growing increasingly complex.
Now consider the reign of the dinosaurs. They have evolved into a stable configuration, and remained that way for 160 million years. After this ecological equilibrium was established, things plateaued, evolution-wise. If I were a superior being, I would quickly become bored. Life on Earth would be much like watching a static or oscillating cellular automata pattern… dull as ditch water. Ar this point, I could throw out my snow globe universe, or being the resourceful being that I am, I could find a way to hack it… just a little.
This is what I think might have happened. The owner of our universe-in-a-marble decided to make an infinitesimal change to a tiny sliver of our universe – just enough to disrupt the equilibrium on a single planet. Our universe owner either created a new asteroid by breaking apart a large object, or nudged an existing asteroid so that its orbit would collide with Earth. The impact wouldn’t be forceful enough to destroy the planet or all life on it, but enough to cause a global extinction event and leave a few survivors who will take evolution in a new direction. In fact, the BBC reported that the asteroid hit the Earth in just the right spot to accomplish this.
Another article speculates that our sun had a sister star that hurled a few meteors in our direction every 27 million years. One of them hit the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. There are countless ways in which one can hack the universe.
Could This Happen To Us?
In a word: no. We homo sapiens are just too darn interesting. We’ve settled all over the planet. We’ve drawn and redrawn political boundaries as empires rose and fell. We’re constantly inventing new things and are now extending our reach past the planet itself.
If that weren’t enough, we’re already the architects of our own demise. For over a century, we’ve been extracting raw materials from the ground, processing them, and then feeding them back to the planet in an indigestible (plastic), or even poisonous configuration (spent nuclear fuel rods) – a perverse form of reverse dialysis on a planetary scale.
Will we smarten up in time to stop the ecological damage we’ve caused to our planet, or will be perish as a result of our own stupidity? Even to a superior being, that’s some pretty decent cliffhanger material!
Even if we do manage to save ourselves, we still won’t be out of the proverbial woods. Achieving a net zero carbon footprint sounds like an admirable goal, but let’s not rest on our laurels for too long. After 160 million years of living in harmony with the planet, the watchers may once again decide to stir things up…