The Anthropic Principle

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Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the Physics section of Ideas Roadshow’s Extended Essay Guide, where Nobel Laureate Tony Leggett discusses the so-called Anthropic Principle, an idea that begins with the recognition that our current models of particle physics contain within them a number of “fundamental constants” that have no prior explanation – they simply have to be accepted ahead of time, or, as physicists like to say, “put in by hand”.  

Well, most theories have some sort of axioms involved, so that, in itself, is not so significant.  What makes this case potentially different, however, is that the particular values of these constants seem remarkably special (“fine-tuned”, a physicist would say), with only a very narrow range being suitable for not only human life, but even the existence of stars and galaxies. Why, then, do we happen to have the very values of these constants that we seem to “need”? It is this that “The Anthropic Principle” purports to explain? Check out the video called The Anthropic Principle featuring Prof. Tony Leggett.

The recent history of The Anthropic Principle is an intriguing one all by itself, as scientific opinion has oscillated, often very frequently, from utter disdain at its “inherent unscientificness” to a wholehearted embrace. In the 1980s the celebrated science and mathematics writer Martin Gardner wrote mockingly about the “Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle” with its vividly ironic acronym (“CRAP”), while many theoretical physicists unquestionably accept it today.

This topic bridges physics and philosophy.  Possible areas of investigation for an extended essay include an examination of the history of the anthropic principle, current levels of acceptance in the scientific community, an analysis of the different types of anthropic principle (e.g. “weak”, “strong”) and a discussion on its compatibility with the scientific method.

Related Ideas Roadshow IBDP resources include the clip The Anthropic Principle, the compilation video Anthropic Reflections, and the eBooks and hour-long videos The Problems of Physics and Pushing the Barriers.

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