There are a lot of SF conventions I’d like to attend, but maybe just as important, from the perspective of having something to write about, there are also a lot of science events that should be part of my itinerary. Like the recent World Science Festival in New York City. Fortunately you can catch some of the sessions in webcast form.

One of this year’s panel discussions asked Is the Universe the Ultimate Computer? The theory under discussion was just as the name suggests, that beneath even the scale of quantum physics the universe is, at heart, bits and bytes—a giant computer program playing out with immense complexity, yet initiated and maintained by a very simple few lines of code that describe its rules. The theory isn’t being offered as an excuse to make more Matrix movies (although the first movie does provide an easy way of understanding one interpretation of it), but because there are still many things that current physics can’t explain, not to mention that classic physics and quantum physics don’t always mesh very well. Seeing the universe as bits of information allows certain thought exercises that the rules of regular physics constrain, which can be helpful in the early stages of developing a theory, for instance. So some proponents see it more as a useful model than a necessarily true picture of reality. Some others, like one of the pioneers of computing, Edward Fredkin, believe there may just be somebody or something in another universe running our universe on their version of an iMac (like The Matrix again). Or the other primary interpretation: that the universe itself is the computer, carrying out an unthinkable number of calculations with every flip (change of state) of sub-atomic particles.

Judging from the panel discussion, there aren’t any obvious experimental means to prove or disprove the concept, and even were it to be proven true the knowledge might not be of any practical value. Being able to someday read the universal code doesn’t mean we’d be able to use it for much (like predicting the weather in your home town next Tuesday from looking at a string of ones and zeroes). But anything that brings us to a more complete understanding of the rules by which the universe operates will probably be worthwhile in ways we can’t yet see.

At the very least, it’s got to be more comprehensible than string theory. Please.