Life and Death in the Universe

It is quite common to think of life and death as two completely opposite realities; one revered and the other dreaded. However, if we thoroughly examine what is really going on, a different picture emerges. Life and death are more related than they first appear. These two realities actually co-exist in complex ways.

The chemistry necessary for life has its origins inside the core of stars, and the eventual death of stars is fundamental to life. The early universe consisted of atoms of hydrogen, helium and trace amounts of lithium. All other heavier elements were forged by stars.  For about 90% of a star’s life it generates its energy by fusing hydrogen to make helium. Eventually it runs out of hydrogen, and begins to fuse its stocks of helium, making yet heavier elements. The fusion process continues producing heavier and heavier elements until the star has nothing left to burn. Of course all this takes anywhere from about a million to hundreds of billions of years, depending on the size of the star. The larger the star the faster it burns, resulting in a shorter life span. When a large star runs out of fuel a delicate balance is lost between gravity, which wants to keep material in, and the outward pressure generated by thermonuclear fusion in the core of the star. It collapses in on itself and then recoils outward in a gigantic explosion called a supernova.

A supernova explosion releases the elements created within the star, and the extreme heat and energy of the explosion creates the remaining elements in the periodic table. Each generation of stars adds to the concentration of elements in the universe, until there are enough to support life like we have here on earth—essentially we are all made of star dust. If it were not for the death of stars, life as we know it could not be.

When life began on earth so did the evolutionary process, where death also plays a significant role. The complex and intricate web of life was made possible by about 3.8 billion years of evolution. The powerful forces of natural selection have shaped life according to its environment. Death is the means by which natural selection removes individuals within species and eventually entire species. Throughout the process of evolution death is there every step of the way. For species to evolve and diverge into more and more complex life, each generation must die, giving way for the next to live. Evolution is a multi-generational process. Without death, complex life—like human beings—could not have evolved from simpler life, and life as we know it could not be.

Death is also present within living organisms, in the form of cell death. Cells are the basic unit of all life. Some organisms consist of only one cell, however, plants and animals are made of numerous cells. For instance, the human body is composed of about 100 trillion cells. A cell is alive as you and me; it breathes, takes in food and gets rid of waste. It also grows and reproduces by dividing. Each new cell is created by a pre-existing cell, and like all other life, it dies. Each day several billion cells in the human body die and they are replaced by new cells. The life span of cells varies widely. White blood cells live about 13 days, red blood cells about 120 days. On the other hand, liver cells live about 18 months and nerve cells can live approximately 100 years. Even in a healthy living human body death is always present.

Contrary to conflicting emotions caused by life and death, they are clearly not opposites, but actually co-creators. All living things carry death with them, and eventually, they will all die. As much as death is dreaded, it is necessary for life and a completely natural process. Instead of thinking about death as some kind of cosmic accident—something that shouldn’t be—perhaps we can view death as something that is compatible with life. There are no free rides in life and regrettably, the price for life is death. If it were not for the reality of death, we could not have the experience of life. It’s that simple.

If one considers the universe as the source of all life, then what do we make of its parts? By labeling the parts we create individual forms that are not completely individual. Every part is related to other parts. The relationships amongst the parts are so intricate that they depend on each other for their very existence. The circle of life is relational between living and non-living things—non-living things such as sunlight, water, oxygen and living things like microorganisms, plants, animals and humans. We are humans, so it stands to reason that we are partial to our own kind. However, our affinity for the human species does not change the reality of life and death, which is natural to all living components of the whole. Why would nature make an exception for human possibilities after death, which is not granted to other species? All life comes into being from life and in the end, goes back into life—there are no exceptions.

From everything we can see it appears that the momentum of life sustains the whole and that individual life is expendable. The natural cycle of birth, growth, decline and death repeats indefinitely, all the while preserving the whole. Living organisms are necessary for a living planet, but no one organism is essential. You could think of individual life forms as leaves from the same tree. A living tree needs leaves, but no single leaf is crucial. As long as the falling leaves are replaced with new healthy leaves, then the tree is sustained. This does not mean that any given leaf is not valuable to the tree. Each leaf contributes to the well-being of the tree. It serves the tree (the whole), and then dies in order to allow other leaves to take its place. Keep in mind that it doesn’t stop there. The tree has a life span of its own. The tree serves the forest as the leaves serve the tree.

In the face of the observable facts of life and death, why then do we ask, what happens after death? Is it because the thought of nonexistence (for eternity) is just about unthinkable? How does one handle the possibility that “what we see is what we get”—that all individual life may be a “one shot deal.” Perhaps a change of perspective can be helpful. We need not dwell on nonexistence, but can be comforted by considering the improbability of us being here in the first place. Richard Dawkins, in the first lines of Unweaving the Rainbow, clearly points out that we have won the lottery of life. He writes:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

Then there is the approach taken by Mark Twain as he dismisses the fear of death altogether: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Obviously Twain was not expecting much after death. If one takes that view, there is no reason to be traumatized by the second stage of non-existence if the first stage caused us no harm.

However logically fitting, I am aware that for many people Twain’s perspective will not be emotionally satisfactory. If hope for an afterlife is not found in the empirical evidence, then where does one find it?  Despite mankind’s tremendous strides of knowledge, we still don’t know what we don’t know. Mystery will always be part of life. The unknown can be an uncomfortable place to be, however, when it comes to the afterlife; the unknown could provide a ray of hope. Nature may open the door just a bit to an otherwise seemingly bleak outcome. If we are to have any experiences after what we consider our life, then a transformation completely unknown to us (or science) must be in store.

If one looks to nature, amazing transformations happen all the time. I will highlight a few of them, but I am certain that you can think of many more. 1) There is perhaps no greater transformation than the life cycle of stars I described earlier. The fact that all life is made possible by exploding stars is astounding to say the least. 2) Imagine if an unborn child could be completely aware in the mother’s womb. There would be nothing in its surroundings that could possibly prepare it for the world to come. 3) If we did not have the experience of butterflies, we could never imagine the potential in a slow and grounded caterpillar. The transformation from caterpillar to a butterfly could not be predicted from everything we see in a caterpillar. 4) If we had no experience of spring, the falling leaves of autumn would be interpreted much differently. There would be no way of knowing that the trees would sprout fresh leaves after a long cold winter.

The belief in an afterlife is nothing new and it is still quite widespread today. Although I wonder how many people have actually thought it through, that is, what life after death might entail. Does it mean eternal life? If so, how do we account for the time before we were born—that period of time is also part of eternity. Where will we go? And what will we do if we get there? What are we going to do with all that time? There are some people that don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy day; how will they handle eternity? After a few thousand years, might it get a little tedious? Also, I wonder what kind of experience we would have without a physical body—without a brain to think, eyes to see and hands to touch.

We all accept that life is a natural process, yet many people believe that something spooky takes over in the afterlife. They view life as natural, and the afterlife as supernatural. But is this a rational way of thinking about life and death? Life and death are both natural processes. So it stands to reason that a natural process will determine what happens after death. Regardless of our hopes or fears, our fate lies in what the universe has and will allow—how could it be otherwise? Acceptance of the mystery of death appears to be the only reasonable approach to the question of life after death.

I will conclude with a fitting gardening analogy. In the late fall, when the gardening season is winding down, it’s the time to plant tulip bulbs. From experience I know what the bulbs will bring to the gardens the following spring. Yet there is nothing in the dull brown bulbs that would indicate that colorful tulips are in the offing for next year’s gardens. The brown bulbs will transform into bright flowers after a long winter in the frozen ground. This transformation happens not because of any hope, belief or wish on my part, it happens as a result of a natural process. The bulbs will grow into the only thing they can become—tulips. On the other hand, if I were to bury a few small stones into the ground, they will remain lifeless, regardless of any wishes on my part.

 

References:  Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 1.

Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/25647,  August 27, 2011, October 29, 2011.


 

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The Building Blocks

Have you ever wondered what everything is made of? What gives different substances their distinctive properties? Why are substances solids, liquids, or gases? Why are they soft or hard; light or heavy? And if we probed matter at the deepest possible level, how small would it be? Certainly we are not intuitively equipped to interpret the world at the microscopic scale. When it comes to extremely small things, it’s out of sight, out of mind. Our senses operate on a different field altogether. Scientists, however, have somewhat closed the intuitive gap. They have identified the atom as the basic structure of matter—the building blocks of nature. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson writes:

“The Great Caltech physicist Richard Feynman once observed that if you had to reduce scientific history to one important statement it would be: ‘All things are made of atoms.’ They are everywhere and they constitute everything. Look around you. It is all atoms. Not just the solid things like walls and tables and sofas, but the air in between. And they are there in numbers that you really cannot conceive.”

Although understanding the behavior of atoms is far beyond most of us, the basic components and arrangements that make up the atom are fairly straightforward. The traditional visual model of the atom (although not entirely accurate) consists of a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, and electrons orbiting on the outside. In reality the atom is mostly empty space; it could never be illustrated to scale on a single sheet of paper or a computer screen. If we drew the atom to scale, with protons and neutrons a centimeter in diameter, it would take more than 30 football fields to draw out its total diameter. Atoms are 99.99 % just empty space. If that is the case, why don’t we walk right through walls or fall through the floor? This is due to the atom’s electrical charges. We don’t fall through the floor because the electrically charged atoms of the floor repel the electrically charged atoms of our feet. When we walk across the floor we are not actually touching the floor, but levitating at a height of a hundred millionth of a centimeter.

Now let’s get back to the structure of the atom. The electrons and quarks are believed to be the irreducible elementary particles that make up the atom. Quarks are grouped together in the nucleus to form protons and neutrons. Electrons whiz around the nucleus, not like orbits as the tradition model portrays, but more like a cloud of electrons that simultaneously occupy every possible location. Protons and electrons carry opposite electrical charges, which are arbitrarily called positive and negative—protons have a positive charge, and electrons have a negative charge.

The number of protons determines an atom’s chemical identity. Hydrogen, which contains only one proton, is the simplest element. Helium has two protons, lithium three protons, and so on. Every time you add a proton, you get a new element, up to about one hundred that are listed in the periodic table. The number of electrons is equal to the number of protons. This means that generally an atom has no net charge, because the positive and negative charges cancel out. However, certain atoms can lose or gain electrons, and acquire a charge—either positive or negative. This is called an ion. Neutrons have no charge, but they contribute to the atom’s mass. The mass of a neutron is equal to the mass of a proton. What’s more, although neutrons share the nucleus with protons, they don’t influence an atom’s chemical identity. Similar to electrons, the number of neutrons is usually the same as protons, but not always. They can vary, either more or less. In a nutshell, that’s the basic structure of the atom.

When two or more atoms are joined in a stable arrangement, you get a molecule. A molecule may consist of atoms of a single chemical element, such as two atoms of oxygen. Or it may also consist of different elements, such as a water molecule (H2O), which is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Although everything is made up of atoms, an element is the simplest arrangement, which cannot be split by chemical means. A compound consists of two or more different elements that are held together by chemical bonds. Therefore, water is a compound, composed of two elements, which are hydrogen and oxygen.

Another point worth noting is that there is no fundamental difference from one like subatomic particle to another. Every proton is exactly the same, irrespective of the element it is a part of. A proton in a hydrogen atom is identical to a proton in an oxygen atom or a helium atom. The same is true for neutrons and electrons.

Atoms are extremely small, abundant, durable, versatile and useful. It is difficult to get an idea of the scale of atoms. Numbers alone cannot really convey what’s going on down there, but I will give it a try anyway. Let’s start with size. If you examine the metric scale on an ordinary ruler, you will typically see numbers that mark out thirty centimeters. Each centimeter will also be divided in ten increments (those are millimeters). Take one millimeter and divide it into one thousand equal lengths, and you have microns. Now you are down to the scale of microorganisms, but you have not yet come close to the scale of atoms. To get down to the size of atoms you have to divide a micron into ten thousand equal lengths. Finally, you have reached your destination in inner space—the scale of atoms—one ten-millionth of a millimeter.

From our medium world perspective (somewhere in-between the universe’s large and small scales), this is an unimaginably small scale. Half a million atoms could hide behind the thickness of a human hair. And the size of an atom in relation to a millimeter is comparable to the thickness of a sheet of paper to the height of the Empire State Building. You may think we have reached the end of the line, but remember that atoms are made up of even more elementary particles. The nucleus is ten thousand times smaller than the whole atom, and electrons are at least ten thousand times smaller than the nucleus.

With some kind of idea how small atoms really are, there is virtually no point contemplating the actually number of atoms that exist—there are just too many. Atoms practically last forever; they circulate from place to place, and when something has outlived its usefulness, the atoms will reassemble to become part of something else. The atoms that make up you and me have been part of countless other living and nonliving things. Actually, this process of atomic reassembling is on-going. Even during our lifetime, the atoms in our body are continually being replaced by new ones—that is, new for us. Nevertheless, it all comes down to one basic realization. Everything is made from different arrangements of the same fundamental ingredients. Just take a look at the world around you. Even though things exhibit different properties, whether you are looking at water, air, wood, stone and metals—or plants, animals and people—it’s all made of the same stuff.

 

References: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (London: Black Swan, 2004), 175.


 

The Tower of Knowledge

The scientific method is a well established and solid foundation for acquiring knowledge. Almost everything starts with a question, and progresses to eventually become knowledge. For example, let’s say we start with a simple question, such as, what is water made of? If everything goes well, the scientific method will provide an answer. In this case, water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen (H2O). The scientific method is the process in between the question and the answer. What’s more, the scientific endeavor as a whole acts like a network of checks and balances, which will challenge the reliability of any new discovery.

The scientific method is built on observations and experimental evidence. Scientists begin with a hypothesis (an idea or speculation), which is a prediction that nature will behave in a certain way. A hypothesis is based on observations, but lacks experimental evidence. Then scientists conduct experiments in order to test their hypothesis. If the experiments confirm the original hypothesis, it becomes a theory. Consequently, scientists make a clear distinction between a hypothesis and a theory, which is not always the case in everyday language. A scientific theory has a much higher degree of certainty. It is supported by a substantial amount of observations and experimental evidence. The theory is then scrutinized by other scientists. They may validate the theory, or in light of new evidence, modify or disprove it.

When a theory stands the test of time, usually without change, it is sometimes called a law. However, in this day and age scientists are reluctant to use the word law; they tend to stick to the word theory, allowing for the possibility that it could be changed. The scientific endeavor by its very nature is self-correcting; the book is never completely closed. At the end of the day, we can be confident that the knowledge learned from the various fields of science is the best available at the time.

Science is an active field; research and discovery is ongoing. Consequently, the knowledge base changes from time to time. At this point we are far along in the process. The traditional method of doing science has revealed a great deal of nature’s ways. We know a lot, but there is still more to learn. Recently, theoretical physicists are bending the rules, as they probe into the most extreme limits of nature. For instance, at the very small and large scales, experimentation is not always possible. Therefore, in some situations, mathematics and reasoning are replacing the time-tested methods of observation and experimentation. This is a contentious issue among some scientists. However, it may be that as we peel the layers of reality, the final layers will only be accessible through reasoning. Similarly, any science that is being worked on is also incomplete until it is experimentally confirmed. Nevertheless, established scientific knowledge has been assembled over the years by observation and experiments.

Only when claims are universally accepted by the scientific community are they recognized as scientific facts. This knowledge is built somewhat like stacking bricks, where each scientist builds on the work of other scientists. It is not always necessary to reinvent the wheel, but rather to use the wheel to advance its purpose. In this way, scientific knowledge depends on new discoveries, but also expands on established facts. Over many years, the scientific endeavor has built an indestructible tower of knowledge. It was built by arguably the most intelligent minds that humankind has ever produced. Men like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and many others have dedicated lifetimes towards advancing the scientific knowledge of their time.

This tower of knowledge was built partly in isolation. Small groups of scientists working in specialized fields have added their individual brick. In other situations different fields overlapped, thus joining seemingly unrelated phenomenon into more complete theories. For instance, the theory of evolution is supported by biology, genetics, geology and paleontology. Each separate field provides a unique set of details that can be applied to a larger scheme. Scientific discovery is mainly about details. The only way to get to the bottom of things is by detailed analysis, however, when science is presented to the general public those details are not always necessary. In some cases, the details are incomprehensible to the untrained mind. Nonetheless, the majority of people have confidence that the research was comprehensive, and the conclusions are sound. They accept the individual bricks as factual information, which many aspects of their daily lives are dependent on.

For example, if you needed a blood test for some medical reason, even though you knew nothing about the science of blood analysis, I doubt that you would question the results. You may question the competency of the person conducting the test, but not the underlying science behind the results. Another similar example is the confidence that people have in the science behind computers and other information technologies. It is true that computers break down on occasion. This is due to the mechanical nature of the device, not the fundamental scientific principles in which it operates. If the science could break down, well then, it wouldn’t work at all—it would never work. There are even cases when we trust science when our observations indicate something totally different. For instance, we trust that the earth orbits the sun, even though it appears to us that the sun is orbiting the earth.

Sometimes I question whether the same trust is held for the big picture (the whole tower), as it is for each isolated piece of information (the individual bricks). When it comes to life’s big questions, and when many factors are considered, does science play a significant role or do you turn elsewhere for answers? I suspect that for many, emotions, intuition, individual beliefs, or religious concepts trumps science in the big questions. It is quite common to keep two sets of books, one for everyday life, and another for the big picture. It is possible that for many, the task of coming up with a comprehensible view of reality based on science is overwhelming. Therefore, it becomes simpler to turn to other means. It may be simpler, but is it as accurate?

When it comes to understanding the nature of reality, it is only when we can see the connections between the different fields of science that its full value can be appreciated. I am not referring to rocket science, or brain surgery here, however, I am sure that plenty can be learned from those fields. I mean basic science that is within the grasp of most people. I believe that science has the potential for much more than providing facts and information. Science can be the foundation for a much deeper understanding of reality and of our lives. The scientific endeavor by its very nature can be trusted to separate the known from the unknown. And that is a good place to start.

The towering structure of scientific knowledge is what is known; what is unknown hasn’t been built yet. The question that comes to my mind is this: How many people have actually bothered to climb the tower? Let’s take the analogy of the tower one step further. Imagine for a moment that the tower is located somewhere in a large city, and that we decided to climb to the top. The view from above would be breathtaking. It would not resemble the restricted view that we observed from the ground. From the top of the tower we would get a feel for the whole landscape. We could make out the structures and layout of the buildings; the outline of the streets; the movement of vehicles and people throughout the city.

This is the overall view of science I am referring to—the interconnections and patterns that can only be seen from a wide perspective. From this vantage point, everything blends together, and things are not as separate as they had appeared from the ground. This is the view of reality that science can provide.


 

How not Why

We are often compelled to ask why? Why this and why that? Usually our why questions are directed towards everyday occurrences, and we ask them out of curiosity. For example, why is there thunder and lightning? Why is the sky blue? Why are there high and low tides? As far as the tides go, high and low tides are caused by a combination of gravitational effects, which are exerted by the moon, the sun and the rotation of the earth. That being said, I have not provided an answer for why there are high and low tides. I have explained in simple terms, how high and low tides occur. On these relatively simple questions we ask why, although I think we really mean how. What we are looking for is the reasons or the causes behind the observed reality. We are not searching for a hidden meaning or purpose for the tides. But rather for how high and low tides occur, the causes for the tides, or the thunder and lightning, or the blue sky.

Having said that, other “why” questions are of a more profound nature, and they generally come in two categories. One type of question relates to the deeper mysteries of life. For example, why are we here? Why is life the way it is? And why is there a universe in the first place? Although we may ponder these or other similar questions from time to time, we can usually put them aside without too much trouble. There is some value in just asking the questions, even though there may be no complete resolution.

A second category of questions, which are more disturbing, arises primarily when an event impacts us in a negative way. That is when we tend to ask: why do bad things happen? As opposed to the simpler questions, like the ocean tides, when it comes to the bigger questions, we ask why—and we really mean why. We are looking for a meaning or purpose behind an event that has transpired—an underlying order behind the apparent chaos of our present situation. Conversely, when something happens that we perceive as positive, we seldom ask why it came about. I have yet to hear someone question why their day went so well.

It is very common for people that are faced with a tragedy to ask why. It could be the death of a loved one, or an illness that compels us to ask why. The trouble with this line of questioning is that it very rarely leads to a satisfactory answer. It may be comforting to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” as the well-known phrase goes, however, there may be no why (at least no why that the human mind can comprehend). The random element in life alone, if not for countless other factors, makes it inevitable that bad things will happen. Instead of saying that “everything happens for a reason,” we could easily reverse the phrase and say that “there are reasons (causes) for everything that happens.” We may be able to find the cause (the how) for an event, but trying to find why something happened will leave us scratching our heads.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a couple of friends while watching the evening news. The newscast was reporting on a tragic motor vehicle accident that resulted in several young people losing their lives. There had been a snowstorm the night of the accident and the safety of the vehicle involved was in question, namely the condition of the tires. One of my friends commented, “I can’t understand why young people, with so much life ahead of them, had to die in this way.” The other friend responded by stating the obvious, “It’s just tires and ice.” The accident was caused by icy road conditions, and worn out tires. Although it may have sounded cold and unsympathetic, perhaps he was right. In most cases, the only answer available to us is how.

In fact, all investigations focus on “how” questions. For example, when an airline crashes, which usually results in casualties, investigators will focus their attention on determining how the plane crashed. The obvious reason is to prevent a future accident, but also to provide the grieving family members with an explanation. The people that are closely connected to the tragedy may also seek comfort by asking why the plane had to crash, and why those people had to die. Once again, the only attainable answer will be in determining how the plane crashed. As for the passengers, regrettably, they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The strange thing about the randomness in life is that when we are not personally or emotionally involved, we have no problem with it. I doubt that anyone would question why a coin toss turns up head or tails. We all accept without hesitation, the random nature of a coin toss. Keep in mind that the same natural laws that determine the outcome of a coin toss, also apply to the rest of our lives. The random element in life will also lead to inequalities, which may be slight or seem grossly unfair. This may lead someone to ask: “Why is life so unfair?” In some ways life is a numbers game, much like a lottery. Sometimes your number comes up, and sometimes it does not. Look at it this way, if I had 100 dollars to give away, and I chose to give it away by lottery, would anyone say it was unfair?

Aside from our efforts to either prevent or alleviate bad things from happening, it may be that bad things happen for the simplest of reasons. There is no apparent mechanism to prevent it. Another point worth noting is that good and bad are sometimes subjective. Even a single event can be perceived as good by some people and bad by others. This is usually based on how an event personally impacts each individual. Aside from our egocentric viewpoint, there is no reason to believe that the universe will favor one individual above anyone else or anything else—there is no empirical evidence to support it.

For many years, I have asked why, especially when my life was not going as I wanted. Even after considerable reflection, I have found no suitable answer to any of my why questions. There may or may not be an ultimate reason for life’s unfolding. But if there is a why, it lies beyond human comprehension. And for me, when I started asking how, I was able to make some progress on the bigger questions. How did we get here? How is life the way it is? How did the universe come to be? And of course, how do bad things happen? So from now on when I am inclined to ask why, I try to catch myself, and ask how.


 

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

It is human nature to have goals, dreams, and expectations. Our ability to project into the future, to plan, imagine and create is a unique quality that separates us from other animals. That being said, it can also be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, in order to accomplish a goal we need to project how we will get from here to there. On the other hand, in spite of our best efforts, there is no guarantee we will ever get there. In fact, there are often numerous obstacles to overcome from the moment we conceive a goal. Contrary to some peoples’ belief, the universe is not conspiring in our behalf. We are but one moving part in a multitude of moving parts. There are many factors that help us, but there are many others that do not.

The odds of reaching a goal increase when many people work towards a common objective. Many of mankind’s great accomplishments have come with contributions from many people. The advances in technology and medicine, and the development of democracy and civil societies are prime examples. Unfortunately, many people have also worked together for destructive aims, which has led to horrific results. The human cost of war immediately comes to my mind. It is difficult to quantify how our individual efforts impact the grand scheme of things. Life unfolds as a result of all its variables.

The modern way of life can obscure our ability to see that we are part of a natural system, and subjected to the same laws. The way our life unfolds is not all that different from how a tree grows in a forest. The analogy is not perfect; however, I think it is helpful in making my point. The genetic information contained within a seed could be compared to a plan, as all the information necessary to construct a tree is present. From the beginning there are many factors outside of this plan that will affect its eventual growth. Will the seed fall on fertile soil? Will the weather conditions be favorable? What will its immediate environment be like? And if the seed sprouts, will it be destroyed by animals, insects, or diseases?

Even if the tree takes root, and grows to a substantial height, it is still susceptible to the conditions of its environment. There are many events surrounding the tree that are random.  Nevertheless, all living things in the forests have a plan of their own (their genetic information), and a drive towards their fulfillment. The state of the forests is determined by the interactions of every life form, as well as the inanimate substances in its environment. There is no plan for the forest as a whole, but the blending of countless plans, which creates a whole.

What the tree needs to grow and prosper is always present in the forest: energy from the sun, nourishment from soil and water, necessary processes from microbes, and protection provided by nearby trees. The environment of the forests will determine which seed (or tree) will grow, and which will not. The same can be said for every living thing in the forest.

Long before we begin to make plans for our lives, many things are already in place. It is our genes that first determine the potential for our lives. Even before birth the traits that we have acquired are set. Beyond these genetic traits the events in our lives are mostly random. For example: we don’t choose who we are, where we are born, and the time period. We also don’t choose our parents, family, and our community. The people we come in contact with and world events also have an impact. Our lives are formed by the environment that we are exposed to. Prosperity, poverty, peace, or warfare, whatever the case may be, is mainly beyond our control. Nothing in nature is in complete control and neither are we. Even our own body is primarily beyond our control, as it is maintained by subconscious processes. We are mostly unaware of the internal functions of our body, and we pay little attention to them until something goes wrong. And just as vital to our existence is the outside world. The air we breathe, the energy from the sun, and the food supply are but a few of many outside factors that are essential for life.

The comparison of the tree in the forest can make us aware that we are not all that different or separate from nature. But with humans, there is a difference in the sense that people have a degree of free will. Some would argue that what we perceive as free will is nothing more than an illusion, but let’s just say that we have, at best, a degree of free will. We have the ability to respond creatively to our environment. We can make choices, learn from the past, and make plans for the future. Our imagination has no bounds, therefore we can dream up any number of possibilities for our lives. That being said, there is a risk that what we imagine or dream of may not always be realistic. I can certainly relate to that way of thinking. When I was younger, I had a tendency to believe that events in my life would unfold as I had planned. As I age, I now realize that life is much bigger than I, and the world is not concerned with my plans. I found that when my primary focus was on my expectations, I would often end up disappointed. Things rarely work out as I had envisioned. What I was doing was focusing on life’s results rather than life’s process.

I now view goals and dreams as potential destinations. They are necessary in the sense that they give us direction. It is obvious that random and directionless processes do not lead to anything constructive. Therefore, we do need to make plans despite the uncertainty of going forward. What we are really choosing are paths, but we cannot know where they will eventually lead. No matter how much we plan, there are always numerous factors outside of our control that will influence our plan. Think of it this way: with all the plans of other people and their actions, as well as natural events, what are the odds that the outside world will fit the plan we have devised in our minds? And if, at a given time everything did come together just right, how long would we be able to sustain it?

The plans that we make for our lives are presumably forms of order that we envision. The more in depth the extent of the planning is, the more variables will come into play. It’s quite simple, the more factors involved, the more difficult it becomes to predict or direct the outcome. In order to move ahead with confidence, it is important to have an open perspective on goals. Life’s unpredictability and uncertainty is the cause for much anxiety and worry, however, it is intensified by our expectations. For me, my expectations have probably caused more anxiety than any other reason I can think of. Although it is difficult to pull off, I find that when I live with no expectations, I am more at peace and more productive in general.

Let me clarify that last statement. I did not say low expectations; I said no expectations. The pitfall with expectations is twofold. One is that you might aim too high, the other, aim too low. This means that instead of focusing on one particular outcome, which can be very limiting, I try to be open to a number of future outcomes. When I am moving in a path that I am pleased with, and actively engaged in life, my life seems to flow freely. I am open to receive the blessings that may come my way, as they usually come unplanned or unexpected. I am also able to place my full attention to the present task at hand, unencumbered by future expectations. Or perhaps the biggest gain is in letting go of the fear of not meeting those expectations; not only my expectations, but also the expectations of others as I perceive them.

Seeing the forest for the trees is recognizing that our life is a minor contribution to an immensely larger system. We are like individual trees in a large forest. Although the forest needs trees, no one tree is absolutely necessary. The forest does not differentiate or favor one tree from another. The sun shines on all; the clouds rain on all. We are not directors of our lives, and the only real control we have is in our ability to respond to events as they arise. Regrettably we can’t make life into what we want it to be. It is a harsh reality that one unfortunate incident can drastically change our lives, or even end it, no matter what we have going for us. There is no certainty beyond the present moment, and the only thing we can expect from life is the unexpected.

The best we can do is to accept life on its own terms, and try to respond appropriately. We can achieve this by being actively engaged in life’s present realities, and moving in a desirable direction. This should at least allow us to move forward, regardless of the uncertainty that lies ahead. We may or may not get to where we want to go. We use different words to define that place: goals, dreams, success, happiness, peace and fulfillment. However, in time we may realize that these final destinations do not matter absolutely. We may also realize that the fullness of life can only be found in the journey and not in the final destinations.


 

The Universe Revealed Through Modern Science

Physical laws have existed since the beginning of time, but they had to be discovered for science to become relevant. Scientific knowledge was built mainly by a series of small advances and adjustments, however, a few major discoveries by a few scientists have altered the course of the scientific endeavor. The age of modern science was pioneered by men like Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. They began to examine the patterns in nature, and discovered that in some situations the workings of nature could be explained, and even predicted. They found that nature’s harmony was governed by physical laws, which were at least partly accessible to human comprehension. They studied the motion of objects on earth, and then turned their attention to the heavens. They charted the movement of the celestial bodies in great detail, and discovered that the motion of the celestial bodies could also be predicted. The gateway to scientific discovery had been opened—the universe would soon begin to reveal its most profound secrets.

In the early years, it was Isaac Newton’s insight that stood above all others. He discovered gravity as the force responsible for the motion of the moon and the planets. And as the story goes, the same force responsible for an apple falling from a tree. In 1687, he published the Principia Mathematica, where he disclosed his law of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion. It was a major breakthrough in advancing the scientific cause. Newton’s laws provided the foundation for what has become known as classical physics. For more than 300 years his equations have stood the test of time. In fact, Newton’s equations were all that was needed to plot the course that placed men on the moon. Although his equations provided an accurate mathematical framework (actually a very close approximation that was later revised by Einstein), Newton had no idea what mechanism was responsible for the effects of gravity. It is also believed that he regarded space, the arena of motion, to be absolute and unchangeable. He viewed time in much the same way.

It was not until the early 1900s when the mysteries of space and time, as well as the underlying causes of gravity, were addressed. Albert Einstein changed the course of history when he published his theories of special relativity (in 1905) and general relativity (in 1915). Einstein formulated that space and time are not absolutes, but have dynamic qualities associated with mass and motion. In fact, he described space and time as a unified whole, which later became known as space-time.

With special relativity, Einstein showed that measurements of time (and even distance) could differ for two observers, based on their relative motion. Time will elapse slower for someone in motion than it does for someone at rest. And the discrepancy in elapsed time will increase as the difference in the speed increases. In a sense, observers carry their own clock with them. This realization signifies another important point—that the observers would also disagree on what constitutes a given moment in time. One person’s now would be different from the other person’s now, yet both perspectives would be equally valid. Keep in mind, that it’s only when dealing with speeds approaching the speed of light or extreme distances that disagreements in time become significant. The effects of special relativity are not visibly apparent in the temperate conditions that exist here on earth; however, the earth is somewhat of an anomaly in comparison to the universe as a whole. With the universe, where extreme distances and speeds are commonplace, special relativity becomes important.

With general relativity, he showed that the effects of gravity are caused by the warping or curving of space (or space-time, but for simplicity I will use the term space). Heavy objects like planets and stars warp the fabric of space, thus creating the effects of gravity. It is similar to placing a heavy ball in the center of a trampoline. Any smaller balls placed on the surface will be drawn to the center, due to the surface being warped by the heavier ball. Bear in mind that a trampoline is a two dimensional representation of what is actually a three dimensional spatial fabric. It does, however, give us a clear visual analogy of how curved space participates in the motion of celestial bodies. In the case of planets and stars, orbits will develop when a stable balance is achieved. The earth can be thought of as moving in a straight line along a curved surface of space. Or as taking the path of least resistance along the distorted spatial fabric, which is created by the sun’s presence.

Another consequence of general relativity is that just as gravity curves space, it also curves time. But what does curved time mean? Similar to special relativity, where motion alters time, general relativity claims that gravity also alters time. When gravity exerts its influence time slows down. For instance, time passes a little slower on the surface of the earth than it does for objects high above the earth. A practical example of this effect is in the technology behind global positioning systems (GPS). The satellites that guide GPS devices have to account for both special and general relativity (general relativity producing the largest effect). The internal clocks of the satellites account for the fact that clocks on the earth’s surface run slower. If not for these adjustments, GPS devices would quickly become inaccurate; the coordinates on the ground would drift off by several kilometers each day.

Einstein’s relativity goes against our common sense perceptions, but apparently this is the reality of the universe. Einstein’s insights led to modern cosmology (the study of the origin and evolution of the universe), and our current view of the universe. Both classical physics (Newton’s view) and relativity (Einstein’s view) provide a deterministic framework. That is, if the present conditions are known, the past and future conditions can also be determined. That’s assuming that you have all the present data and the mathematical ability to do the calculations.

The next scientific breakthrough would be of a very different nature. In the mid-1930s a group of scientists were unlocking the secrets of the atom. In so doing, it led to the development of quantum mechanics. They found that the atomic and subatomic realms behave in ways that are very different from the world experienced at the larger scales. A whole new set of laws had to be developed to deal with the bizarre nature of the atom—laws that are partly governed by randomness and probabilities. Physicist Brian Greene describes the nature of quantum mechanics. He writes in The Fabric of the Cosmos:

 “…according to the quantum laws, even if you make the most perfect measurements possible of how things are today, the best you can ever hope to do is predict the probability that things will be one way or another at some chosen time in the future, or that things were one way or another at some chosen time in the past.”

The probabilities that are used in quantum mechanics are more fundamental than the probabilities that are assigned to everyday events. When we assign a probability to a game of dice or blackjack, it is based on our inability to calculate the precise conditions that will determine the outcome of the event—specifically, each roll of the dice or flip of the card. With quantum mechanics, however, even if we know all the present information possible, we still can not predict a future outcome with absolute certainty. Quantum physics describes a reality that is fundamentally uncertain, in which objects have no definite position, take no definite path, and even have no definite past or future.

Some experiments (known as the double-slit experiment and variations of it) have actually shown that a single particle, such as a light photon, can behave as if it simultaneously takes a number of different paths from a source to a target. It is debatable whether this really happens; nonetheless, outcomes are determined by the number of possible paths of the photon, whether or not they are all realized. The photon takes a definite position only when it is observed or measured (when it strikes the target). In between the source and the target, it can be thought of existing as a haze of possibilities.

This is partially explained by the idea that subatomic objects, like photons and electrons, exhibit both wave-like and particle-like properties. At times, a photon or electron can be described as occupying a wide region in space, and at other times described as occupying a single point in space. Depending on the variation of the double-slit experiment, a photon can sometimes behave like a wave and sometimes behave like a particle. Although it is not entirely clear how these results should be interpreted, physicists agree that our conventional sense of reality does not apply at the quantum level—even to a larger degree than Einstein’s relativity.

I know this all sounds absurd. Nevertheless, the predictions of quantum mechanics have produced results that are extraordinarily accurate. Quantum mechanical predictions are accurate in the sense that if a sufficient number of identical experiments are carried out, the totality of the outcomes will reflect the assigned probabilities. Yet each single experiment will generate a random and unpredictable outcome. Therefore, even with the most precise calculations possible, there is an unavoidable degree of uncertainty in quantum mechanics.

It has been said that nobody understands quantum mechanics, that even scientists that work with quantum mechanics don’t understand it. So if it’s not sinking in, don’t lose any sleep over it. In summing up: the renowned physicist Richard Feynman once wrote in The Strange Theory of Light and Matter “[Quantum mechanics] describes nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it fully agrees with experiment.”

Once again our common sense is challenged by the laws of physics. From classical physics to the updating of relativity, and the weirdness of quantum mechanics, reality is proving to be difficult to grasp, as these theories give us very different views of reality. For this reason, there is a consensus among some physicists that there exists a deeper level of reality to the universe that remains undiscovered. They propose that there should be one theoretical framework that describes the universe, and not a fragmented view based on several partial theories. Einstein called this hypothetical theory a unified theory (also called the theory of everything). The quest for a unified theory became one of Einstein’s passions during his later years; however, it was not realized during his lifetime.

Today, physicists are still seeking the elusive unified theory. Our present understanding of the universe is based on the two major breakthroughs of the 20th century. 1) General relativity, which describes the large scale structures of the universe, like stars and galaxies. 2) Quantum mechanics, which describes the small scale structures, like molecules and atoms. These two theories have been very successful in their own right, but in some extreme situations they cannot be applied successfully. In some situations where large densities are compressed into a tiny region of space, an understanding of both the large and the small is required. But when general relativity is applied together with quantum mechanics, the theories fall apart. This becomes a major obstacle when trying to understand conditions such as the center of black holes and the origin of the universe where these conditions need to be considered. The big bang theory describes the events a fraction of a second after the beginning, but says nothing about the beginning or before. Without a unified theory, or a new theory altogether that can deal with this situation the cause for the origin of the universe will remain a mystery.

As we have seen, each new discovery has added a piece to the puzzle and our understanding of the universe has increased dramatically over the years. The ultimate goal of science can be nothing other than a complete understanding of the laws of nature, though it may be that mystery will forever be a part of the picture. In his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking weighs in on the subject:

“But can there really be such a unified theory? Or are we perhaps just chasing a mirage?

There seems to be three possibilities:

1) There really is a complete unified theory, which we will someday discover if we are smart enough.

2) There is no ultimate theory of the universe, just an infinite sequence of theories that describe the universe more and more accurately.

3) There is no theory of the universe; events cannot be predicted beyond a certain extent but occur in a random and arbitrary manner.”

There may very well be limits to what humans are able to understand, but this should not limit our quest for knowledge. Where would we be today if some people hadn’t questioned conventional thinking and opened the door to greater discovery? It is due to the few who dared to challenge the beliefs of their time that many benefited. Not only in science, but in other domains as well, it is the quest for knowledge that paves the way for progress. This is the case for our lives, as well as humanity as a whole. No one knows how far we can go, and only time will tell. On this note, we can at least rest assured that the modern age of science has brought humanity out of the darkness of ignorance, and into the light of knowledge.

References: Brian R. Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 10-11.

Richard Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 165-166.


 

Addressing the Big Questions

There are some fundamental questions that humans have been grappling with since we have developed the ability to reason. These questions deal with the nature of our existence. For instance: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Does the universe have a creator? What is our place in the universe? Is there life after death? What is the nature of reality?

These and other related questions have often been called the big questions. And they have been addressed in various ways, from the dawn of civilization, throughout the ages to modern times. Religions, myths, rituals, celebrations, and even architecture have been built as a response to these questions. Some fields of science have also responded to the big questions. In order to form a view of reality, one will usually have to contemplate some of these questions. Therefore, our answers to these questions play a major role in determining how we see the world.

Although many people may not be consciously aware of their picture of reality, at least not on a daily basis, I believe that the majority of people have some form of picture in the back of their minds. We accept things as facts without regularly thinking about it. For example, we know that gravity keeps us from flying off the earth, and an object thrown in the air will fall down. We know it to the extent that we don’t even think about it. This is a simple example; however, I believe we respond in similar ways on the more complex questions. At different points in our lives we arrive at conclusions to some of these questions, and consequently, it forms our view of reality.

Our view is usually composed of things we know as facts, things we believe by faith, and things we accept as unknown or unknowable. The degree to which each aspect is present varies with the individual. This view of reality is determined over a long period of time, and in segments, eventually creating a whole. It is internalized and we go on with our lives. Some seldom question their view, while others are aware that their view is subject to change. If we were to question and examine our view of reality, would it stand up to reason? Would it form a cohesive whole? Would one part contradict another? Would we have properly separated the knowable from the unknowable? And how would faith factor into the equation?

There are many factors that contribute to establishing our picture. We are influenced by family, friends, society, religion, and life experiences. Genetics also likely plays a role. However, it ultimately comes down to how we interpret the world that we observe and experience. In our modern world we can draw a great deal of insight from science. It is an advantage that no other civilization in history would have had, at least not to the extent we have today.

In ancient times, people were limited to the observable world, lacking the knowledge of modern science. They would have observed the world around them, and drawn conclusions based on their observations. They were actually using a simplified form of the scientific method; however, it was significantly more primitive. The ancients must have intuitively understood the world in which they were living. Although they would not have been able to calculate precisely how things worked, they must have known what they needed to survive. Their understanding of the world would have been deeply rooted in nature. They would have felt a deep connection with their environment. The soil and the plants, the rivers and the oceans, and the sun and the stars may well have been recognized and celebrated as their life source.

The ancient civilizations were in tune with the natural cycles, and much of their lives were governed by these cycles. Archaeologists have found clear evidence at a number of sites that support this claim. For instance, Stonehenge and the Pyramids at Giza (which includes the Great Sphinx) are precisely positioned in accordance with solar alignments at specific times of the year. We could question the ancient interpretation of the natural world without science to guide them, but their devotion to nature was evident.

In our modern industrialized world, many people have lost this profound relationship with nature—an unintended consequence of modernization. The daily life of many individuals in the developed world has little direct contact with nature. The population is densely congregated to large cities, where one finds predominantly concrete streets and buildings, instead of green pastures, forests and wildlife. Even for those that live in rural areas, lifestyles are somewhat similar. We travel mostly in vehicles, and move from building to building. We purchase our food at grocery stores, and purchase other material items at department stores. As far as where the goods come from, we don’t have to give it a second thought. Although industrialization and technology have eased many of life’s burdens, improved quality of life and increased longevity, it has come with a cost. The obvious environmental costs are evident, but the more subtle effects of the disconnection that humans have with nature are just as profound.

In order to properly understand and internalize reality, we need to incorporate nature, and find a balance between experience and knowledge. Both the methods of modern science and the ancients are available for us today. The fields of science give us a factual or logical understanding of reality, but the meaning would be diminished without the experience. In some situations, the information from our sensory perceptions aligns directly with empirical scientific knowledge. The example of gravity, which I provided earlier, demonstrates this point. One can understand the laws of gravity, and also experience its effects in a personal way, such as observing the trajectory of a ball that is thrown in the air.

In other situations, where the facts contradict our direct experience, it becomes a little more problematic. The experience of day and night is a prime example of this. It appears to us that the earth is stationary, and that the sun is moving from the eastern to the western horizon, however, the scientific explanation is very different. Science explains that the earth rotates once in twenty-four hours, thus causing day and night; the sun doesn’t move across the sky. Nevertheless, when it is explained to us from a scientific perspective, we can easily make sense of the experience. We can integrate both a logical and intuitive understanding of the reality of day and night. Similarly, many other natural rhythms can be interpreted by experience, or explained by scientific reasoning.

It becomes a little more difficult when we are dealing with phenomena that lie mostly beyond the scope of our senses, such as the very large structures of the universe or the microscopic realm. We are then left to choose between science and our sensory perceptions. But if we choose to trust the science, we can somewhat imagine what the experience would be like.

Science is addressing the big questions, though somewhat indirectly, in ways that previous generations could not have imagined. In the last century, scientific discoveries have completely changed the picture of the cosmos. Human sense of place in the universe is being reevaluated. The big questions can no longer be dealt with solely by ancient methods. Although it is vital that we retain some of the ancient wisdoms, science can lead the modern search for truth. The universe, which was once thought to be beyond human understanding, is being revealed by modern science. Albert Einstein clearly realized this. He is quoted by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

Although there are few absolute proofs, or unquestionable truths regarding the big questions, the universe has left many clues that point to its nature. As a human race we are getting closer to understanding the nature of our existence. We have the opportunity to create a picture of reality that is in line with the natural world, and ultimately the universe. I believe that collectively and individually it is one of our most important challenges. Since our view of reality forms the foundation for our lives, the challenge is well worth taking. On this note, I have to agree with the Greek philosopher Socrates when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

References: Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 87.


 

Horizons Out of Reach

Imagine you are walking on a terrain of rolling hills; in the distance you can see the horizon. Beyond that point you don’t know what you’ll find. When you arrive at the crest of a hill a whole new landscape appears with its own horizon. This is a common metaphor used to show how knowledge is usually acquired. Each horizon reached often presents another horizon (or question) in the distance.

The story of science is one of impressive discoveries. Many horizons have been reached, but many more are yet to be encountered. No one knows how far we can go and what we will find. I hesitate to limit what might be possible, because science has surprised us time and time again. If the human race survives long enough, is there anything we can’t find out? I would think that there are some questions we will not be able to answer, but which ones? One should think long and hard before ruling anything out, which I have done. For what it’s worth, I am left with two questions which appear out of reach. I’ll get back to this later but first a little context.

Horizons Reached

At present the knowledge base is immense, but it had to be acquired. Imagine going back 100, 500 or 1,000 years and contemplating the future. It’s possible that some future discoveries could have been predicted. However, there are other findings that few saw coming. It is practically impossible to provide a full account of impressive scientific discoveries. However, there are some that immediately stand out. What follows has been mentioned in prior blogs of mine; think of it as a short list of scientific highlights:

  1. The Idea of Natural laws: At around 500 BC the ancient Greeks documented the concept of natural laws. They suggested that patterns in nature could be recognized and attributed to natural laws. This was a major breakthrough in scientific thought.
  2. The Copernican Revolution: In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory of the heliocentric model of the universe. He removed the Earth from the center of the known universe and replaced it with the Sun. This was a significant reality check, which would influence human philosophy for years to come.
  3.   Newton’s Laws: In 1687 Isaac Newton disclosed his law of universal gravitation and his three laws of motion. Newton laid the foundation for what later became known as classical physics. Now over 300 years later, Newton’s equations still apply (except for extreme circumstances).
  4. Einstein’s Relativity: With special relativity (in 1905) and general relativity (in 1915), Albert Einstein filed in the gaps in Newton’s laws. Einstein accounted for those extreme circumstances. His contribution led to a greater understanding of the large-scale universe.
  5. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: Charles Darwin provided an explanation for how all life evolves with his famous publication in 1859. This one basically speaks for itself; few if any discovery is more impressive.
  6. Revealing the Atomic and Subatomic Realm: Beginning in the early 1900s, several people worked on theories such as quantum mechanics and the standard model of partial physics. A realm previously inaccessible was shown to be real and would unwittingly have a significant impact on human affairs.
  7. The Big Bang: In the 1931 George Lemaitre suggested that the universe began in a single geometric point. He arrived at this by applying general relativity to the observations of William Hubble. Lemaitre`s idea would eventually provide us with a truly universal origin story. 
  8. DNA: In 1962 James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won a Nobel Prize in medicine for the discovery of the structure of DNA. This opened up a whole new science, which will undoubtedly impact us for generations.

Of course the list above could be significantly longer and still fall short. However, I present it just to give you a feel for how knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, alters our perception of the world. It is debatable how many past discoveries could have been foreseen; nonetheless one can imagine some horizons in the distance which may be attainable. For example: figuring out how life on Earth got started, or the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe. Closer to home, perhaps finding a cure for cancer (or most cancers), and maybe even weather forecasting weeks or months in advance. No one knows for sure which findings are coming, but I feel fairly certain that at least two questions will remain unanswered.

Contemplating the Unanswerable

The two questions I am referring to are as follows: 1) Why is there a universe in the first place?  2) Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? Another question which I feel I must address before moving on to question 1, is this: Why is there something rather than nothing? You’ve probably heard this one before, and it is similar to question 1. However, I find this to be a peculiar question and here’s why. First let’s define what is meant by nothing. If by nothing, one assumes the absence of everything, then nothing is a non-entity. In other words, how can nothing be a reality if by definition nothing has no existence. The question gives us two options, something or nothing and it seems to me that something is real and nothing is not. By this logic one could conclude that there has to be something, but why a universe?

For some, the existence of the universe doesn’t seem to be a big problem to solve. The standard answer is that God created the universe and that’s it. However, I can’t help but ask two simple follow-up questions: a) Why is there a God in the first place? b) Why is God the way he (she, it) is and not some other way? Do you see how this works, by inserting God as the explanation for the universe we’ve circled back to where we started. In essence the questions are identical. We have merely moved the starting point from the universe to God.

Another approach is to examine the possibility of a multiverse. There are scientific reasons that suggest that other universes may exist, but that is as far as it goes.  Although the multiverse is theoretical, it may shed light on question 2. Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? If multiple universes actually exist, it could be that all possible universes exist, therefore it is not surprising that at least one universe is like ours. Although the multiverse idea is somewhat satisfying on the surface, it has its problems. For starters, it does not address question 1. Why is there a universe in the first place? It says nothing on why there would be a multiverse in the first place.

There is also the problem of testing the multiverse idea scientifically. How can we ever verify something outside the boundaries of our vast universe? Hypothetically, even if our science advanced to a point where universes outside our own could be detected, how could we know the full-scale of a multiverse? We would likely be unable to determine how many universes exist in total. Ultimately that’s where I think the multiverse idea falls short in terms of answering question 2. Why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? If we can’t know how many universes exist in total, we can’t explain why our universe is the way it is and not some other way. All possible universes have to exist in order for the multiverse to the job. Or at the very least, it would take an extremely high number of universes.

Why is there a universe in the first place and why is the universe the way it is and not some other way? I have thought about these two questions philosophically, religiously and scientifically and have made little progress. Each approach gains momentum only to fall short. There are undoubtedly still many horizons within our reach and it will be interesting to see what lies ahead. That being said, I have to conclude that there are at least two horizons that seem to be hopelessly out of reach.

References:http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/science/add_edexcel/cells/dnarev3.shtml

https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-relationship-between-the-Standard-model-and-Quantum-field-theory


 

Electromagnetism and the Modern Age

If one had to rate the greatest discoveries of all time, electricity would rank high on any list. Most of the modern world is powered by electricity. What would our lives be like without electricity? Just think of your own home; when the power goes out everything gets put on hold. Take people’s smart phones away and they don’t know what to do with themselves.

The application of electricity was the result of 3 centuries of investigation and experiments into the nature of electricity and magnetism. Understanding the relationship between the two forces and unifying them into a single force, called electromagnetism, proved to be a critical step. The unification of electricity and magnetism also established the existence of electromagnetic waves, the fundamental principle behind wireless technology.

Fascination and Curiosity

In the 1700s static electricity was a well-known phenomenon, and various devices were made to produce it. Electricity was poorly understood at first. Its main use was as an entertainment tool as it could create colorful sparks and move small objects. It was used in types of magic shows that were meant to delight crowds.

Over time the curious nature of electricity demanded an explanation, and a number of experimenters tried to find out. Where did electricity come from? Static electricity was observed to pass through people. Some animals were known to produce electric shocks. Therefore, was electricity intrinsic to life itself or were the living bodies a medium for carrying a fundamental force of nature?

In 1799, Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist and chemist showed that electricity could be generated artificially. He created the first battery by piling up metal plates, separated by cards dipped in dilute acid, and attaching both ends to wires. Metals have a unique quality where at the atomic level the electrons in the outer shells can be shared. Under the right conditions the electrons can flow from one atom to another. This produces an electric current.

The unit for measuring electric potential is named in Volta’s honor (the volt). Up until Volta’s pile, as it was called, electricity could only last for an instant. Now it could be stored in a battery, which opened the door for electricity to do useful work. But the road to inventing electrical technologies would be long and winding; the knowledge of electricity was still in its infancy.

The Insights of Faraday and Maxwell

Michael Faraday was a self-educated scientist, who is famous for his experiments with electricity and magnetism. His work would lead to unlocking the secrets of the two mysterious forces. Faraday picked up the work of Danish physicist, Hans Christian Orsted. In 1820, Orsted accidentally discovered that a current carrying wire caused a nearby magnetic needle to move. In other words, an electric field created a magnetic field.

Knowing that an electric current had an effect on magnets at a close distance; Faraday wondered if the experiment could be reversed. Could magnets generate electricity? Faraday set out to explore the relationship further, and in 1831 he discovered that a changing magnetic field caused an electric current in a nearby wire. The key insight was that electricity was produced when the magnetic field changed as it interacted with the wire. A stationary magnetic field and a wire did not induce a current. Therefore, a third variable was needed – motion. The motion of a magnetic field in relation to a wire generated the electricity.

This principle, known as electromagnetic induction, is responsible for powering all electric motors and generators. Electric power is generated by a changing magnetic field and its interaction with a coil of wire. The coil multiplies the amount of power generated, but operates under the same principle as Faraday’s experiment with a single wire.

Three decades later a Scottish physicist by the name of James Clerk Maxwell put the finishing touch on the unification of electricity and magnetism. By the time Maxwell came along it was well-established that there existed a connection between the two forces. The telegraph had been invented, the first long-distance communication device, which operated on the principle of electromagnetism. Maxwell’s great achievement came in 1862; he devised 4 simple equations that represented all the interactions between electricity and magnetism.

The original concept of two distinct forces was united under one theoretical framework. Electromagnetism became known as one of the 4 fundamental forces of nature recognized by modern physics; the other 3 being, the strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force and gravity. In short, Faraday unified electricity and magnetism experimentally, and Maxwell unified them mathematically.

Fields, Waves and Light

With Maxwell’s equations came a new understanding of electromagnetism. Not only were the two forces unified, but the concepts of fields and waves would become extremely important. Modern physics would be transformed by the knowledge that energies could occupy regions of space and have noticeable effects. In This Explains Everything, physicist Lawrence Krauss writes:

“[Maxwell’s equations] established the physical reality of what was otherwise a figment of Faraday’s imagination: a field – that is, some quantity associated with every point in space and time.”

Maxwell realized that if a changing electric field created a magnetic field, and a changing magnetic field created an electric field, then the process would be continuous (a kind of chain reaction). The mutual interaction of electricity and magnetism would cause the field to oscillate. When an electromagnetic field oscillates it generates an electromagnetic wave, which has an independent existence and moves out from the source. Maxwell was able to calculate the speed at which electromagnetic waves propagate. It tuned out it was precisely the speed of light. Krauss writes about Maxwell’s conclusion:

“Thus he discovered that light is indeed a wave – but a wave of electric and magnetic fields that moves through space at a precise speed…”

Maxwell’s discovery of a constant speed of light was the starting point for Einstein’s revision of space and time – the theory of special relativity. A decade later Einstein formulated the theory of general relativity. It was then followed by quantum theory, and the age of modern physics was in full swing.

A World Beyond Imagination

The scientists and inventors of the 1700s and 1800s could not have imagined the modern world that resulted from their work. Electricity and information technology could not have been possible if not for a complete understanding of electromagnetism. It was the start of something big, and step by step new discoveries and inventions pushed the boundaries of progress. Many innovators took part in the quest. Our world has become brighter, smaller and faster.

I know I am dating myself; however, I grew up watching a black and white television. At first the TV only aired 2 channels, of which the signal was received by an antenna in the attic. There was no remote control back then, so we had to manually turn the dial to change the channel. In addition, someone had to walk up to the attic and turn the antenna around. Eventually, we upgraded by adding a second antenna (each pointing in a different direction) and running wires to a switch besides the TV. I guess that was progress back then. Nowadays people complain if the Wi-Fi is slow.

I am amazed at all the electronic gadgets we have today, and all they can do. They work on principles that take advantage of things we can’t even see. How can electrons moving through wires light our homes and power computers? How can waves traveling through space carry information that can be converted to video and audio? Plus, most of the time, the signal is perfectly clear. When I consider that it took 3 centuries of inventions to get to this point, I am not going to get upset over a slow WiFi; I am just grateful it works at all.

 

References: Edge Foundation Inc., This Explains Everything (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013), 335, 336.

In Our Time: Science, Michael Faraday, Dec. 24, 2015.

In Our Time: Science, The Invention of Radio, July 3, 2013.

In Our Time: Science, Maxwell, Oct 1, 2003

Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity — Jim Al-Khalili BBC Horizon, Published on May 26, 2015.


Why Religion?

Why is religion so pervasive in human societies? Organized religion has been with us since the dawn of civilization. In fact, religion is so common that few societies have existed without it. As far as ideas surviving in human brains (memes) religions are among the most successful. That’s right religions are memes, but they are usually referred to as traditions. They stay in existence because they are ideas that are passed on from person to person and on to the next generation.

In The beginning

How and why did religion begin? For something like religion to arise it requires a highly evolved being. One would assume it requires a large enough brain to formulate abstract ideas and ask complex questions. That pretty much rules out every other species except humans. It is my contention that as soon as a being is able to pose a question it can’t answer, the raw materials for a religion are present. Although, it does not necessarily mean religion had to come about. The fact that it did is indeed complex. However, I will try to break it down by proposing a lengthy list of possibilities.

  • Fear and Uncertainty – Without a workable understanding of the natural world, imagine what kind of questions our distant ancestors   must have had. Why are we subjected to thunder and lightning? What is behind the force of a hurricane? Why does the Sun set in the horizon? There is perhaps no greater fear than the unknown and the ancients were pretty much left in the dark by their lot in history. Natural occurrences that are now clearly understood were often (and perhaps logically) attributed to the will of gods by our ancestors.
  • Agriculture – At around 9000 BC the rise of agriculture made it possible for civilizations to develop. As humans went from living in small groups of hunter gathers to farming villages, it may have set the stage for organized religion. Farming made humans increasingly vulnerable to the whims of nature. The idea of praying to gods for blessings in a ritualistic setting (such as a good harvest) may well have originated with agriculture. In addition, with large groups of people living in close proximity, it may have been wise to have everyone on the same page.
  • Solidarity – We are social beings at heart and there is something to be said for unity. Unlike today in the developed world, in ancient times survival was at the forefront. It likely would have been a survival advantage for a society to share common goals and ideas. A fractured community would have been at a disadvantage in fighting off enemies and acquiring resources. Religion may have been vital for strengthening social bonds and getting people to work for a common cause.
  • Order and Ritual – Life was then and is now a mix of unforeseeable and anticipated events; both can create anxiety and worry. For many people, the belief in something behind the ebb and flow of life provides order for their lives. This sense of order, even though life does not necessarily reflect it, is often reinforced in people’s mind through religious traditions and rituals.  
  • Perseverance – If you think life is hard now (and it is at times) imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago. Without modern conveniences, the ancients had to work much harder for sustenance. They had no theory of disease, limited medical care and a shorter life expectancy. With a difficult life and the awareness of eventual death, would humans have been able to persevere without religion? Religion may have been a survival advantage, not directly but perhaps indirectly over the long haul.
  • Hope for an Afterlife – The awareness of death is a by-product of a highly evolved brain. We are aware that we will lose everyone we love, unless death overtakes us first; this is a sobering realization. Central to most religions, is the prospect for an afterlife. This idea alone helps religions remain viable for long periods of time. It is very hard to come to terms with the idea that someday we will no longer be. 
  • Agency – We go through everyday life with desires and intentions. We are also aware that other living beings possess them as well. If every animated being we are in contact with (human or non-human) has intentions, we could say they are intentional agents. Nature is also animated, with wind, rain, rivers, vegetation, celestial bodies and much more. In a pre-modern world, was it such a stretch to extend the principle of agency to nature? Even today nature is still personified as Mother Nature. And if animals and nature were thought to have intentions, it was just one more step to attribute agency to gods.
  •   Power and Control- Small groups of people have a way of regulating themselves. If someone is taking advantage of others they can usually be dealt with. However, when small groups grow to become villages, cities and empires, things change. An ugly side of religion is that it has been used (or misused) for controlling people. This is how it works in a nut shell: When populations become too large for self-control, we end up with government and laws. If we break the laws then we are punished. But it is impossible for any regime to police everyone. Religion steps in as an all-encompassing secondary force. If you think you got away with something, then there is an eye in the sky that sees all and in the end you will be held accountable. This is a very powerful force and difficult to eliminate.
  •  Morality- Some people tend to view religion as the de facto origin of morality. However, it is hard to imagine how humans could have evolved to the point of organized religion, without first adherence to social norms. As a matter of fact, other primates exhibit social norms as well. Religions have been successful at converting established social norms into moral codes. As a consequence, religions have mostly presented themselves as moral authorities. The moral dimension of religion, in part accounts for their staying power.
  •   Explanation- Many of the existential questions, which puzzled humankind for centuries, have in large part been address by the scientific enterprise. At present we have access to a beautifully   coherent explanation for how the universe works and how we got here. However, all this knowledge came to us much like a dripping faucet. As information was being collected the business of living was at the forefront. For generations religions provided an explanation in the form of origin stories which could be shared with the masses.
  • Meaning- Humans are meaning making beings; we tend to look for meaning in life situations. I suspect that the ancients did not differ in that regard. The religious stories have and still provide meaning for large sections of the population. Today things have changed a bit, in the sense that we now have the scientific story to factor in, as opposed to the largely unchallenged voice of religion. That said, I must admit that the meaning value of the scientific story is incomplete.

Going Forward

One would think that our religions provided some survival advantages along the path of human development, how else can we explain their universality. To be clear, they are ubiquitous in their presence although not necessarily in their message. Some of what I touched upon earlier could very well fall under evolutionary gains, such as solidarity, perseverance, order, and perhaps even meaning. It appears that religions have contributed to civilization in a significant way, but will they continue to do so going forward? Or will something else step in to take its place?

Religion may have been our first attempt at understanding the world and ourselves. One might even say that religion was our first attempt at philosophy, morality, and perhaps science. However, much has changed in the world since religion was in its infancy. For the most part they don’t have the same hold on people as they once did, also we can now look at religion with a wider perspective. We tend to think of religions as being ever-present but they do have life spans. We are all aware of ancient religions and gods that are no longer taken seriously. However, normally religions easily out live their followers.

With the advantage of a lengthy history behind us it is easy to see that religions are universal in their presence but regional and cultural in their message. A look at the demographics for the various world religions points this out; numbers very slightly from different sources but not enough to matter for my purpose here. Also, I have rounded off the numbers for simplicity. This is how they rank globally in percentage of followers:    

  • Christianity 30 %
  • Islam 20 %
  • unaffiliated 16%
  • Hinduism 15%
  • Buddhism 7%
  • others 12%

These figures indicate that in a best case scenario (if you’re a Christian) 70 % of all the people in the world will disagree with you on this matter. And let’s not forget that there is much disagreement amongst numerous Christian denominations. If one falls in any of the other five categories, the disagreement is even greater. Hypothetically, from a visiting alien’s point of view, any given religion would be indistinguishable from the others. In other words, with no cultural bias, it would be difficult to favor one religion over any other.

I suspect that in ancient times, it was far easier to buy into the religion of the day, but perhaps the golden age of religion has past. Not that today’s religions don’t have influence in many pockets of the world; they just aren’t as universal in their appeal. We are not as isolated geographical and far more aware of numerous past dead religions and a variety of current active ones. The religious stories continually change over time and across cultures. Religions stay alive for varying lengths of time in a sort of natural selection of ideas. It may be comforting for believers to think that today’s religions are here to stay, but if history is any indication, the future of religion is not set in stone.

 

References: Dr Michael Shermer | God does NOT exist, OxfordUnion, Published on Dec 21, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pOI2YvVuuE

Religion – when, why and how did it begin? http://www.garvandwane.com/religion/religion1.html

World Religions – populations pie chart statistics list. http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/mysticism/world_religions_populations.html