Archive for the ‘cosmology’ Tag

Life and the Universe II   8 comments

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

How did all of this come to be?  I mean everything around us.  Have you looked out into a deep inky-starry sky lately?  Have you tried, actually tried, to comprehend the distances involved, the multitude of galaxies and star systems?  Two things have become obvious:  (1) a multitude of planets exist, many likely to host life; and (2) the universe, in the way it works, is fine-tuned to be friendly towards the emergence of life.   This leads many to the idea that life might not be just an accident.  In thinking about the universe’s ultimate origins, life just might be the one small feature of the universe that is too important to ignore.

Constellations in a Meadow.

Constellations in a Meadow.

To date, physicists have been in charge of figuring out the origin and make-up of the universe.  If you knew any physicists in college, or even since then (highly unlikely), you know how ridiculous that notion is.  Unless the universe is nearly devoid of life, an assumption that is becoming more and more unlikely as time goes on, then we need more than just quantum physicists to answer the ultimate questions.

To begin with, think of it this way.  Our universe is just under 14 billion years old.  That is the quite precisely dated age of the Big Bang.  There is a small chance that this age is in error, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope that the error is 14 billion minus 6000 years!  The universe (and Earth) are ancient, incredibly ancient.  A lot has taken place already.  But there is much much more to come.  All evidence points to this thing going on for a long time to come.  Where are we headed?  That is a question just as important as the origin question, and its answer could help shed light on why we are here.

Pondering one of Earth's possible cradles for life, at Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring.

Pondering one of Earth’s possible cradles for life, at Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.

It’s obvious now that our universe began with a great explosion of space-time itself (the Big Bang) and has been expanding ever since.  The rate of the expansion has apparently not been constant.  It has been speeding up of late, or that is the current best explanation for astronomical observations of stellar explosions in deep space.

I’m taking as a given that we MUST eventually discover how all of this came to be, where it is going, how it will end, and (most importantly) why.  At least we must continue to try.  Those who put their faith in God, in the Bible, the Koran or Book of Mormon, even these people will be enriched if and when we discover the true nature of things.  They might not admit it publicly, but they will be enriched along with the rest of us.

The crescent moon rises in the early morning of Friday the 13th, 2012.

The crescent moon rises in the early morning of Friday the 13th, 2012.

There is nothing in astronomy thus far that contradicts the idea of a creator.  We are having some trouble describing the situation at the precise moment of the Big Bang (we can only describe events AFTER the Big Bang).  But even if we do, hints of higher levels of reality, a Multiverse (see below) means it all could have been set in motion by a creator long before “our” big bang.  Now be honest.  When you read the word “creator”, you had in mind an image.  I’m guessing it was an image derived from childhood religious teachings.  But notice I didn’t capitalize the word.  That’s because a creator, which let’s be honest is not at all required for this universe to have come into being, could indeed be someone entirely different than our traditional image of God.

Little worlds in water droplets at Portland's Rose Garden on a rainy day.

Little worlds in water droplets at Portland’s Rose Garden on a rainy day.

If you know something about quantum theory, you might have heard of virtual particles.  These are actually physical phenomena that pop into being from nothing, and then pop right back out of existence.  In fact, some scientists believe that the universe is speeding up its expansion because of the energy coming from this “restlessness” in the vacuum of space.  If you are willing to skip a lot of quantum physics and general cosmology in between, you can move to the extreme case of a universe popping into being from nothing.  In other words, you may be part of a universe that came into existence from nothing, with no help from anything but the inherent instability of truly empty space.  No creator, or Creator, is required.

The basic problem with applying quantum theory to the universe as a whole is, as it has been for closing on a hundred years now, the difficulty physicists have in applying quantum theory to the world we live in.  The word quantum refers to things so tiny that they’re really little packets of energy rather than things with length and breadth.  Electrons and protons are two examples of quanta.  These are things we will probably never photograph directly (atoms, made up of protons and electrons, have been photographed).

The Milky Way soars over Crater Lake, Oregon.

The Milky Way soars over Crater Lake, Oregon.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we haven’t had much luck so far taking a theory that describes the world of electrons and protons and applying it to things that are infinitely more huge like a person, let alone something as vast as a universe.  Things like rivers and rocks, elephants and planets, stars and nebulae are, in essence, emergent properties of some underlying reality.  We seem to be stumbling around, using the language of mathematics to look for this underlying reality, and coming up with plenty of possibilities.  All the while physicists have not been able to connect any of the myriad possibilities to what has actually emerged from that reality.

Many attempts have been made to meld the submicroscopic world of energy (the universe right after the Big Bang) with the more familiar and much cooler universe of today.  We have a well-tested theory of beyond-tiny particles, but we need a theory of stars, planets and bacteria. ( Ha!  You thought I was going to say people, but bacteria vastly outnumber us and probably inhabit way more planets than do large animals like us.)

A rare solar corona appears.

A rare solar corona appears.

Einstein, Bohr, Wheeler, Feynman, etc., etc., all very smart scientists, have put forth  ideas that would extend classical quantum mechanics.  But nobody has succeeded in coming up with a well-tested quantum theory of the macroscopic world (a.k.a. quantum theory of gravity).  There are theories in science, and then there are Theories.  Sometimes, when it is pure mathematics behind the idea, they call it a theorem.  Nobody would call relativity, or evolution by natural selection, a theorem, believe me.  This ongoing effort is often called the Quest for the Holy Grail of Physics.

So I’ll leave it there for now.  I won’t say much more about quantum theory per se, though everything from here on out traces back to it.  Instead I’ll jump right on to the idea of multiple universes, or the Multiverse, and how life and the origin of life might fit in.  It would be good for anyone interested in science to get up to speed (layperson’s speed that is) on quantum theory.  I don’t pretend to understand a lick of the mathematics behind it, so don’t ask me too many questions.  But the ideas of entanglement and decoherence, of multiple histories, and even wave function collapse, are all good targets for a bit of googling and (better) actual book-reading.  More to come.

A small stupa in Nepal's Himalayan mountains allows Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike a moment of rest and reflection on the trekking trail.

A small stupa in Nepal’s Himalayan mountains allows Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike a moment of rest and reflection on the trekking trail.

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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