Archive for August, 2010

On pages 76-7 of his “Is There a Universe” Jaki has this interesting passage:

It should be observed, parenthetically, that Munitz [whose work on cosmology he has been critiquing for a few pages] is wrong in thinking that the idea of a cosmos “as an ordered totality that binds all phenomena in a universal scheme and whose details are accessible to patient rational enquiry” is a bequest of the Greeks of old to human civilization. For all Greek philosophers, and notably for the greatest – Plato and Aristotle – among them, the universe was partly ordered, partly disordered. Emphatic insistence on the full orderliness of the universe first appears only centuries later, in the anti-Arian writings of Athanasius. It was he who claimed that a fully ordered universe could alone issue from the creative power of a fully divine, and therefore infinitely rational, Logos.

It’s just an unavoidable fact that the idea of a Creator-God who is all-powerful is linked to the idea of a universe in which all parts are related, and that this in turn is linked back to the idea of God who is all-wise. When the idea of God is not the idea of an all-powerful One, then the universe is not conceived to be a genuine and meaningful totality. If God is not real or is irrational, then so is the universe not quite real or not quite rational – therefore not fully subject to rational study. No matter what anyone says about an accidental and survivalist evolution of the universe, it always turns out that this irrational concept is linked to an empty concept of God and then also to an empty concept of his children, a denial of human dignity.

So it was a saint fighting a heresy about the nature of Jesus who clearly saw that when St. John said, “In the beginning was the Word… and all things were made through Him” he thereby laid the foundation for a certainty that the entire universe is rational. It’s hard to understand, but it’s rational. It’s big, but it’s ordered throughout.

The universe, simply the totality of material reality, is such an overwhelming idea that people who don’t habituate themselves to the vast by thinking about God simply can’t face up to it. They look as far as they can, and then they say that beyond that horizon is the void, if not of material reality, of ordered material reality.

Beyond my vision, chaos. How silly is that?

Jaki quotes Bertrand Russell as saying that the idea of the universe was “a mere relic of pre-Copernican astronomy.” In other words, Russell was saying that there could be no possible way of conceiving of a genuine totality, and everyone who thought there was had been out of date since the mid-16th century. Copernicus – and presumably Bruno – had made nonsense of totality.

Russell said this in 1917, just as Einstein was offering a coherent definition of space. In other words, he said it just at the moment when it was shown to be certainly wrong. And way back at the beginning of rational cosmology, it was a saint and a theologian who had the ability to see out to the edges of the universe and affirm its rationality.

There is a universe, Bert.

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You probably never heard of antimony. Why should you? It’s not like it’s used in jewelry or drinking vessels. Where would you see it? Up to the 15th century, probably only alchemists thought about it, and the reasons they found it interesting are not under consideration today. Their primary concern, if you remember, was to figure out how to turn base metals, such as lead, into gold. (Of course they had other concerns. Medicine, for example, in which antimony, being quite poisonous, had a rather disreputable place as a laxative.)

Antimony is not exactly a metal, but it’s like one. The most common ore is a sulfide called stibnite, from which antimony gets its odd abbreviation, Sb. Roast the sulfide and you get an oxide; heat the oxide with iron or charcoal, and the oxygen takes off leaving antimony, a sort of metallic solid, but it isn’t ductile like real metals — it doesn’t spread out when you hammer it, and it can’t be pulled into a nice wire. Instead, it has a characteristic crystalline structure called the antimony star. Somehow, this almost metallic substance, refined from nodules often found in silver ores, suggested that earth was trying to turn into silver, but had not yet succeeded. Antimony might — it just might — hold the clue to changing base metals into gold.

Well, and perhaps it does. It has one characteristic that, until this very week, I thought only water had: it expands when it cools from the liquid to the solid state. I don’t know who first discovered this, but Johannes Gutenberg was the first to use it, and perhaps he was the discoverer. As he sought the perfect alloy for his moveable print, he found that antimony held the secret key. Lead was his starting point: cheap and easy to melt. Tin was an important additive, giving strength to the letters without raising their melting point too much. But the lead-tin alloy shrank so much that the letters would not shape themselves properly to his molds. Very disappointing.

Come the antimony! Because antimony expands as it cools, it forces the alloy into every crack of the mold and, in the right proportions, it yields perfect letters. That was the discovery that allowed the invention of moveable type. You know, you think of the printing press, and it seems so simple — at least in principle. There were presses in use for hundreds of years before Gutenberg — and they were used to make paper in his day. Moveable type seems almost obvious.

But antimony is not obvious, and that’s part of the reason it took Gutenberg most of his 70 years to figure it out. What incredible perseverance it took! So you might say that antimony changed the world of books, making the printed word as much cheaper than the manuscript as if lead had, indeed, turned into gold.

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In closing:

It is important to bear in mind, during any kind of discussion about the meeting of faith and science, that God Himself is not subject to measure, weight, or number, and, as such, he is not a subject of the physical sciences. There can be no “scientific” proof for the existence of God as long as the word “scientific” refers to the specific fields of the natural sciences, of which he is not an appropriate subject. We cannot count his parts, we cannot weigh him; we cannot observe him in a physical manner. In the larger definition of Science – reasoning from evidence to conclusions – there are several proofs for his existence, and scientific men often appreciate them and talk about them: they are not anti-scientific, but they are not “scientific” in the modern, limited, physical sense of the word, and cannot be.

On the other hand, as the story of Robert Jastrow shows, a cosmology of infinite space and eternal piling up of accident does cause within men a needlessly deep separation between the realms of the natural sciences and the philosophical sciences as well as theology. People do in fact gain and lose their faith over these things, and they do represent a genuine cultural battleground.

The pre-Copernicans thought they perceived a finite world of earthly physics and an infinite surrounding spiritual world, some portion of which was visible in the sky, it not being fully clear that light is a part of material creation. Most believed that our Earth was the center of the universe until he (Copernicus) laid it out that the Sun was in the center of Earth’s orbital motions and in this way definitively started man down the long path of verifying the minority and simplicity of our position in the universe.

Over the next 500 years, the physics of Earth reached out to encompass a steadily larger universe, in which the place of Earth is clearly not central — not to the solar system, not to the galaxy, not to the universe in any meaningful physical sense — though it is uniquely safe and beautiful.

Intermittently throughout all this history, the theme of an infinite and accidental universe, in which civilized creatures are commonplace and ephemeral, or merely ephemeral, has repeatedly been proposed, junked, and re-proposed. This theme received a body blow in the Big Bang cosmology and its verification, but is now resurrected as Hawking’s multiverse, opposed by philosophy and by Gonzalez’ recognition of non-trivial privileges in our universe situation.

Cosmology now

The true history of cosmology is the story of coming to consensus about just three things:

  • The universe is lawful and rational throughout.
  • The universe is finite in space in time.
  • The universe was designed as our home.

It is worthwhile for Christian teachers of the natural sciences to become familiar with this history as a way of laying out the reasonableness of our hope, and of providing support for their students’ rational embrace of faith in our heavenly Father.

[This is the 14th and last post serialized from a summer speech on the history of cosmology, from Copernicus to the early 21st century. The first of these posts was August 3, 2010, Full Circle from Copernicus. The rest follow day by day, with a few interruptions. A list of the posts may be found on the Cosmology page.]

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Countering this potentially theistic trend that Brownlee had placed on the table with his Rare Earth, Stephen Hawking made the desperate gambit of suggesting that there might be an infinite (really infinite, or just virtually infinite?) number of “bangs” – some Big Bangs, some Little Bangs, and just this one that we inhabit being the fortuitous size that allowed human life. In an infinite time, all possibilities can be tried. His reasoning was based on some physical considerations that are beyond the scope of this discussion; you can read about the Copenhagen Interpretation. But fundamentally, there were unrecognized philosophical issues behind this bid, as Jaki points out in his Is There a Universe? Hawking, like Hoyle before him, needed matter to arise mathematically from nothing – in this case from the probability that was believed to govern electrons. That probability could generate matter was a passing odd position; nevertheless Hawking has a vast following, and, in truth, God does not force our hands — or our minds. Belief, atheistic or not, has a certain latitude for choice; the evidence is never absolute because men and their information are never absolute. Hawking had made the case for an accidental universe: Yes, our universe is finite, but it is set within an infinite cosmic foam of other universes. It’s just the one that works for us.

But there was more evidence coming in.

The next salvo in the battle for a genuinely finite universe was the book Privileged Planet, by Guillermo Gonzalez. He and several colleagues have gathered evidence that the earth is not only uniquely fitted for life, which it would have to be or we wouldn’t be talking about it, but also uniquely fitted for discovery, which is not necessary to life, even to intelligent life. Interestingly, however, they discovered that the same conditions that are essential to life area also the conditions for discovery.

For example, our Earth is the only place in the solar system from which the Sun is fully eclipsed by another body (our Moon) so that the corona is visible. This fact has been very important in the study of stars – the Sun is so bright, and the stars are so dim, that both are very difficult to study. The corona of the sun, the beautiful display that is visible for just a few minutes during a total eclipse, gives lots of information, which was otherwise unavailable until the launching of artificial satellites. It is essential to universe discovery.

At the same time, the Moon is essential to life because it stabilizes the rotation of Earth, without which the seasons would vary too strongly and life would not be possible.

That the same planet suited to life should also be suited to discovery of the nature of the stars, and therefore of the universe, deeply disturbs the accidentalist case. It makes the universe look like a home.

(The next post will be the end of the talk.)

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How likely intelligence?

Carl Sagan, the great scientific pagan of the mid-20th century, estimated that there must be at least 10,000 inhabited planets per galaxy. It would be ridiculous to think we had the universe to ourselves. He was very famous, and the number was repeated again and again.

Still — no sign of anyone else.

In 1965, Penzias & Wilson found the radio signal that Gamov had said would vindicate LeMaitre’s Big Bang and lock physics into a finite universe. The universe was not eternal; it had an age, and in consequence of its age, it had a finite dimension, somewhere between 1024 and 1027th meters. We had a universe size at last. Not perfectly definite, but fairly so. Not infinite. Not even as much as 30 billion light years in diameter. Probably 13 or 14 billion light years radius.

1027 * 1024 * 1021 galaxy size * 1018 * 1015 *

1012 * 109 sun size * 106 * 103 * 100 =1 people size

10-3 * 106 * 10-9 molecules * 10-12 * 10-15

Just at the turn of the century, Robert Jastrow of NASA wrote a book called God and the Astronomers, in which he acknowledged that this discovery had forced him to abandon a lifetime of atheism, and he invited his Catholic subordinate, John O’Keefe, to write an Afterword. O’Keefe had several interesting things to say, including a suggestion on how to approach the relative likelihood of other intelligent life. It could be very simple. If there were, say, 23 independent conditions for the development of intelligent life, and if each one had a 10% chance of turning up near a given star, then the chance of developing life in the universe would be 1/1023rd. That is about the number of stars in the universe. If the conditions were more likely, then we should continue to look around; if less, we’re probably alone.

This was much better than just by saying, “Gee, it’s awful big for just one human race.” Math is always nice; you can get somewhere.

In the 1990’s Ward and Brownlee came along with a book, Rare Earth, which listed all the known conditions for life, including very unexpected conditions such as tectonic plate motions. Many of the conditions were much less than 10% likely and they concluded that, yes, we might be the only ones.

The sense of human specialness was again on the march. It deepened as further consideration of the Big Bang – the explosion at the origin of the universe – showed that it had to have been incredibly specific in order to work – too intense and the universe would have blown to dust without forming stars, planets, or people – too slight and matter would have been recaptured by gravity before it had time to form stars, planets, or people. It was very, very special. The sort of exactitude its numbers required went to 51 decimal places, which is about what it would take to locate your nose within the solar system — the entire system, out to the furthest comets.

It began to look as if the intelligent radio signal had indeed been found, right there in the Big Bang, and it meant that our one intelligent companion was the creator.

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Before moving on to the final disposition of the battle between the Steady State and the Big Bang theories of the universe, it’s worthwhile step aside a moment and consider once more the habitation of the universe, never far from the imagination of the astronomer, and boiling up anew in the middle of the twentieth century. Enrico Fermi, so eminent a physicist that element #100 on the Periodic Table is named for him, for was at lunch with friends, his mind wandering along its own paths as the minds of the massively creative are wont to do, until he suddenly burst out: Where is everybody?

There was a moment of silence. We’re here; what can he mean?

“Where is everybody,” he continued, and pointed out that if the whole universe was inhabited, someone should have gotten in touch with us by now. This inquiry set off a whole new effort –the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. Surely other intelligent life would have figured out the same thing these men were discussing in the 1950’s – that there had to be other intelligent life in such a large universe – and would have sought to locate us, most obviously by broadcasting an unambiguously non-random radio signal that we could find and identify.

We looked; we sent such signals ourselves.

No answer.

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The Big Bang

But there was another consequence of the galactic movements that Hubble had discovered – the recession of the galaxies. A Belgian priest and physicist, Father Georges LeMaitre, was the one to point out that if all the galaxies were receding from each other, this was not a process that could go back infinitely in time. They must once have been in a single crush so intense that no physicist could guess what went before; it would have been — “A Day without a Yesterday” – an explosive starting point from which the universe was born and about whose “day before” physics must remain silent. Although this suggestion was received with considerable mockery and dubbed “the Big Bang,” a Russian physicist, Gamov, showed that there should be a distinct, microwave radiation coming in from every direction in the sky, if there had been such an original explosion. It was impossible to detect at that time, but he said that if radio technology continued to improve, there would one day be a way of looking for this radiation.

Steady State

As the test was not immediately forthcoming, however, the eternalists closed in and said that the expansion of the universe was related to its constant creation – atom by atom and from utter nothingness – in the empty parts of the universe. Why the law of the conservation of mass and energy should break down in the empty places, and why, if it did so, we should not be crowded by the implosion of such new matter from distant universe realms, was not addressed. Einstein dismissed this theory, called the Steady State, as a romantic speculation, but the irrational need to maintain a universe without catastrophic creation was, for these theorists, greater even than the physicist’s confidence in universal laws. The Steady State theory of the universe was the brainchild of Fred Hoyle, and it lasted less than 20 years, from 1948-1965.

Not everyone went along with the it; not even Einstein, but most did.

At least, it hid that impression of the face of God which a finite universe always conveys.

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