THE UNIVERSE AS UNDERSTOOD BY WESTERN SCIENCE
(First Draft completed on April 12, 2011; to be revised.) Click here for Part 1 , Part 2, – By Ozodi Thomas Osuji –The current Western cosmological story of creation goes something like this. About fourteen (13.7) billion years ago, whatever existed compressed itself into a ball not larger than an atom (some say not larger than the size of a nucleus of an atom); that point of beginning is called singularity. That whatever had a pre-singularity state but that state is unknown and science would rather not speculate on its nature, it is pre-physics and our current scientific method does not understand it. Whatever was in that ball became infinitely hot (heat is a physical property, so this is the beginning of physics) and exploded. In a fraction of a second it produced radiation, that is, hot light, and that hot light transmuted itself to sub-particles of matter, and produced space and time. Light photons became quarks and electrons. Quarks combined to form protons and neutrons.
Whatever existed before the Big Bang produced energy (heat and light), and energy, in turn, produced mass (matter). As Albert Einstein’s famous equation, E=Mc2, says, energy and matter are the same phenomenon in different states; energy transforms itself to matter and matter can retransform to energy.
It should be noted that the astrophysicists (such as Lemaitre and Gamow)who constructed the Big Bang hypothesis of the origin of the universe built on particle physics (also called quantum physics) and could not have done so before the twentieth century’s discoveries on the nature of the atom. Therefore, it is necessary to talk a little about the discovery of atoms and subatomic particles.
Briefly, some ancient Greeks hypothesized that the smallest part of matter is the atom. That idea was, however, lost to Western civilization when the Catholic Church took hold of Europe and drove science underground. With the fall of the Roman Empire around 450 AD the Roman Catholic Church took over and attempted to eradicate any attempt to understand phenomena from a rational perspective, as Greeks, and to some extent, Romans, were beginning to do. Europe went into what is generally called the dark ages until Muslim Arabs conquered parts of Southern Europe in the eight century and brought back the Greek learning that they had acquired from their Conquest of Alexandria, Egypt and other parts of the old world where Greek learning had not been extirpated by ascendant Christianity.
From its re-encounter with Greek learning Europe experienced renewed interest in rational thinking; that trend stimulated the Protestant reformation of the Catholic Church. Eventually, approaching phenomena from rational perspectives instead of religious ones became acceptable in Europe. Thus, we had Europeans begin thinking about phenomena from a rational perspective rather than what the Bible and other so-called sacred books said about them. The Italian renaissance (led by folks like Nicollo Machiavelli and his book The Prince) and the French enlightenment (led by people like Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Pascal and others) set the tone of European rational discourse. In Britain men like Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith, Hume, Berkeley and John Stuart Mill began approaching phenomena from pure reason rather than religion.
Soon, the physical sciences came into being. By science is meant observing how the physical world worked rather than merely speculating about it as rational philosophy did. Copernicus, Galileo (Galileo is generally seen as laying the ground work for the scientific method, that is seeking only verifiable hypotheses about phenomena), Newton, Kepler, Tyco Brahe and others did a lot to set up the parameters for the study of the physical sciences.
In 1803 Robert Dalton resurrected the Greek notion that elements have basic units that are not divisible to smaller units, the atom. In the mid nineteenth century Michael Faraday discovered electricity. Later in the century James Clerk Maxwell unified electricity and magnetism through his famous equations. In 1897 J. J. Thomson discovered the existence of electrons. In 1900 Max Planck discovered that light is made of quanta, particles. In 1905 Albert Einstein in his paper on the photoelectric effect of light corroborated Planck’s thesis (he called particles of light photons).
In 1911 Ernest Rutherford experimentally demonstrated that the atom is not the smallest unit of matter, that the atom itself has an inner core, a unit he called the nucleus. In 1913 Neils Bohr showed that electrons circled the nucleus of atoms.
In the 1920s Broglie, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Pauli and Dirac contributed to the emerging understanding of the nature of atoms, aka quantum physics. In 1932 James Chadwick showed that the nucleus of atoms is not the smallest unit of matter for it is composed of protons (as Rutherford had said) and neutrons (neutrons do not have electric charge; protons have positive electric charge; electrons have negative electric charge; the two opposite charges makes the atom electrically neutral; neutrons can give off electrons and convert themselves into protons and vice versa).
In the mid-1930s physicists led by Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassman, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch discovered that if the nucleus of an atom ( in this case, uranium atom) is bombarded with neutrons that it could be split (fission) and release tremendous radiation (energy). This proves Einstein’s thesis that mass and energy are convertible to each other; in nuclear bomb mass is converted to energy…neutrons are used to split the nucleus of the uranium atom and a chain reaction is initiated as other nuclei are split and the result is the release of tremendous energy…and it does havoc where it is unleashed. Less than one percent of one pound of uranium was used in the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima!
During the Second World War Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer headed the famous Manhattan Project that split the nucleus of the uranium atom and in the process developed the first nuclear weapon, a weapon that was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan to end the War.
By the 1950s and 1960s it became clear that the nucleus, that is, protons and neutrons, is composed of even smaller particles called quarks. Different types of quacks were discovered and Murray Gell-Mann systemized the understanding of the various quarks found in the nucleus of atoms.
Now, let us return to the scientific story of creation. Within the same second of creation space and time came into being and the universe expanded exponentially. Allan Guth called this period Inflationary period. Space expanded at a rate faster than the speed of light (186, 000 miles a second, a speed Albert Einstein had said is the limit of velocity in the universe).
Inflation, apparently, made it possible for the universe to exist; if the expansion was slower, apparently, matter (protons, neutrons and electrons) that had come into being from the Big bang would have re-collapsed into itself and averted the existence of the universe as we know it.
As physicists see it, the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and anti-matter (such as positrons, anti-quarks, anti-protons, anti-neutrons, anti-neutrinos etc.) and both should have annihilated themselves thus ending the existence of the universe. Apparently, for every billion particles of anti-matter produced there were one billion and one particles of matter. This excess of matter apparently made it possible for anti-matter not to have annihilated matter and thus made it possible for the universe of matter we live in to exist.
(Why did matter exceed anti-matter when physics predicts the existence of equal amounts of matter and anti-matter hence their mutual annihilation and aborting of the emergent universe, and return of things to radiation. This accidental happening is part of what some call anthropic universe, the idea that it seems that events conspired to make the universe to exist and to make it possible for human beings to exist, as if the Big Bang, right from the beginning, had the intention for human beings to be evolved and exist.)
The expanding universe apparently cooled off somewhat. Apparently, the cooling of the nascent universe, from infinite heat to something lower, led protons and neutrons to combine into nuclei (of light elements, such as hydrogen and helium). By the first minute of its existence the universe was composed of ionized nuclei and electrons, that is, free floating nuclei of the simplest elements (hydrogen and helium) and electrons.
For 400,000 years the universe was composed of nuclei, electrons and radiation (plasma). Apparently, the universe cooled off some more and that led to electrons circling the nuclei around them and thus forming hydrogen and helium elements. For millions of years thereafter the universe was composed of gaseous hydrogen and helium. Apparently, the (hydrogen/helium) gas was uniformly distributed everywhere in the nascent universe. However, somehow space appeared in the cloud of gas, and clumps of gas separated into groups. The resulting clumps eventually became the galaxies.
Apparently, 100 or more million years after the origin of the universe galaxies formed. In effect, clumps of hydrogen and helium gasses compressed themselves and gravity pulled them into themselves thus forming what eventually became stars.
As hydrogen gas compressed into itself, the gas became very hot and in its core ignited and a star is born. The nuclei of hydrogen fused (fusion) to form isotopes of hydrogen (in an isotope the same element has different configuration of neutrons in its nucleus while the number of protons and electrons remain the same; in deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, there is one proton and one neutron, whereas in ordinary hydrogen there is no neutron) and eventually to form helium.
The fusion of hydrogen into helium generates radiation (heat and light), radiation that gradually works its way from the core of stars to their surface and escapes as the light we see.
Eventually billions of galaxies and more billions of stars were formed. Nobody actually knows how many galaxies and stars there are but some say, at least, two hundred billion galaxies and trillions of stars.
Many of the original stars were massive in size. These massive stars did not live long; perhaps they lived only millions of years before they used up most of the hydrogen in them to form helium. When hydrogen is almost exhausted a star begins to fuse helium to elements with heavier nuclei. Helium combines to form carbon and other heavier elements (hydrogen has one proton in its nucleus and one electron circling it, helium has two protons and two neutrons in its nucleus and two electrons circling around it; Carbon has six protons and six neutrons in its nucleus and six electrons, oxygen has eight protons, eight neutrons and eight electrons…these elements have isotopes).
Eventually the fusion process reaches iron; apparently the normal heat inside stars is unable to fuse heavier elements beyond iron. When a star begins to fuse iron into heavier elements and since iron nuclei is not easily fused to heavier elements (due to reduced heat in the star) the star expands in size and eventually explodes in what is called a supernova. The excessive heat generated during the explosion apparently leads to the formation of heavier than iron elements, such as gold, diamond and uranium. These heavier elements are spilled into space.
The elements, gas and dust released by exploding massive stars form a cloud (nebulae) in which clumps form the basis of new stars and planets. Our star, the sun, and its nine planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune, Uranus and Pluto and their satellites) were formed from debris from exploded stars. The sun and its planets are said to have come into being about four and half billion years ago and will last another five billion years. In our star, as in other stars, nucleosynthesis, the fusing of hydrogen into helium, takes place and thus produces the light and heat that reaches us within nine minutes after they left the sun travelling at the speed of light.
Medium stars like our sun generally last longer than massive stars and apparently do not die in a supernova. The sun will not die in a supernova but will gradually burn most of its hydrogen, expand to incorporate its two nearest planets and eventually blow off its outer cloud of gas and what is left would collapse into itself to form a white dwarf star. The white dwarf would shine in a limited manner for a while and thereafter become a dark dwarf where no radiation comes out of it. At that point the sun is dead.
Before the sun dies its planets would have long died. When the sun begins to use up its hydrogen and expands it would be very hot. That increased heat would dry up water and other liquids on planet earth. In about a billion years this process would begin and life would become impossible on planet earth. Give or take, in two billion years our earth would be too hot to sustain biological life as we know it and it, too, would eventually die.
The earth and the other solar planets came into being when dust and gas from exploded stars began to congregate and eventually gravity pulled more dust and gas to them. The various pieces of matter in space formed planetismals and those eventually attracted more matter (asteroids, comets and other debris from exploded stars). Eventually the nine planets around our sun formed. Some of these planets are rocky and others are gaseous (such as Jupiter…thought to be a star that failed to ignite).
Asteroids and comets continue to orbit in our solar system (at the asteroid zone and comet zone; Kuiper and Oort belts).
The formation of our planet is as follows. Star dust and gas accreted and eventually heavier elements were pushed into the core of the planet. In the core of our planet is nickel and iron. The inner core is composed of solid iron and nickel that is not melted, apparently, due to the intense pressure they are under. The outer core is composed of melted iron and nickel. Right after the outer core is the mantle which is composed of viscous rocks and other elements such as uranium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, silicon etc. At the top is the crust which is mostly composed of silicon, oxygen, nitrogen and other elements.
There are ninety two naturally occurring elements (science has generated many other elements in the laboratory; these live briefly and die). Above our planet is its atmosphere composed of gasses, especially nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen etc. The atmosphere itself is made of several layers and eventually touching cold space.
Clearly, water makes biological life possible on earth. How water came into being is an intriguing story. Some say that comets brought water to planet earth. The young earth was struck by all sorts of meteors from space. Some of the comets bear frozen water and dust and apparently as they fell on earth their water was melted by the very hot early earth. Eventually water accumulated; that water was initially very hot but eventually cooled and cooled the hot earth’s surface.
Water mixed with gases coming from the hot earth and the gases escaped to form the earth’s atmosphere. Eventually carbon dioxide accumulated in the earth’s atmosphere. In time in the waters the basis of biological life began to form. Apparently, the various elements combined into molecules and compounds. The result was amino acids, carbohydrates, fats and minerals that eventually combined to form biological life forms.
Initially, single celled organisms were formed and those single celled organisms respiration poured out carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Plants use carbon dioxide, water and light from stars and through photosynthesis form carbohydrates. Plants exhale oxygen into the air and animals inhale oxygen and use it to do work in their bodies and exhale the carbon-dioxide that plants inhale to do work in their bodies. Thus, animals and plants live a symbiotic existence where each is necessary for the existence of the other.
Moving along, planet earth evolved plants and animals, initially single celled ones and eventually those combined to form multi cellular organisms. Evolution is underway! As changes occur in the environment, Charles Darwin told us, animals and plants adapt to them by making mutations (changes) in their bodies. Organisms that are able to mutate and adapt survive whereas those that are unable to do so die out. Herbert Spencer told us that biological life is characterized by struggle for the survival of the fittest; that those more able to do what their world takes to survive in it survive and those unable to do so die out. According to the theory of evolution, in the social world the more able survive more fittingly while others die out or barely survive on the margins of society and it is nobody’s fault. If you need to blame something for the plight of the weak and or poor then blame it on the environment. This is a grim picture of the world, a world with predatory animals feeding on the bodies of weaker animals. And the stronger animals, such as lions and tigers, eventually dying and get eaten by humble bacteria and worms. (How strong are the survivors if weaker worms eat their bodies?)
For our present purpose, our planet evolved biological life forms. Apparently, it is the only planet in our solar system that has biological life as we know it; speculation is rife that underneath the suspected frozen water on Mars may be biological life forms. The fact, however, is that so far our planet is the only one known to have biological life forms. It is speculated that since our planet and its sun is in the outer fringe of our spiral galaxy, Milky Way, where it is not very hot that this made it a habitable zone, the so-called goldilocks zone where life could evolve. It is speculated that there must be billions of similar galaxies (there are other types of galaxies, such as elliptical, irregular and lenticular galaxies) and stars and their planets (that are not too close to their stars to be over-heated and dry up, such as Venus) or too far from them to be frozen up (such as Pluto), where biological life forms arose. So far thousands of such stars and their planets have been identified and speculation has it that some of them may have biological life forms.
Attempts are made to contact other biological life forms. SETI has been scanning the sky trying to hear sounds from other intelligent life forms. NASA has sent many objects into space with messages indicating that if there are intelligent and advanced life forms that they should contact us and how they could do so are indicated. So far there are no takers; we still appear to be the only life forms in the universe.
Astrophysicists now speculate that perhaps there are other universes were life forms exist. Some say that there are zillions of universes (multiverses or parallel universes) and that in many of those are life forms. Indeed, some speculate that we may have our alter selves in the other universes (each universe occupying the same space we are occupying but vibrating at different dimensions so that we do not see it). In that light the person writing this material has many versions of him in other universes and whatever he can conceptualize is happening in some other universe. Whether there are other universes or not we do not know. Science fiction is not science so we shall not dwell on the subject of multiple universes.
In the meantime astrophysicists have replaced Christian religion’s doom Sayers telling us how the universe would end. Reading Revelation and Daniel and their eschatology in the Christian bible is child’s play compared to the doom and gloom articulated by some astrophysicists regarding how the universe would end? One has it that our rapidly expanding universe (due to dark energy…that supposedly constitutes seventy percent of the energy in the universe and is responsible for the rapid expansion of the universe) would at some point have galaxies widely separated from each other. The space between Galaxies would become enormous. As a result stars would lose heat and begin to die, assuming that they have not already died in supernovas. Stars would die (some first turning into black holes or neutron stars or quasars or pulsars).
As stars exhaust their energy and explode only neutrons, protons and electrons and photons would exist in the universe. Neutrons would decay to neutrinos and die. Electrons would decay to photons and die. Eventually only protons would remain. They, too, would eventually decay and die. Thus, in trillions of years to come the universe would be composed of nothing and would be a cold place (cold presupposes its opposite, hot; now, if heat is lost how could cold exist in the expanding universe; moreover, if there are no energy and matter in the universe what would be making it expand? This is just a question for astrophysicists to ponder).
Other conjectures on how the universe would die say that as the universe expands that it would get to a point where it would reverse itself and begin to contract. It is said that it would collapse unto itself and form another Singularity and die in a big crunch (having begun in a Big Bang).
Some speculate that as all matter and energy in the universe contract that another big bang would occur…this is called rebound; and another universe would begin. Other theorists entertain us with other notions, such as the view that our universe is an offshoot of other universes. It is said that universes give birth to other universe. M (membrane) theory and even Strings theory have interesting conjectures regarding the origin of many universes from preexisting ones, new ones; like branches on a tree, branching out.
Indeed, some say that universes may exist inside black holes (the other side of black holes are called white holes). All these are interesting speculations and are worth reading by anyone interested in the origin and death of everything.
Let us return to our biological selves a bit. Evolutionary biologists show us how we evolved from single celled creatures to multi-celled organisms. They trace the evolution of animals through the various stages they apparently went through. Ultimately, they show us how animals became bipedal and evolved into the great apes and eventually to Neanderthals and human beings.
About two million years ago, human beings began to evolve their unique brains. Somehow about fifty thousand years ago they began to think as we know ourselves to think. They became animals that are self-conscious and can contemplate themselves and their world. We are animals that think about the universe we live in.
Evolutionary biology tells us that we are the product of evolution, that chance, randomness and accidents produced us. We are produced by matter permuting itself. Our ability to think is strictly a product of the configuration of atoms in our brains. The neurons in our brains made possible our thinking. If the neurons and their biochemical structures were different we would not be able to think or observe the universe. Richard Dawkins has written several books showing us how we are simply the product of evolution and matter and no more than that.
Western scientists, since Copernicus, Galileo and Newton have been on a quest to show that man and his place of abode, the earth, is not the center of the solar system, not the center of the Milky Way Galaxy and certainly not the center of the universe; these folks are bent on showing that human beings are not special. People are no more than bacteria, trees and rocks.