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Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Universe Doesn't Care!

Starry Starry Night! Posted by Picasa

Consider our sun, the celestial body without which there would be no life on earth. This is not simply because without the sun the earth would wander dark and cold through interstellar space but also by reason of another more fundamental aspect of life and even of physical existence itself.

The Sun is made up of an incandescent mix of, primarily, gas in plasma form. It is composed of about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium. About 0.1% consists of metals (made from hydrogen via nuclear fusion). This ratio is changing very slowly over time as the nuclear reactions continue, converting smaller atoms into more massive ones. Since the Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, it has used up about half of its initial hydrogen supply.

Our Sun is a second or third generation star. Second generation stars do not just burn hydrogen; they also burn heavier elements, like helium and metals (elements heavier than hydrogen and helium), and were formed from supernova explosions (the debris of exploded population II stars).

In other words, a significant percentage of our bodies and everything you see around you was forged in the heavy element fusion process of much more massive and hotter stars than our sun that exploded billions of years ago and bequeathed their products to the interstellar gas that eventually contracted under gravity to form our own star and planets. This is what I mean by saying that the sun is a second or third generation star.

When wags say that we are stardust; it is true. Even stranger is the fact that we are stardust from elsewhere in the galaxy!

Let's stop a bit and reflect.

Without the gargantuan energies powering supernovae explosions there would be no solid earth beneath our feet and no chemical life as we know it.

It gets curiouser! The subatomic processes that lead to nuclear fusion and life-capable matter are governed by quantum and sub atomic forces that are incredibly fine-tuned. If the laws governing these processes were nudged out of alignment ever so slightly, not only would life be impossible in the Universe but also the Universe as a long lasting physical reality would be seriously compromised. Some versions of these laws have the Universe collapsing back into nothingness almost as soon as it has been formed. Scientists call this the “anthropic principle” and it makes the unbelieving ones very twitchy and defensive. There are only two general possibilities:-

(1) "The Universe knew we were coming" as the physicist Freeman Dyson once said. The strong version of the anthropic principle is part of the Intelligent Design, fiercely resisted by such atheist scientists as Richard Dawkins. According to this account, for all the seeming indifference and brutality of the cosmos in which we find ourselves, we live in a Universe that is positively benign toward life and highly driven toward its emergence from "dust." (Echoes of Genesis of course). Lets us recall that in Genesis it says "let the EARTH bring forth ...." In other words, God not create without the agency of a physical process ... and it is that physical process that science investigates.

(2) Quantum Cosmology allows for the formation of countless eternal universes each generated by their own Big Bangs and budding off previous universes in a vast infinite ever-branching network. This is the weak anthropic principle and does not necessarily lead to belief in a Creator, (although it can do, albeit of the disinterested deist sort). Some of these Universes will be extremely short lived or dead. In some universes different laws will promote life, in others not. We just happen to live in one that does ... so no surprise there then on this account! Nonetheless, even the weak anthropic principle based on the "multiverse" model cannot answer the question:- "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

Some of these issues are spelt out a bit more hear by Dr. Michio Kaku ... a fine physicist and communicator. Read him on this subject here.

"What Happened Before the Big Bang?"

Here is his web site ...

Michio Kaku's Web Site

His latest book, "Parallel Universes" is brilliant! (Can I have my cheque in the post please Dr. Kaku? Thanks).

Another physicist called Steve Weinberg, is famous for this broody depressing comment from an old book of his "The First Three Minutes" ...

“It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built from the beginning . . . It is hard to realize that this all [i.e., life on Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more is also seems pointless.”

It all depends on one's perspective. Here is the paradox of faith .... it gives the right perspective in the face of evidence that depresses some (Weinberg) and inspires others (Polkinghorne).

For years, as a child, I would gaze up at the deep blackness of the 1950's north country sky and be moved almost to tears at the shear beauty of it all. I knew then that the Universe was an immense violent place, but to me it was just about the most convincing sign of a Creator that I could imagine. Some years later I came to know this Creator as my Saviour as well. You can imagine what this did to my spirit! Anyway, everyone's path is different albeit we can hint to others of different perspectives.

You might find this Roman Catholic's guy's answer to Weinberg's pessimism as enlightening. I like the bit about the Big Bang being the Big Bloom!

"The Meaning-Full Universe" by Benjamin D. Wiker

What though of suffering, of death and of evil?

As far as death in the Universe is concerned I think as Christians we have to say that death physically is natural but that eternal death, separation from God is not as it arises from the Fall. We all have to die and I don't know, qualitatively speaking, how you can compare an 80 year old with a long terminal illness and an 8 year old killed in Hurricane Katrina. All I know is that life is an enormous privilege and gift for as long as it lasts. I think that our lives are God's little experiment not only to get sentient beings knowing themselves and the world around them but also, of course, God himself. Our deaths then become a harvest of that intelligence, consciousness, wisdom into that Greater Mind which is God Himself lovingly bringing forth ever new creations to his own joy and the joy of his creatures .... maybe eternally and without limit. To be consciously aware of that if only for three score years and ten is an immense privilege. I look forward to the time when we shall truly know and see him as a friend might, face to face.

Keep Up To Date with developments in Astronomy, Astrobiology and Cosmology at The Worlds of David Darling

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