I ask these questions not out of philosophical curiosity but because related experiments are being discussed in the scientific literature. For example, a team led Nobel laureate Jack Szostak at Harvard is aiming to construct a synthetic cellular system that undergoes Darwinian evolution. Their building block of synthetic life, a primitive cell, consists of a self-replicating genetic polymer (analogous to a natural genome) surrounded by a self-replicating membrane (analogous to a natural cell boundary). The genetic polymer carries information that allows replication and variation, enabling new generations of synthetic cells to possess qualities that are inherited but can also evolve. The membrane protects and separates the identity of this information from the outside world.
Synthetic life experiments may explain the chemistry and physics behind Darwinian evolution on Earth. But they also hold the promise to explore conditions different from those realized through the restricted geological and atmospheric conditions on Earth. Chefs know very well that the same ingredients can be used to make different cakes, depending on the quantity, order and timing of putting them together, as well the environmental conditions (such as temperature and surface conditions) in which they were mixed. Earth demonstrated a particular recipe for life, but it may be only one out of a large set of possible recipes.
Studying the variety of possible life-forms in the laboratory could expand our imagination as to which cosmic environments in the sky might harbor life. It would be revolutionary if some of these potentially habitable environments were distinctly different from the surfaces of Earth-like planets, with which astronomers are currently obsessed. Such a realization could shape the search for extraterrestrial life in much the same way as experiments that led to the discovery of quantum mechanics guided the study of stars, galaxies and the rest of the universe.
Just as better understanding of the laws of physics enabled modern technologies that serve our daily needs, creating synthetic life in the laboratory could yield tremendous side benefits to medicine and biomedical research.
But another type of laboratory experiment could shed new light on our understanding of the birth of the entire cosmos. According to the prevailing cosmological model, our universe started from a period of cosmic inflation, during which a microscopic region of space was stretched by tens of orders of magnitude because of a temporary domination of the vacuum energy density (similarly to the accelerated cosmic expansion we are witnessing at the present time).
The vacuum density stems from the existence of a quantum field called the “inflaton.” Physicists can study ways of artificially producing a region of space where the inflaton field is concentrated to a level that would stimulate the creation of a baby universe. Such a baby universe will not expand into the laboratory but rather branch off from the spacetime of its creators and evolve in its own bubble.
This raises the question of whether the big bang could have been the result of a laboratory experiment, and if so, will we ever know? Such an origin for our universe does not resolve the fundamental question about our cosmic roots but only pushes the question back in time by one generation of experimentalists.
Even if this were the case, we are left to wonder: what created the experimentalists who inflated our universe? Perhaps they resulted from an earlier generation of experimentalists and so on and so forth, without an end, with our civilization capable of following this “cosmic tradition” by producing baby universes in the future. Asking how it all started may resemble asking who came first, the chicken or the egg?
But perhaps, just as in the chicken and egg dilemma—for the beginning of which we have scientific clues—the entire cosmic history started from some primordial ingredients and random processes. In which case, one may ask: are there recipes for different universes that can be produced out of the same primordial ingredients? If so, we could broaden our perspective by reading the “Book of Recipes for Universes.”
When we meet members of a more advanced civilization, we might ask if they wrote such a book. If they did, let’s hope that it is available for purchase and not out of print.