Does the universe have a purpose or is it an accident? Scientists have divergent views on the significance of the universe. At one end of the spectrum is the iconoclast, Richard Dawkins, who sees an indifferent universe which has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose.” At the other end is biologist Jane Goodall who believes the universe is both purposeful and meaningful. In between there are theories ranging from a ‘conscious universe’ to a ‘self-creating universe’. Whatever their beliefs, at least there’s usually a shared sense of wonder among scientists…
Posts Tagged ‘Universe’
The classic sci-fi movie, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1958), was about the atomic angst of the 1950s and it’s themes have not dated. The hero is exposed to a radioactive cloud and begins to shrink. Trapped in his home, he battles his cat, a spider, and a leaking tap (always a threat to the male ego). Finally, he’s reduced to his essential self and ponders his place in the universe. Watch the end of the movie here. This extract is from the closing monologue (script by Richard Matheson):
So close – the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet—like the closing of a gigantic circle…
Am I really made of stardust? Yes, many of our atoms were made in dying stars… when the stars exploded (supernova) the atoms were flung into the universe and became planets and plankton and people… the atoms themselves don’t change but are constantly recycled into different bits of matter… so the exact same atoms of supernova dust still make up 93% of my body mass (some are hydrogen atoms which are actually Big Bang dust). I’m 13 billion years old – that’s oddly hopeful.
‘Our presence in the universe is deeply rooted in this cosmic history.’– Marco Bersanelli, physicist.
Why Does The World Exist? by Jim Holt is a fascinating book that asks the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Holt looks at all sides of the question, interviewing scientists, philosophers, atheists and believers (Richard Swinburne, John Irving, Roger Penrose, Adolf Grunbaum…). There are three types of theorist:
The “optimists” hold that there has to be a reason for the world’s existence and that we may well discover it. The “pessimists” believe that there might be a reason for the world’s existence but that we’ll never know for sure… Finally, the “rejectionists” persist in believing that there can’t be a reason for the world’s existence, and hence that the very question is meaningless.
Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason says that ‘For every thing there must be a reason for that thing’s existence‘, which is the basis of our scientific worldview. Holt does a good job of summarizing some knotty philosophy, physics and maths (understanding it is another matter!). Although he offers no firm answers, the book left me feeling “optimistic”; and it’s oddly comforting that after picking the brains of the world’s greatest thinkers, Holt concludes,
No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence.
Photo: Solar eruption, Dec 31, 2012 – courtesy of NASA Images
A Matter of Life and Death is both awesome and intimate, suggesting that a single tear shed for love might stop heaven in its tracks.- Roger Ebert
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is a romantic fantasy set partly in a post-WW2 version of heaven (the film was made to boost Anglo-American relationships). The Earth scenes are in gorgeous Technicolor; heaven is in black and white which works in its favour. “This is the universe … big isn’t it?”, a voice says at the beginning, then cuts to an extraordinary love scene (that can be seen here). A bomber pilot falls towards certain death and must argue his case in heaven if he’s to stay alive. But is he in heaven or brain damaged? It doesn’t matter in the end– the last word is from a Walter Scott poem: ‘For love is heaven and heaven is love.’
Nearly all of the atoms in your body were once cooked in the nuclear furnace of an ancient supernova. – Frances Collins
The story of our atoms began in the stars. As the universe expanded after the Big Bang, atoms of hydrogen and helium were formed first. These atoms gathered together in galaxies where they came in handy as fuel for burning stars. When stars died (in supernova explosions) new atoms were sent out into the universe – including carbon and oxygen atoms, happily for us. By and by, over eight billion years, planets were formed and Earth’s story unfolds from there.
Photo (NASA Images): Remnant of a star that exploded in a supernova long ago. This ring of gas is enriched with oxygen that was created by the star.
The /Xam San people of Southern Africa knew that humans were related to the stars in a mysterious way. The /Xan suffered a slow genocide to extinction in the 1800s but their words remain. Their stories say that stars are closely connected to the human heart and fall down when people’s hearts ‘fall over’.
“The stars know the time at which we die.” –Díä!kwain, 1876
Sum, Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman, is a hugely entertaining, often thought-provoking book. Each very short story describes a quirky version of life after death. There is an afterlife populated only by people you remember; one where you are split into different ages; another where God is a married couple. Listen to Stephen Fry reading one about a highly ordered afterlife. The stories are not so much about theology or God (although He, She, and They do appear as somewhat fallible characters) as about treasuring the life we have now – plus a bit of humour and sci-fi just for fun. Here’s a video interview with Eagleman (a neuroscientist) who describes himself as a ‘Possibilian’– one who explores new ideas. (More novels about the afterlife).
Nga ra o mua is a Maori phrase for the past; translated as ‘what is in front’. The past is spread out in front of us – it’s what is known. It’s literally true when we look at the stars: the light we see left the stars perhaps millions of years ago. The past is spread out in the sky. Nga ra o mua also fits the physics concept of a universe in which all points of time exist together. For example, about now on August 30, 1871, Ernest Rutherford is being born. It also explains why it’s hard to leave the past behind. Pam Morrison wrote eloquently about this in her blog. Photo: a million stars (NASA Images)
As we dig deeper and deeper using scientific methods, we continue to find rational and meaningful order Paul Davies
Still pondering the ‘mindful’ universe. It is ‘finely tuned’ to support life — indeed, it seems to be geared towards the creation of ‘mind’. Then there’s the question of meaning. Twelve leading scientists and thinkers were asked, Does the universe have a purpose? Five of them answered ‘Yes’, two said ‘No’, and the others were everywhere in-between (including one ‘I hope so’). Read their fascinating responses here. Jane Goodall’s personal response recalls a transcendent moment in a cathedral.
How could I believe that blind chance had led to that moment in time — the cathedral, the collective faith of those who had prayed and worshiped within, the genius of Bach, the emergence of a conscious mind that could, as mine did then, question the purpose of life on Earth Jane Goodall
I once heard the beautiful Monteverdi Choir in Pisa Cathedral (photo) – quite by chance, but hopefully not blind chance! It was a ‘moment in time’ for me, the voices lingering in the air long after the singing stopped…
Photo: Mysterious cosmic egg (supernova): NASA Images
I love a good mystery: in my 20s it was the search for God; then family mysteriously absorbed 30 years; and now questions rise again: What is the purpose of life? What is quantum physics? Consciousness? And why am I always the one on the spot when the loo paper runs out?
I’ve cobbled together the following Great Mysteries (with much help from pop-science books):
Around 14 billion years ago (for motives which are unclear) matter gained an advantage over anti-matter and the universe became slightly biased towards life. But only a ‘mere- smear’ of the universe is ordinary matter – galaxies, elephants, us – the bulk is ‘dark stuff’ which is mysteriously connected to the rest. Matter is made of atoms, which are energetic, enigmatic little tykes. An electron inside an atom behaves like a two-year old – it seems to be everywhere at all times – but when humans give it some attention, its behaviour changes. Intriguing. The little grey cells (our brains) enfold another mystery: consciousness. So we’re able to find meaning in life: we can make up our own minds.
And now the story takes a twist, from science towards soul. Mystical biologist Charles Birch reckoned that the whole universe is made of ‘mind stuff’. He suggested that even electrons have a whiff of consciousness:
We exist only because of subtle connections between the very small and the very large.
It seems to be all about connection and meaning, and I admit I’m biased towards finding both – hopefully without scrambling the cosmic egg. But I’ll leave you with a more appealing metaphor, by poet Muriel Rukeyser (I’m off to buy loo paper).
The universe is made of stories, not atoms.