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What is the Universe Made Of?

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll
2016 18 Nov

In an episode of Antiques Roadshow, a furniture expert was presented an unexceptional-looking table, one that struck me as something I could put together in an afternoon.

Although the piece had no decorative embellishments or maker’s mark, the expert immediately identified it as the work of George Nakashima, an innovative furniture maker of the last century. I was amazed, for somewhere in the table’s stark simplicity was information sufficient for the trained eye to identify the craftsman with the certainty of a DNA analysis.

The universe, also a crafted work, is information-rich. And as trained eyes have plumbed its depths and probed its expanse they have unveiled, if unwittingly, the fingerprints of its Maker.

The Fundamental Ingredient
From the spooky behavior of subatomic particles, communicating instantly over galactic distances, to the biological software of cellular machinery, to the host of delicately balanced parameters that govern the cosmos, information, as scientists are coming to learn, is the fundamental ingredient of the universe. Physicist John Archibald Wheeler put it this way, “Every physical quantity derives its ultimate significance from bits, binary yes-or-no indications.” In computer-ese, that’s information.

Paradoxically, the stuff that makes up the material world is not material. While its transmission depends on material means—sound waves, electromagnetic signals, ink and paper, photographic images, and the like—information neither consists, nor is a product of, matter.

Consider the cells of our body. During the course of a normal life span, every cell in the body is replaced many times over; the molecules that make up our brain turnover about once every year. However, those changes have no commensurate effect on the instructions that govern cell activity or on our library of knowledge, memories, beliefs, and aspirations.

The existence of information is evidence that reality is more than matter moving under the influence of physical forces. At the root of nature is order, an order we neither invented nor imposed. So where did it come from? Find out here.