How to Tell if the Universe Is a Computer Simulation

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It's a famous question among academic philosophers and drunken college students alike: how can we be sure we're not living in a gigantic computer simulation? Fortunately, researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany think they've cracked it.

Their reasoning is pretty straightforward, according to Technology Review: if the cosmos is just a numerical simulation, calculated on some insanely powerful supercomputer tucked away in another world, there should be clues around us that can reveal the truth. Glitches in the system, if you like, that give the game away.

Moving from that reasoning to the science required to find those clues isn't quite so easy. To kick things off, the team of researchers from Bonn have speculated that the problem with all simulations is that they're discretized: to model a physical phenomenon, the real world has to be represented by separate points in time and 3D space. Sure you can make the distance between those points reeeeeeally small—but you still have to have this kind of grid.


So the researchers started looking at some physics they understood—in this instance high energy processes that become smaller as they get more energetic. Interestingly, they found that the idea of a world-as-computer-simulation would impose limits on the absolute amount of energy any particle can have, a result rooted in the fact that nothing could ever exist in a simulation which is smaller than the 3D grid it's represented on.

Weirdly enough, turns out such a limit actually does exist here in our world, and dictates the amount of energy cosmic ray particles can have. But the idea of the lattices add a further complication, because it would theoretically mean that we wouldn't see cosmic rays traveling equally in all directions across the imposed 3D grid.


To finish off by blowing your mind: that's a measurement that current technology could be used to make. Of course, if the findings were negative it wouldn't rule out the fact that our world was a silicon simulation, because it might just be more complex than we could ever imagine—but if results came out positive it could mean we're all made of code. [arXiv via Technology Review]

Image by NASA