March 8, 2007 at 9:52 PM ET
ACT via IRG
Stem cell pioneer Robert
Lanza says biology has to
be part of any "theory of
The quest to unify all of physics into one big framework called "the theory of everything" has inspired a host of way-out ideas, with the current leading concept involving a 10- or 11-dimensional universe. Now a pioneer in the field of stem cell research has weighed in with an essay that brings biology and consciousness into the mix.
Robert Lanza, vice president for research and scientific development at Advanced Cell Technology, sets forth his view on the quest for a unified cosmic theory in "A New Theory of the Universe," an essay appearing in The American Scholar.
In the past, the intellectual journal has published the provocative musings of such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell - and Lanza hopes his perspective on one of the biggest questions of the cosmos will make a similar splash.
"The urgent and primary questions of the universe have been undertaken by those physicists who are trying to explain the origins of everything with grand unified theories. But as exciting as these theories are, they are an evasion, if not a reversal, of the central mystery of knowledge: that the laws of the world were somehow created to produce the observer. And more important than this, that the observer in a significant sense creates reality and not the other way around. Recognition of this insight leads to a single theory that unifies our understanding of the world."
He points to recent research into retrocausality - the spooky idea that an observer can apparently decide the outcome of an event after it has occurred - as fresh evidence that observers create their own versions of reality. The idea goes back at least as far as Immanuel Kant's 18th-century philosophizing about space, time and other categories, and it also comes up as a new-age twist on quantum mechanics in the movie "What the Bleep Do We Know?"
So is Lanza's new theory actually a new-age spiritual tract rather than a scientific proposition? "Absolutely not," he told me Wednesday.
"Very real experiments show that space and time are indeed relative to the observer," he said, "and there are real experiments that also continue to show that the properties of matter itself are observer-determined. ... Science has to deal with these facts."
As physicists learn more about the constants that govern how the universe works - including the cosmological constant that appears to govern how fast the universe is expanding - they're starting to come around to the view that we've benefited from an astronomical stroke of luck that arranged things just right for life and consciousness to develop. Lanza, however, sees it a different way: that we observe these features in the universe because we are biologically built to see things in this particular way.
"Reality isn't a thing," he told me. "It's a process."
Many physicists may well protest that the "create-your-own-reality" mantra does nothing to reconcile the micro world of quantum mechanics with the macro world of general relativity - the stated aim of the quest for the theory of everything. But as far as Lanza is concerned, the contradictions and weirdnesses that arise from the quantum world serve as signals that a new approach is needed, with more weight given to the role of observers.
"Physicists have had 100 years of trying to resolve the conflicts in their foundations, and they've had no luck," Lanza said. "It's not because they're not bright. It's obviously because there's a part of the puzzle that's missing. And I think this is the answer: The answer is biology. Hopefully, if that message gets out, I think we'll be able to basically resolve the conflicts very quickly."
He said his ideas on "bio-logic" have put his own sometimes-controversial work with human embryonic stem cells in a new perspective.
"The very first thing that embryonic stem cells do, without any effort at all, is that they make neurons," Lanza observed. "They are assembling basically into the fundamental structures that are the building blocks of reality. ... If you look at embryonic stem cells, they can do anything - every cell of the body - but what they do, and every scientist who has studied this will tell you, is they make neurons. All the other cell types are a lot more problematic, they require more signaling. But this is what they do on their own without any external signals. I find that interesting, and I don't think necessarily it's an accident."
What next? Lanza said he's hoping to expand the essay into a book that goes into more of the "scientific nitty-gritty" behind his concept. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your reactions to Lanza's new theory. Please give the essay a read, then leave your comments below.