The Science Behind The Omega Theory

I've always been fascinated by the connections between science and religion. Scientists can tell us how the universe works, but they can't say (at least not yet) why the cosmos came into being. Religion provides several possible justifications for our existence, but none of the world's faiths can back up their doctrines with evidence, and many religious concepts—such as an omnipotent, compassionate deity, or the afterlife—seem to defy logic and common sense. I wanted to write a thriller that explored some of these issues, but in an entertaining way. And I saw an opportunity to do this after I read a book called Programming the Universe, written in 2006 by Seth Lloyd, a prominent MIT researcher who has advanced the idea that the universe is a kind of natural computer.

The idea isn't entirely new. One of its most famous proponents was the great physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who coined the expression It From Bit—all physical things arise from information. At the smallest of scales, particles aren't physical objects. An electron isn't composed of anything smaller; it's defined by its inherent quantum properties (charge, spin, rest mass, etc.) and by its probable position and velocity within the spacetime matrix, so it's more useful to think of the electron as a batch of information, a packet of data. When electrons and other particles interact, it's like an exchange of information, a sequence of logical operations, like the operations that take place in the circuits of a computer chip. And the programs that coordinate all these mathematical operations are simply the laws of physics, which have been running ever since the Big Bang 14 billion years ago. At first the calculations produced relatively simple structures such as galaxies and stars and planets, but as time passed the program grew more elaborate, generating life and intelligence and consciousness. And as I pondered this intriguing view of the world, my first thought as a thriller writer was this: if the universe is a computer, what could make it crash?

To dramatize the idea, I focused on the recent research into building a quantum computer, a machine that performs calculations using individual particles such as ions (instead of using electric currents, as conventional computers do). In 2008, while I was editing a story for Scientific American, I visited a laboratory at the University of Maryland where researchers have built prototype computers that isolate a string of ions and input data into the system by manipulating the quantum properties of the particles. By arranging ion interactions that change these properties, the system can perform the same logical operations that take place in a computer chip. But because of the weird laws of quantum mechanics, this type of computer can perform many calculations simultaneously—trillions of calculations if the number of ions in the system is large enough. Building a practical quantum computer with a large number of ions is a huge technical challenge, but physicists believe the effort will eventually result in machines that will far outperform conventional computers, especially in the critical tasks of search and simulations and code-breaking. In essence, scientists will be able to hack into the universal computer, taking advantage of its natural calculating abilities to solve problems that are now beyond our abilities.

This was the starting point for my second thriller, The Omega Theory, but the novel showcases many other intriguing hypotheses and technologies. In particular, the book describes Excalibur, a Cold War weapon that was promoted by Edward Teller ("Father of the H-bomb") as part of the notorious Star Wars missile-defense strategy. Excalibur was a device designed to channel the energy of a nuclear explosion into powerful laser beams that could shoot down Soviet missiles. The plan was to surround a nuclear warhead with laser rods and launch the whole package into orbit. If the U.S. detected a missile attack, it would send a signal to aim the laser rods at the incoming missiles and then detonate the warhead. The radiation from the blast would trigger the generation of the laser beams, which would shoot from the ends of the laser rods just before the explosion vaporized the device. The Excalibur project ran into technical problems in the late 1980s and was abandoned soon afterward, but the project involved some fascinating physics and it fit right into the plot of The Omega Theory.

Finally, I wanted to set the thriller in an exotic location full of interesting geological features. Because the book describes the preparations for a sneak attack on an Iranian nuclear facility, I decided to do some research in Turkmenistan, the Central Asian country just to the north of Iran. Accompanied by a Turkmen guide and driver, I traveled to the Karakum Desert, which contains some of the largest natural-gas reserves in the world. After a long day of navigating terrible roads, we arrived at the Burning Gas Crater of Darvaza, known to the local Turkmen people as "The Door to Hell." It's as big as an amphitheater, almost a hundred yards wide, and it's filled with jets of flaming methane, which vent from a pocket of natural gas below the surface. The crater is the result of an industrial accident that occurred forty years ago, when Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union; a drilling rig collapsed in the sand. As I approached the crater's rim to get a better look at the flames, my guide yelled, "No! Don't get too close! The edge will crumble and you'll fall into the fire!" And I thought, This is perfect. You couldn't ask for a better setting for a science thriller.