Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

What is

On Darwin's birthday, I presume everyone will be talking about evolution. So I will talk about cosmology.

A few years back, Sky and Telescope magazine ran a contest to come up with a better name for the Big Bang. I didn't bother to send in my entry because I thought it was so obvious they'd get it from a million people. Evidently they did not -- they declared no winner, and we're stuck with the Big Bang. But there was no bang, nor was it big. The beginning was infinitely small. It was the Initial Singularity, the IS. What name could be better than that? The IS Theory.

Cosmologists deduce the IS by running the expansion of the universe backward. Actually an infinitely small, hot and dense initial state, as such, can't be proved, but a state so dense that the structure of space-time break down is an impenetrable barrier to our understanding of what may have existed (if that is the word for it) before the beginning. When cosmologists talk about the universe, they mean everything that can be observed, because that is the subject matter of science. "Observable" doesn't mean we can see it or hear it directly, of course, but that we can demonstrate that it must be based on what we can apprehend with our senses, through the application of reason.

This universe evolved by expanding from the IS, cooling and attenuating in the process. By creating conditions in particle accelerators similar to those that must have existed in earlier epochs, physicists have been able to deduce a great deal about how the universe must have changed through time. Early on, elementary particles condensed from the intense energy. Gravity, building on random fluctuations in density, gathered matter into galaxies, and within the galaxies, into stars. The first generation of stars consisted only of hydrogen, but heavier elements syntehsized in the stars through nuclear fusion. When stars of the first generation exploded in novae, they spewed these heavier elements into interstellar space, to be incorporated into the gas clouds that gave rise to later generations of stars, and condense into planets. Now here we are.

This universe is not infinite, in time or space, but it is so much older and so much larger than the biblical cosmos that the difference in scale is incomprehensible. The scientific cosmos is troubling to the human spirit. People call it "pointless," and "meaningless." What they mean by that, I think, is that they want people to be important in the scheme of things, and that is precisely what religious myths provide. God is preoccupied with humans. God insists on being worshipped, God intervenes to order human affairs, God wishes to have communion with people. Religious cosmology puts humans at the center. It's arrogance and self-importance is satisfying to people.

Well too bad. In the universe -- just the observable one, never mind what might lie beyond -- we are as close to nothing as we can imagine. There are more than 100 billion stars in our own galaxy, and something like 100 million galaxies in the observable universe. The IS happened more than 13 billion years ago, the earth formed 4 1/2 billion years ago, and we've been here, in more or less our present form, for maybe 250,000 years. All of this is proved beyond any doubt. Look through the telescope. But to most people, it just doesn't feel good, and on that basis, they refuse to believe it.

So how can we feel better? The answer is humanism. We aren't the center of the universe, we aren't the crown of creation, we are nothing -- except to ourselves. Let us set out, in this vast darkness, to become what we can be.

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