If true, it would mean that you yourself reading this article are more likely to be some momentary fluctuation in a field of matter and energy out in space than a person with a real past born through billions of years of evolution in an orderly star-spangled cosmos. Your memories and the world you think you see around you are illusions.
This bizarre picture is the outcome of a recent series of calculations that take some of the bedrock theories and discoveries of modern cosmology to the limit. Nobody in the field believes that this is the way things really work, however. And so there in the last couple of years there has been a growing stream of debate and dueling papers, replete with references to such esoteric subjects as reincarnation, multiple universes and even the death of spacetime, as cosmologists try to square the predictions of their cherished theories with their convictions that we and the universe are real. The basic problem is that across the eons of time, the standard theories suggest, the universe can recur over and over again in an endless cycle of big bangs, but it’s hard for nature to make a whole universe. It’s much easier to make fragments of one, like planets, yourself maybe in a spacesuit or even — in the most absurd and troubling example — a naked brain floating in space. Nature tends to do what is easiest, from the standpoint of energy and probability. And so these fragments — in particular the brains — would appear far more frequently than real full-fledged universes, or than us. Or they might be us...
Inflation is a veritable cosmological fertility principle. Fluctuations in the field driving inflation also would have seeded the universe with the lumps that eventually grew to be galaxies, stars and people. According to the more extended version, called eternal inflation, an endless array of bubble or “pocket” universes are branching off from one another at a dizzying and exponentially increasing rate. They could have different properties and perhaps even different laws of physics, so the story goes.
A different, but perhaps related, form of antigravity, glibly dubbed dark energy, seems to be running the universe now, and that is the culprit responsible for the Boltzmann brains.
The expansion of the universe seems to be accelerating, making galaxies fly away from one another faster and faster. If the leading dark-energy suspect, a universal repulsion Einstein called the cosmological constant, is true, this runaway process will last forever, and distant galaxies will eventually be moving apart so quickly that they cannot communicate with one another. Being in such a space would be like being surrounded by a black hole.
Rather than simply going to black like “The Sopranos” conclusion, however, the cosmic horizon would glow, emitting a feeble spray of elementary particles and radiation, with a temperature of a fraction of a billionth of a degree, courtesy of quantum uncertainty. That radiation bath will be subject to random fluctuations just like Boltzmann’s eternal universe, however, and every once in a very long, long time, one of those fluctuations would be big enough to recreate the Big Bang. In the fullness of time this process could lead to the endless series of recurring universes. Our present universe could be part of that chain.
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