Life and the Universe I   8 comments

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

How is that for a title?  Perhaps a bit too broad for a blog post, ya think?  I know, I’ll spread it out over 2 or 3 posts, that should do it.

Actually I have been thinking about this subject in a different way off and on for a few years now.  It can be boiled down to this: does the universe show a consciousness?

Several cosmologists out there have written books where this idea is implied if not outright stated.  And these are scientists, so please don’t think I’m off my rocker!   Paul Davies is one scientist who has influenced my thinking.  He wrote a book in 2007 called Cosmic Jackpot where he discusses some of the theories behind modern cosmology, including the idea of the Multiverse.  He doesn’t stop, however, with yet another layman’s explanation of relativity or string theory.  He goes further and tackles quasi-religious “why” questions, such as:

  • Why is the universe so dang perfect for the emergence of life, when it could have been so easily hostile to life?
  • Why are we here, and why are we conscious?
  • Does the Universe itself have a consciousness?  If so, why?
The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

Davies isn’t the only cosmologist who is exploring these questions, but most scientists don’t go so far into speculation about the purpose for and meaning of life in this universe. My ideas as summarized in this post aren’t exact copies of Davies’, and they don’t use these cosmological ideas to springboard into fantasy land.  I’m not saying the ideas could not be the basis of a very good, and very bizarre, science fiction novel.  But in a way I am a good little scientist who doesn’t stray too far from what can be tested and established by observation and other lines of evidence.

I think the fact that our universe is so finely tuned to the emergence of life begs to be explained.  I also think that life is too often regarded as a sort of passive feature in the universe.  You have gas clouds, dust, rocks, and other stuff…and oh yeah, you also have life.  I really think it’s possible that it is much more than that.  It is now obvious that life has influenced everything on Earth from climate to the oceans, even minerals (whose incredible diversity on this planet is very likely because of life).

The complex and beautiful symmetry in nature is suggestive of design, but obeys natural laws.

The complex and beautiful symmetry in nature is suggestive of design, but obeys natural laws.

Just one example: a little over two billion years ago the atmosphere was infused with oxygen by micro-organisms who bloomed fantastically in the ancient oceans.  Mostly the changes that life has wrought on Earth have served to make the planet much more hospitable to…you guessed it, life!  In the example above, the oxygen in the atmosphere allowed the evolution of energy-hungry complex life.   Oxygen supplies enormous energy within your body’s cells, much more than any other element could.  There are many other examples; ask any good paleontologist and they’ll tell you.  Is all of this mere coincidence?

Venus passes in front of the Sun, an event that won't be repeated for over 100 years.

Venus passes in front of the Sun, an event that won’t be repeated for over 100 years.

Now Earth is the only model we have thus far to explore the tight inter-relationships between non-living matter, energy and life.  But looking out into the galaxy, we are finding more and more planets that are looking more and more like they might also harbor life.  When you consider the numbers involved, life might actually be quite common in the galaxy, and by extension the entire universe.  If we can find some of the same types of connections between life and the history of the cosmos that we have found on Earth, then we might be looking at something very profound indeed.

You might have heard that in astronomy, time starts with the Big Bang.  Nothing existed before this but a singularity, which takes up no space.  So what happened before the Big Bang?  That question is nonsensical, or unanswerable, or blah blah blah.   This is utter nonsense of course.  We might not be able to answer these questions about our origins right now, but they are certainly legitimate (and very important) scientific questions.  Next lecture you go to where the Big Bang is discussed, make sure and raise your hand to ask the question, what came before?  If the speaker is good, while probably not being able to answer definitively, she will never brush this question off with a lame excuse.

Storm clouds gather.

Storm clouds gather.

If we live in just one of many, perhaps an infinite number, of universes, in other words a Multiverse, then it is impossible to ignore the startling consequences.  And it goes beyond the admittedly bizarre fact that there could be another person virtually identical to you in a parallel universe.  If we are part of a Multiverse and begin to understand how it works, we could discover some mind-blowing things.  We might actually find out in the not-too-distant future how we got here, how all of this got going in the first place, and crucially, WHY.  Why are we here?

The atmosphere is a dynamic place, where interactions between air and energy often create the impression that it's alive.

The atmosphere is a dynamic place, where interactions between air and energy often create the impression that it’s alive.

Never let anybody tell you this isn’t a legitimate scientific question, that it’s outside the purview of science.  But I’ll excuse you for being selective regarding whom you get into a discussion of these matters with.  After all, religion tackles the same sorts of questions, and things can get emotional and personal real quick!  Science and religion mix much like water and oil do, and sometimes they mix more like pure sodium and water!

Next up: let’s dive into some real arm-waving speculation on these questions.  I welcome any and all comments and contributions, no matter how wacky you might think they are.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

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8 responses to “Life and the Universe I

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  1. Pingback: Blog feature: MJF Images | Kan Walk Will Travel

  2. I recently started reading a Brief History of Time… And just couldn’t get past the dismissal of the relevance of time before the Big Bang. What’s the best answer to “what came before?” That you’ve ever heard (or read)?

    • You shouldn’t take that too seriously; most physicists do it just because there are no real testable theories to describe the time before the Big Bang. There are a few theories, but they are pretty much speculation. One, M Theory, has a bunch of mathematical things going on but one thing that sort of falls out of M Theory is the idea of these multidimensional “membranes” that correspond to multiple universes. They float through higher dimensional space-time and occasionally they collide. When they do you have a big bang and time starts over, so to speak.

  3. Pingback: Life in the Universe VI: Space, the Desert & Exoplanets | MJF Images

  4. Pingback: Life in the Universe V: The Influence of Carl Sagan | MJF Images

  5. Pingback: Life in the Universe IV |

  6. Excellent post. I concur, such questions are positively essential. In all honesty, is there truly another set of questions more important? I don’t think so.
    After much searching (inner and outer), for me personally, I found Brian Cox’s explanation the most satisfying: “Life is the Universe trying to understand itself.” The Universe exhibits an urge to move from simplicity to complexity; from helium to uranium. Does it do this consciously? We can’t say, but I don’t think so. In our neck of the celestial woods we are the spearhead of that search to understand what we (the universe) is. We are atoms studying atoms. Is there meaning to be found in this? I hope so.
    I wrote about it in a post of mine about Duncan McDougal, but finding such an understanding would be greatly enhanced if we discovered that atoms had some way of retaining even minute traces of information. I don’t believe in the soul. The law of thermal dynamics doesn’t permit the existence of spirit, but should atoms store information (of all the larger things it’s ever been a part of, including you and me) then there would be something akin to an “afterlife.”

    • Yep, I agree that the afterlife would have real meaning if our atoms could carry some part of ourselves into the future. Who knows; if that’s true maybe we’ll figure out someday how to extract that information and discover something of our previous lives (so to speak). But I still sorta think we have an afterlife, even if after death our atoms dumbly head off into space to become something totally different, with no memory of their previous lives.

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