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Anthony Liversidge, "Frank Tipler--physicist--Interview," Omni, Vol. 17, Issue 1 (October 1994), pp. 89 ff.

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Frank Tipler--physicist--Interview

Anthony Liversidge

Dine with physicist Frank Tipler and his wife at Christian's, one of New Orleans's finest restaurants, and something becomes very clear: Caution is not his style. The gusto and verve with which Tipler consumes haute cuisine lathered with rich sauces and rounds off the meal with a challenging dessert, is impressive. His cholesterol count may be in the red zone, but he isn't concerned. "As you know," he guffaws cheerily, "my Omega Point theory predicts we will all live forever."

Tipler shows a similarly unfettered appetite for ideas. "Good scientists," he says, "have chutzpah. We are willing to ask any question whatsoever." Even so, few of his peers would dare to make the fantastic claims put forth in Tipler's just published Physics of Immortality. Using only math and physics, Tipler builds a theory about the universe from the beginning to the end of time, predicting the existence of God, resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting for one and all.

Enough to blow most crackpot detectors right off the scale. Yet Tipler is no softhead baking mysteries of quantum physics into New Age marshmallows. A tenured full professor at Tulane University, a reviewer for Nature, and an established cosmologist, he is "widely known for important concepts and theorems in general relativity and gravitation physics," according to the grand old man of cosmology, astrophysicist John Wheeler of Princeton.

Tipler's last book, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, published in 1986, was a shocker. Co-authored with British cosmologist and astrophysicist John D. Barrow, it prompted the reviewer in Nature to say the volume deserved a place "on the shelf of any serious scholar of science." Still, he couldn't shake a sense of "some snake oil being peddled." The page was ornamented with a cartoon of Tipler and Barrow riding a magic carpet, scribbling away with papers flying.

This time brickbats were hurled before the Physics of Immortality was completed. A friend invited Tipler to lecture at the Max Planck Institute in Munich when the book appeared in Germany this spring, but the invitation was rescinded at the last minute. The fax read: "Dear Frank ... some amount of speculation is stimulating, but you have gone too far--so far, in fact, the public reputation of science might suffer."

"I didn't know differential equations could be so controversial," Tipler cracks. "I wasn't going to mention God [in the lecture] even once."

Tipler predicts that intelligent life will eventually expand throughout the universe, growing to infinite intelligence with infinite knowledge by the Omega Point, the end of existence some million trillion years away. He suggests the Omega Point is the equivalent of God. As we hurtle toward this final singularity--a boundary point where space-time curves to infinity and ceases to exist--computational power will rise so high that future beings will re-create all previous beings. And we will live forever in a virtual-reality heaven.

Now 47, Tipler was born and raised in Andalusia, Alabama. His first science project was a letter written in kindergarten to Werner von Braun, whose plans to launch the first earth satellite were then being publicized. Von Braun's secretary replied, regretting he had no rocket fuel for Tipler as requested. By age five, he knew he wanted to be an astrophysicist. But he's always been a polymath, reading widely across disciplines and into the history of science and theology. After graduating from MIT and the University of Maryland, he did postdoctoral work at Oxford and Berkeley, before arriving at Tulane in 1981.

I sat in on Tipler's class in global relativity and afterward talked to him in his office and at Christian's. He chose the restaurant partly for its cuisine and partly because of its name. The irony is typical of Tipler, whose idea of his work as serious fun is contagious.

--Anthony Liversidge

Omni: Are you a crackpot?

Tipler: I don't think so. But no crackpot thinks he is, right? An astronomer once published a list of the rules for determining a crackpot. Well, if you read Darwin's Origin of the Species, you'll find he was a crackpot by some of the criteria. I'm very conservative scientifically. I'm just changing the boundary conditions in cosmology from the beginning of time to the end of time. I accept all known physical laws, and just change the point of view.

Omni: What is the message of your book, Physics of Immortality?

Tipler: Emmanuel Kant claimed the three fundamental problems of metaphysics are: Does God exist?, Do we have free will?, and Is there life after death? I turn those questions of metaphysics into problems of physics, and solve them, answering yes, yes, yes. That's how I'd summarize my book.

Omni: Aren't you confusing physics with metaphysics?

Tipler: The history of science is typically about turning insoluble problems of metaphysics into problems of physics and solving them. Like one of Kant's problems: Has the universe existed forever, or only a finite time? Kant thought this was fundamentally insoluble too, and had a purported proof of this. But in this century, we've turned this supposedly insoluble metaphysical problem into one of physics and solved it, to find the universe is 10 to 20 billion years old. I'm just taking the next step. My reductionist belief is that a problem that can be solved can be solved by physics. And only by physics.

Omni: Reductionist belief? Why do you call yourself a reductionist?

Tipler: Because I believe everything can be understood on the basis of physics and almost everything on the basis of our currently understood physics. If the Einstein field equations are correct, and you know the initial data, then you know everything about the future. If you know the initial conditions at any time, you know the conditions at all time. That's standard Laplacian determinism. You put initial or final boundary conditions into equations and compute the results.

Omni: So are you a scientist or theologian, or both?

Tipler: Like most leaders of the American Revolution, I am a natural theologian, saying the only thing you'll learn about God derives from nature itself, rather than from what He chooses to reveal to His prophets.

Omni: What does your theory tell the man on the street?

Tipler: Reducing the Omega Point theory to one sentence, it is this: God, who is a personal being who created the universe out of nothing, exists, loves us, and will one day resurrect us all to live in heaven forever. Now defending this outrageous statement using rigorous science takes a 600-page book! But I can turn every single word into a reductionist statement of physical reality. What the average [Christian] religious person with no knowledge of physics hopes for will in fact occur.

Omni: Won't physicists give you a hell of a lot of trouble?

Tipler: Yes, surely. But I never leave the realm of physics. This view, that the basic tenets of religion can be explained by physics, has been held by all great Christian theologians. I quote St. Paul to that effect--the basic attributes of God can be seen by the natural light of reason. St. Thomas Aquinas based his five proofs of the existence of God purely on Aristotlean physics. That the existence of God can be established by natural reason is Roman Catholic dogma.

Omni: What leads you to predict we shall all be raised from the dead and live forever?

Tipler: We're fundamentally of no importance in the gigantic scale of things. I'd only mention resurrection as a trivial aside at the end of a lecture on the physics. As a physicist, I'm interested in showing how powerful this theory of the future can be in constraining the past. To understand the physics of past and present, you must anchor your frame of reference on the future. I develop that technically. You can only understand what's going on now if you impose boundary conditions at the end of time. Omega means final, as in the Bible's "I am the Alpha and Omega." The Omega Point is the point at the end of time, and the fact that it is a point has significance in my theory, because it means unlimited communication at the end of time, without which life would cease to exist.

The standard model of a closed universe does not end in a single point, but a three-dimensional sphere. My theory says no, it has to be a single point. It's difficult to test, I admit, which is why I put a question mark as to whether or not it's called a prediction. Let's do a quick calculation of the relative physical sizes of the future and past. We compute the space-time volume of the past light cone--the four-dimensional part of the universe extending back 10 to 20 billion years into universal history--and compare that with the region outside it. The calculation tells us the volume of our future is at least 30,000 times larger than our past, even using a small estimate for the size of the universe.

If life is to continue forever, certain properties of the universe must be fixed now. Take the solar system. It's perfectly consistent with Newtonian mechanics to assume the earth is the center of the solar system. But it's hopeless mathematically: You'll get a complete mess when you try to analyze it. But if you make the sun the center, the math becomes trivial. The simplicity of the underlying physics becomes clear if you adopt the appropriate coordinate system. I'm doing the same thing to the universe as a whole, saying that anchoring your frame of reference on the ultimate future enables you to understand the past. If you try to understand the future by the past, you'll get a mess you can't possibly interpret.

Omni: Doesn't the real world have too many unknowns to project very far into the future?

Tipler: Assuming life goes on forever enormously constrains possible futures. Chaos is the technical term for the instability you're referring to. If you don't know everything precisely, the slightest errors amplify as you go farther into time, and after a while you can't predict anything. Coupled to that is the unpredictability of living beings. They have free will, and you can't predict what they're going to do. If I'm right, however, on the large scale these two sources of unpredictability cancel each other out, and you get predictability. The Einstein equations allow for this chaos, so you can predict the large-scale structure of the universe.

Omni: Surely we may blow ourselves and the planet to bits, and your eternal life postulate with it.

Tipler: My strategy is to accept the universe is deterministic. The situation is a bit more subtle--after all, there'd be no free will if it were completely true. But let's assume it's deterministic, as it certainly would be if the mechanics were those of Einstein or Newton. So whether or not we're going to blow ourselves to bits was locked into concrete 20 billion years ago. There's no contingency in a deterministic space-time; everything was fixed at the beginning of time.

In the quantized Omega Point theory, this determinism is only approximate. We have free will, and can blow ourselves to bits. But if we do, there must be at least one other intelligent species in the universe that does not blow itself up. Our destruction is unlikely now. Instead, we'll begin interstellar colonization next century, after which the destruction of the earth won't matter to the postulate.

The Omega Point theory is that life goes on forever, and as a consequence, the universe is closed, with its final state a single point. That it is a point is implied by life going on forever, because that means communication must be unlimited as you approach the Omega Point. In subjective time, an infinite amount of thoughts are thought between now and this ultimate final state. It is infinitely far away, and thus, even though we will be resurrected close to the final point, we will still have eternal life. Infinitely long life.

Omni: Is God a He?

Tipler: I say He when referring to the Judeo-Christian God. I use He/She in the Omega Point theory. I don't want to use It, because I want personhood there. But sex as we know it is a peculiarity of eukaryotic biochemistry, not of any fundamental personhood.

Omni: So He/She doesn't exist now?

Tipler: That's only from our point of view. Taking the space-time viewpoint, you see the whole universe at once, from the end of time, from the ultimate future. From our point of view, He/She is coming into existence. From God's point of view, He/She is drawing the totality of reality into Himself/Herself as time goes forward. God's point of view is ultimately the more fundamental of the two; but we have to look at things necessarily from our point of view.

Omni: Why do we care if life ceases at the end of time?

Tipler: You have to be very careful in cosmology when talking about measuring time. There is no time that all clocks measure. Your clocks depend on the environment. Newtonian mechanics doesn't use the earth's rotation as its clock. If it did, it would be logically impossible for the earth to slow down. But until Newtonian mechanics, the earth was the fundamental clock.

Right now, we're using proper time because it is proportional in the present environment to atomic time, which can vaguely be thought of as the vibration of an atom. But in detail, proper time is a ridiculous time scale to use near the final state. Atomic time is inappropriate near singularities where there are no atoms. There I use subjective time, which is measured by the number of individual thoughts you have. The end of time is infinitely far away: An infinite number of thoughts will have been thought between now and this ultimate state. We will be brought into existence again near the final state, and will continue to live forever--in subjective time. That's why we should be interested in the far future as human beings. As physicists we should be interested in it because most of reality is there!

Omni: How will life spread throughout the universe?

Tipler: It's physically possible to build a space ship that can go to the other side of the universe if you use extreme nanotechnology. And secondly, we have to realize everything--this desk, this building, humans--is a pattern of information. In principle, you can get the whole of the pattern, which is the human, and code it inside a computer.

Omni: What does life mean in this context? People like Schopenhauer have talked of a life force or will.

Tipler: No such things!

Omni: So you can write all the information needed to reproduce me or you some other place or time, and send it across the universe?

Tipler: Exactly. I prefer to use the term computer emulation. An emulation is an exact simulation, an absolutely perfect copy. Everybody's computer emulates other computers, although the average person is not aware of that. In any running computer there are several computers there. All but one of them are virtual computers, perfect imitations of other computers. Writing commands into your machine, you see the physical machine, but in reality an emulation of another computer exists inside this machine. But it exists only as bits of information.

Using physics, specifically the Bekenstein Bound, you can prove a human being, indeed the entire visible universe, can be emulated by a sufficiently powerful computer. I give estimates of the upper bound of how powerful a machine will be required: for a human, 10^45 bits of information. The entire universe will need 10^123 bits, as Roger Penrose was the first to compute.

As you go into the future, the amount of information storage diverges to infinity. Eventually, however, 10^123 bits will be insignificant in comparison to the total computer capacity of the universe. So in the far future the whole present universe will be emulated using a tiny fraction of total computer capacity. If this is done by our descendants, once they've taken over the universe and gained control over its resources, they will emulate into the future the universe as it now exists. We would come into existence again--the present universe at a higher level of implementation, just as inside my computer there is a virtual machine, and possibly a virtual machine inside that, a hierarchy of implementation.

Omni: But will this "event" be only an information emulation, not an actual physical one.

Tipler: The event will be the present reality, but at a higher level of implementation. No experiment conducted inside the simulation could distinguish between the emulation and the real thing. An emulation is the thing being emulated, an exact simulation in every conceivable respect.

Omni: Sitting here, how do we know we are not an emulation?

Tipler: We don't. We could be an emulation in the far future. Anything you have now will be there then. You'd think as you do now. Beings that are perfect copies are no longer copies. They are the beings. Right now we are in effect being run as a program: One state of the universe succeeds the next as we move forward in time. You can do that as a computer emulation. There'd be no difference in our experience now, and as our emulated selves, until beings in the far future start to change the emulation--such as moving us into a different environment.

Omni: How can people exist as emulations and retain control over their existence? Explain that!

Tipler: How do you know you have control now? From a higher level of implementation you'd have no idea what the universe is at its most basic level. In the far future you'd never deal with the base computer, only with the emulation. You are inside the emulation. How do you know you're not part of it now? You don't.

Now given their power to improve the life situation, would the beings of the far future permit us to exist in all this misery? No. They'll improve our lives very rapidly. That's my argument. I'll grant you it's weaker than the argument that the power will exist to bring the present universe back into existence. That I can argue on the basis of physics. The second step is ultimately a sociological or biological argument, an estimate of how the beings in the far future will actually act. I'd claim they'll be motivated to emulate us, just as we are now trying to emulate the first living cells, our ultimate ancestors.

Omni: What is your definition of the soul that's resurrected?

Tipler: Like the average person, I define a soul as the essence of the human being--the difference between a corpse and a living being. But unlike many, I use physics to tell me that the fundamental difference between a living being and a corpse is a particular program being run on the body, most importantly the brain.

Omni: A robot could have a soul?

Tipler: Certainly. You only doubt it now because we don't have a computer or program powerful enough. This concept of soul is not unfamiliar to Christians if they go back to original theology. St. Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle in defining the soul as the form of activity of the body. By form Aristotle meant what we now call pattern. Activity means it's in motion to distinguish it from a corpse. Activity is what I mean by pattern: information being coded in the body. The activity is, in essence, natural selection. A person is a program you can talk to, that can convince you it is like you.

Omni: Hasn't a lot of information about each person and his or her life been lost forever, preventing this future emulation from occurring precisely?

Tipler: That won't stop us from resurrecting the past. A crucial consequence of my free-will theory is that we cannot know everything happening now. But the future being will know something about the present, just as you know something about Schopenhauer. A historian would define the past as the collection of all histories that's consistent with what he knows in the present. Thus you'd make emulations of all those possible histories, and the real person would be included as one of the emulations. You'll emulate all possible variants if you don't know precisely what happened, all possible universes consistent with the future's knowledge of the present visible universe, and guarantee the current universe is in your collection.

Omni: If you are going to fill a virtual world with zillions of slightly varied copies of me as I am now, why would I be delighted?

Tipler: You want to know if this specific you will be there? That is guaranteed!

Omni: Yes, as one possibility of myself, not zillions.

Tipler: Zillions of realities, not mere possibilities! But these zillions of yous are here now, if the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, as it is accepted by many physicists. In the distant future, as now, you will be totally unaware of these other yous. But this particular you will continue to exist.

Omni: If life is information, the existence of eternal life is only the eternal existence of information.

Tipler: Yes, and it's being coded; information processing going on forever is a reductionist way of saying life going on forever.

Omni: Is that why some people keep extensive diaries, do great works of art or deeds?

Tipler: It's one way of seeking immortality. Schopenhauer, in a shadow sense, still exists in your mind. But all aspects--the full power--of Schopenhauer is not there. An extraordinary event that affected him as a child, but was unmentioned in his journals and no one else thought to recover, is not now existing. That Schopenhauer can return into existence only if the entire visible universe of the late nineteenth century is emulated in the computers of the far future. You have a very limited form of immortality when you try to live forever through your works.

Omni: How will we eventually take over and control the universe?

Tipler: It won't be Homo sapiens. If our species has a typical mammalian lifetime, it will live only a few more million years. Our descendants--probably intelligent robots--will use rockets to expand from our present isolated point in the universe to eventually engulf the whole. Then we can use the universe's chaos to force it into patterns we want. It doesn't have to be us; somebody has to make it. It will be able to engulf, pattern, and control the whole universe--and must, to survive.

Omni: It seems impossible for any life to control galaxies.

Tipler: Chaos allows a little nudge here to amplify, after a while, to an enormous change there. Imagine a row of dominoes, each of which is slightly larger than the next. This domino hits the next and so on until you have a gigantic stone pushed by that slight nudge of the first domino.

Omni: What about loss of energy?

Tipler: Then the system is not chaotic. According to general relativity, the system is chaotic. The universe will expand to a maximum size and then contract because it's closed. But by moving matter slightly here and there in just the right pattern, you can force the universe to collapse at different speeds and directions into certain patterns. You fire a projectile so that it moves by a larger object whose orbit is slightly deflected by it. This builds up from planets to stars to whole galaxies. That is how the game is played. As the size of the collapsing universe goes to zero, gravitational energy--the ultimate source of energy--goes to infinity.

Omni: How did you first formulate this theory of yours?

Tipler: I read Freeman Dyson's, "Time Without End," published in the Review of Modern Physics, in which he asked the question, Can life go on forever? I thought he was insufficiently reductionist, didn't go the full way in reducing life to physics. I define life as something coding information preserved by natural selection. Molecular biologist Colin Cairns-Smith, of the University of Glasgow, and zoologist Richard Dawkins at Oxford, have come up with essentially the same definition. What unites us is our fierce reductionism. We don't want a definition of life locked to the DNA molecule, because you can imagine a life form that is not. If an E.T.-like creature came in a spaceship, and his chemistry wasn't DNA-based, we'd still want to call him alive.

Investigating whether life can go on forever was the start of the Omega Point theory. Concluding that life can't go on forever in an open universe, I said, Let's look at a closed universe. Initially any physicist would say, Of course not. If it is closed it will expand to a maximum size and recontract. As it starts to get smaller, the temperature will get hotter and hotter, and as it approaches the final singularity, the temperature will go to infinity.

Any human will obviously be incinerated and crushed to zero volume. But is it possible for information to be encoded as you go into that final singularity? The singularity is on the boundary of space-time. You approach, but never reach it as long as you are in space-time; but the energy is going to infinity. Information is always encoded as occupied or unoccupied energy levels. There are discrete levels of energy--a gap between one level and the next. As you approach the singularity, all you have to do is make sure the energy levels that encode information are at higher levels than the temperature of the environment.

Omni: How do you prove the existence of God?

Tipler: I'm looking at the totality of reality. If you do a consistent physical analysis, God just falls out. He is there in an intrinsic, essential way, not just put in to cover our ignorance. Any cosmology with unlimited progress will end in God. In Exodus, God says to Moses out of the burning bush that his name is "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" which in Hebrew means "I will be what I will be." So the Bible itself can be interpreted that God is the ultimate future. My mathematical theory tells us that the ultimate theory is "personal"--so it can be called "God"--because all personalities acting together will drive the universe into the ultimate future. Furthermore, it will be these future persons who will resurrect us.

Omni: What of your predictions, if proven, will back your theory?

Tipler: One was the mass of the top quark, the particle finally found at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory this April. Omega predicts its mass at 185 plus or minus 20 billion electron-volts. Fermilab measured the top quark's mass at 174 plus or minus 17. If my approximations are right and a certain mechanism near the final state exists, the reason the top quark has mass is to enable us to live forever! I predicted this two years ago in a paper I sent to Physical Review Letters, but it was rejected. One of the referees wrote it was "clearly refuted by experiment. The estimate from the CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) indicates it is going to be 150."

My book also predicts a lower value for the Hubble constant--a measure of the rate of expansion of the universe at the present time--and thus a greater inferred age of the universe than many cosmologists expect. There's an inconsistency in current measurements of the Hubble constant. My most interesting prediction is the mass of the Higgs boson, at 220 plus or minus 20 billion electron-volts. Every particle with mass got it from the Higgs boson, so it is the crucial particle in the standard model. But it's never been seen and many theorists doubt it exists. The large hadron collider now under construction will find the Higgs early next century.

Omni: Why are some scientists so apoplectic at your theory?

Tipler: I am disturbing a political agreement between theologians and scientists to keep their fields separate.

Omni: How have fellow physicists reacted to your book?

Tipler: So far, mostly with silence. They don't want to come out and oppose a theory that's not obviously wrong, but is important if it's right. To appreciate the full power of my theory, it's essential to be an expert in particle physics, global general relativity, and computer science. You don't need to know theology.

Omni: Will the referees of the Physical Review Letters now fall down and beg your forgiveness?

Tipler: Are you kidding? Does water flow uphill? People have short memories for their mistakes. These referees are anonymous and can make all sorts of mistakes and ignorant comments, and it's no skin off their noses. But the referees are particle physicists, and I am a relativist doing something interdisciplinary. The big problem in modern science is extreme specialization. If he's not in your field but an expert in another area, you haven't heard of him or don't take him seriously.

Omni: But if you present an argument and people won't listen, isn't that politics, not physics?

Tipler: It worries me. I say in my book explicitly that physicists don't act that way. Now I am finding out they do.

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