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Sunday, March 17, 2013

The History of the Universe from the Beginning to the End

Presented by Dr. John C. Mather, Senior Project Scientist, Goddard Space Flight Center, With Rev. Diane Teichert and John Sebastian, Worship Associate, and the Choir


Sermon for the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

© John Mather*

March 17, 2013 (St. Patrick’s Day)

By invitation of the minister, Diane Teichert

 

Together Time, 5 min for children and adults

 

Thanks to Diane for the invitation to talk with you!  I never really thought I would be a “guest preacher”, so I’m hoping it will be interesting for you. It was interesting to me, thinking about the meaning of life.

 

I am going to tell you some of the secrets of the universe, and maybe even something about the meaning of life, because I’m going to predict some of our future.

 

The remarkable thing is, we are still as far as we can tell, totally unique in the whole universe, the only people anywhere. There might be other people somewhere else, on some other planet around some other star, but we can’t find them. I think they might be there, but they’re just too far away, if they exist at all. So we’re on our own, on our little bit of Earth, orbiting an ordinary star called the Sun.

 

So, everybody here is absolutely special and unique.  Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to be the best you that you can be, according to whatever that means to you. Nobody can tell you what that is, you have to figure it out for yourself, but you don’t have to do it alone. We’re here together today, because we like to figure this out together, we like to come together to feel and think and imagine. That’s one of the reasons we have churches, and so many different kinds of them.

 

We’ve learned that human beings who looked like us were walking around southern Africa 75,000 years ago, and they already knew how to weave mats to sleep on, because we found them in a cave where people used to live. That’s way way way before the cave people in Europe, or the ancient Egyptians.  I think that’s a thrilling discovery, because I’ve always wanted to know how I got here.

 

Of course I asked my dad when I was 6 how I got here, and he didn’t know. But he did tell me that my body is made of tiny cells, and inside those cells are even tinier parts, and there are things called chromosomes, that contain the instructions for making a human being out of food and air and water.

 

Then when I was about 8 years old my family went to see the museum of natural history in New York City. I loved going to the museum and thinking about the fossils and the bones and the volcanoes and the stars and the planets, and wondering how it all works and fits together. My parents liked to read books to my sister and me, and they decided to include biographies of Charles Darwin and Galileo. I guess you already know that they were famous scientists and that a lot of people didn’t like what they found out. But I thought that just proved how important they were and how exciting it would be if I could be like them. I ended up reading all the science books I could get from the library, and the scientists in the books were my friends.  It helped a little that my dad was a scientist, but he was always at work, studying dairy cows, and not the things I wanted to know about. I got to know him better when I was in high school and he showed me how to do some things.

 

I’m telling you these things because I’d like to invite you all to come with me as we try to find out the secrets of the universe.

 

I think the most mysterious secret is about the origin of life. Nobody knows how life got started here on Earth, and nobody knows if it has happened anywhere else. But we have found out a few things. The geologists have discovered that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and that the earth was bombarded by killer asteroids and comets for about 700 million years. And then when all that stopped, almost immediately the Earth started making fossils of living things made out of single individual cells.  So at least the most elementary forms of life started working right away, as soon as we think it could, because there was liquid water, and maybe some dry land. I think that’s really important because it says there probably is life on other planets, if they have the right temperature and they have water.

 

Then another 3 billion years went by before there were any complicated animals like the ones we see today. Then, pretty suddenly, thousands of different kinds of fossils started showing up, including the ancestors of all the animals we have today.

 

Then, the Earth kept changing, the continents moved around, and almost all the kinds of animals and plants became extinct, but some kinds survived.

 

Then, about 65 million years ago, an asteroid almost as big as the city of Washington DC hit the Earth, and almost every kind of living thing died off. If Noah had been there with his ark, it wouldn’t have worked, because the air was poisonous, the sun was blocked out by dust in the sky, the plants died, and most animals couldn’t find anything to eat.  But the tiny mammals that were our ancestors survived, and here we are.

 

I can’t think of a more amazing story of how we got here, and I want to share it with everyone here.  I told you I would predict something of the future, but I have to admit that I can’t really. I just know it’s all going to be very interesting, because human beings are learning so much so very fast.

 

Thanks so much for coming to share the adventure!

 

[children go out]
Sermon

 

I guess the big question on my mind is, what is the philosophical and maybe spiritual importance of this story of the universe?

 

I don’t know the answer, but I can tell you that I was pretty skeptical of everything I read about in philosophy class in college, just as much as I was skeptical about the stories in the Bible.  So if I tell you anything, I hope you will be skeptical too!

 

I like what Einstein said about mysteries.  Here’s a quote that I really like:

 

Albert Einstein: Veneration of Mystery is My Religion

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.

 

- Albert Einstein, Response to atheist, Alfred Kerr (1927), quoted in The Diary of a Cosmopolitan (1971)

 

One of the great mysteries, even beyond the origin of life, is the origin of the universe itself. I think most of you know something about the story we scientists like to tell, about the Big Bang and the expanding universe.  But I might surprise you with a few things that I’m going to say about it.

 

The first surprise would be, I don’t think there’s an origin of the universe.  Scientists have not observed an origin event. When we say “origin” in English we mean a thing happening at a place and a time.  But we have only observed that the universe is expanding now, and we think it has been expanding for 13.7 billion years, and we think it is infinite in extent.  We can work out all the math, and all the measurements fit the mathematical description just about perfectly. But there’s nothing in the math that says there was a giant firecracker going off somewhere creating a universe. That’s exactly the opposite of what we see and measure.  All the math we have talks about process, about how some physical situation changes into something else. There’s no math that talks about something coming from nothing, even though a lot of people including professional physicists will say that and wave their arms about quantum uncertainty and such. So if you read about the Big Bang theory, just know that it’s a completely misleading name for what we see, and a lot of astronomers and physicists have been just as confused about how to describe it.

 

The other big surprise might be, everything about the universe is unstable, especially if you wait a long time.  You can hear loose talk about increasing entropy and disorder, and how it seems to be a miracle that we’re here at all, considering how unlikely it seems for us to be just like we are on our little planet. But I want to show you that it’s natural for us to be here, because the universe seems to be structured so that life will appear if it’s possible for it to happen.

 

So why is the universe unstable, in the sense that complicated things seem to magically appear? There’s a really basic and fundamental fact that makes it happen. It’s that gravity is always attracting things together. Gravitational forces never repel things.

 

This fact leads to a remarkable paradox. In your physics and chemistry classes you would learn that if you take heat out of something, by extracting energy, there is less heat inside, less random energy. But with gravitational forces, the opposite can happen.  For example, think about an orbiting Earth satellite, like the Sputnik or the Space Station. There’s still a little bit of air up there, and the satellite feels a little drag on it because of the air friction. You would think that the satellite would slow down because of it. But what happens is the opposite. The satellite falls closer to the Earth, but it actually goes faster, because it can turn gravitational energy from the Earth into going faster. So there’s the paradox: the satellite loses energy and goes faster. It means that the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply here.

 

And that leads on to all the other instabilities that I could tell you about, that lead to the formation of the stars and galaxies and planets and black holes and all that. It’s a wonderful and mysterious and complicated story, because the universe is set up to naturally develop complexity.

 

It means that when people got upset because Isaac Newton had taken the mystery out of nature, they didn’t know what they were talking about.  In fact, Newton began to give us the story that explains why nature is complex and unstable, and absolutely not the clockwork deterministic universe that people thought he was describing back 300 years ago.  Even the original clockwork example of the planets orbiting in the Solar System is probably not stable.

 

It also means that everything we think we know about random chance and probability also doesn’t apply either.  Anybody watching the stock market knows that it is unstable, and the smart folks who thought they knew what to do about it just made it worse, and handed us all the bill for rescuing them. Jeepers, don’t we ever learn? And by the way it has nothing to do with quantum mechanics and airy-fairy mysterious physics. It’s just how it works. Aristotle would have said, “it is its nature”.

 

The reason I am telling you this is that this drive to complexity might just be part of the mysterious force that Einstein was talking about, that he liked to venerate, that leads to all the wonderful story of nature and life itself. I think there’s a law of nature that we haven’t give a name to yet.

 

The physicists and mathematicians have been working on something we call “emergence”, which is a new name for saying that when things are unstable, really complicated new things can and will inevitably happen.  A wonderful example is that when water condenses on my car window at night in the winter, it freezes into fantastic feathery crystal patterns that run all across the whole car. If you didn’t know it happens you might never predict it.

 

But we see emergent phenomena everywhere.  The shape of a hurricane is an emergent phenomenon. It draws heat from the ocean and turns it into motion, sort of like a steam engine.  The energy flow supports the complexity, and defeats the second law of thermodynamics, which doesn’t apply when there is a continuing energy flow. The geological structure of the Earth is an emergent phenomenon, organized by the gravitational forces and the flow of heat from the center out to the surface. That’s how come we can find gold deposits in the cores of old volcanoes. Continuing energy flows enable spontaneous complexity. It happens so often that we shouldn’t just say “enable complexity”, we  should say “cause complexity”.

 

So how did life emerge? It’s very complicated, but it’s made out of tiny repeating building blocks, little units of sugar molecules and amino acids and nucleic acids. The complexity is in how they are strung together in long strings and little balls and specially shaped molecules that do special things. In other words, those structures are described by information. Darwin didn’t know how it worked inside but he was the first one to know how it functions on the outside.  He figured out that there are three things that lead to evolution and ultimately to extraordinary complexity. First, there has to be a structure that remembers, that carries information or has a shape. Second, there has to be some kind of variation from generation to generation, or from day to day, so that each new thing is a little different from its parents, or than it was the day before.  Third, the descendants can’t all survive, so some that are better suited to their situation live on and others don’t. That’s He called it “survival of the fittest”, but I just call it survival of the survivors, because I don’t like the moral implications people attach the word “fittest”.  It’s extremely simple. It’s happening all the time, right in front of us, and all we have to do is notice it.

 

It’s so simple that it’s profound.  Darwin realized that it might explain the origin of the different species of living things, and a lot of religious people said that it didn’t agree with what they read in the Bible.  They were right, it doesn’t.  If you want to have a very interesting discussion of this, you could read a lovely book called “Thank God for Evolution” by Michael Dowd. He and his wife go around the country in their van and speak to church groups, especially Unitarian Universalists, on Sundays.

 

Once we understand that evolution is changing us all, and everything around us too, we can start to think about our destiny. Where will we go in the future?  Nobody knows of course.  But in physics, we have a saying that if some phenomenon is not forbidden by the laws of nature, then it’s required, that is to say if we look hard enough we will find it. I think that reflects Darwin’s idea, basically that the universe is structured to carry out evolutionary experiments on stars, planets, galaxies, everything, because the structures in the universe do have those three things that Darwin was thinking about.

 

One of the possibilities I think about might be this: we could make genuine artificial intelligence.  There’s a lot of argument about this, and some people believe that the laws of physics prevent it.  I don’t believe those arguments, so I think given time, maybe a few decades, maybe a few centuries, people will figure out how to do it. It might be done with some kind of artificial evolution, and people are already trying that. It might be done by trying to copy the structure of the human brain. Or it might be done by finding a way to program the Internet so that it acts like a brain. If you want to read more about this idea, there’s a new book out by Ray Kurzweil. [It’s called How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.] He’s very ambitious.

 

If we could make artificial intelligence, then it could be a bit dangerous. We are already getting afraid of the Internet, because it’s pretty easy for criminals to use it. Who hasn’t received an offer from Nigeria to send you a lot of money, if you’ll only give out your bank account information?

 

On the other hand, maybe artificial life will be the secret to eternal life, and life that can travel through the universe.  It wouldn’t have to be limited to planets with water and air. Wouldn’t that be an amazing destiny?  Maybe that’s how the science fiction stories about space travel will really happen in the next thousands or millions of years. I think it isn’t impossible but I can’t promise you it will happen. A lot of other things are possible too, including giant disasters of many types, but I don’t want to think about that today.

 

Another thing we’ve found out is that the details are chaotic. That’s a technical term, and it means that the results are dependent on incredibly tiny details of how things get started.   It means that the universe has all the predictability of a pin-ball machine, even though there are great repeating patterns. It means that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can affect your future, but you probably wouldn’t notice it.

 

Let me come to a major philosophical implication of that fact. Philosophers and religious folks have been wondering for generations about whether we have free will, if the motions of our atoms are all determined by some laws of physics. But the laws of physics are telling us that complicated systems behave in very unpredictable ways. People are very complicated systems.

 

I think the answer about free will is really simple.  In practical terms, we do have free will, whether we are predictable or not.  The idea means that other people can expect us to be accountable for our choices. It has nothing to do at all with the physical laws that make our atoms go around, whether they are random or not, or quantum or not.  So this tells us that free will and responsibility are verbal, linguistic creations, points of view, rather than physical facts. The policeman is not going to accept my argument that my atoms made me do it, any more than the devil made me do it.

 

My wife found a lovely cartoon in the New Yorker. [cartoon] It shows an angel sitting on a cloud, reading a letter to God, who is sitting on a big chair in the cloud, and with a halo hovering over his head. The letter says, “Mrs. Marsha Mulhouse, of Kenosha, Wisconsin, asks, ‘Are You subject to the laws of physics, or are the laws of physics subject to You?’”

 

I think Einstein might say that was a wonderful mystery to be thought about. I think it also means we don’t really have a clear idea what the words mean in the first place, or even how we come to have words with meanings we don’t comprehend.

 

People often ask me if I think there’s life elsewhere in the universe. I feel pretty sure there is, but I can’t prove it.  I have one simple bit of evidence: fossils of life appeared here on Earth almost immediately after the comets and asteroids stopped bombarding the surface and boiling the ocean. So that means to me that life probably does happen elsewhere too, just as quickly, when the conditions are favorable.

 

We know from the Kepler telescope that there are Earth-size planets going around Sun-like stars at about the right distance to be like Earth. And we know that Earth-size planets are pretty common – there are about as many of them as there are stars.  Maybe 100 billion in our own Milky Way galaxy, and there are 100 billion galaxies we can see with the Hubble Space Telescope. So it’s hard for me to imagine that there is not life somewhere else, maybe “billions and billions” of places.

 

On the other hand, we also have one bit of evidence that people are rare.  We just got here 4.5 billion years after the formation of the solar system, and even if we last for a million years before we go extinct, that’s still a tiny fraction of the age of the solar system.  So I think you’d have to look at thousands, millions, or even billions of other planets to find one that has a civilization like ours. Practically speaking, we are totally alone here, and the solar system is our only home.  Maybe Stephen Hawking is right that we can find a way to another star, but we don’t much of a hint how to do it.

 

But right here at home, we have this totally amazing garden called the Earth, and it’s filled with millions of different kinds of living things.  If Noah really had had two of everything, he would have needed a much bigger boat than he was building in the Bible story. So I think of the whole Earth as like Noah’s ark, with some of everything.  And it turns out that human beings are the only creatures here who can see the whole thing, the whole globe, from the deepest ocean to the highest peak and on up into space.  So we are the ones in charge. We’re the only ones who can see the future and plan for it and make it happen.

 

I think that’s our biggest challenge, and the greatest mystery of all.

 

Thank you again!

 

[end]

 

 

*Dr. John C. Mather is  Senior Project Scientist,

James Webb Space Telescope, Goddard Space Flight Center,

Greenbelt, Maryland

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

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