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“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”Carl Sagan
Embarking on an adventure to unravel the origins of our universe, we must first pause at the Big Bang theory. This scientific explanation stands as one of the most widely accepted accounts of how our universe came to be. In this blog post, we embark on an exploration of this theory, weaving together perspectives from astrophysics and religion.
Approximately 13.8 billion years ago, the universe sprang into existence through a cataclysmic event known as the Big Bang. At that time, our observable universe and all the elements that make up matter and antimatter were compressed into a fraction of a millimeter, smaller than the size of a pinhead. From this tiny cosmic speck, our entire universe evolved, or more accurately, exploded into being!
To put the immense timescale into perspective, 13.8 billion years is equivalent to 191,666,666.67 human lifetimes, assuming each person lives to be 72 years old
Our current understanding of physics, including general relativity and quantum mechanics, allows us to extrapolate back only until the so-called Planck time, which occurred about 10–43 seconds after the Big Bang. Prior to this moment, there is no observable evidence suggesting the existence of time before the Big Bang!
Before the Planck time, our understanding falters, the veils of cosmic knowledge yet to be lifted. It remains a profound mystery, a realm beyond the grasp of our current understanding.
Despite our lack of understanding about what transpired before the Big Bang, brilliant minds have managed to reconstruct the events that followed. Within 30 minutes of the Big Bang, the story of life on Earth began to unfold, even though our planet wouldn’t exist for another 9 billion years. Particles combined to form protons and neutrons, while electrons joined with protons to form hydrogen atoms. As the universe continued to cool, conditions became favorable for nuclear fusion. Protons and neutrons fused, giving rise to light elements like helium, lithium, and hydrogen. Over millions of years, the first stars and galaxies formed through the gravitational collapse of matter. Now, approximately 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, we find ourselves in the current epoch of the universe’s history. Galaxies, stars, planets, and life have emerged as the culmination of billions of years of cosmic evolution.
Astonishingly, all this seems to have been orchestrated by four constantly evolving fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetic force, strong nuclear force, and weak nuclear force. These forces, observable and mathematically predictable, appear to have gradually evolved exactly as required to allow the existence of life on our planet! Even a minuscule change in the strengths of these four fundamental forces would have profound implications for the existence and sustainability of life as we know it:
- Gravity: Gravity plays a fundamental role in the formation and stability of celestial bodies such as planets, stars, and galaxies. If gravity were slightly stronger, stars would burn out quickly, making stable planetary systems less likely. Conversely, if gravity were weaker, celestial bodies would struggle to form and maintain stable orbits, resulting in an unsuitable environment for life.
- Electromagnetic Force: The electromagnetic force is crucial for many biological processes. It governs the interactions between charged particles, enabling essential chemical reactions in our bodies. If the electromagnetic force were different, chemical reactions necessary for life, such as DNA replication or protein folding, would not occur. The molecular processes required for the existence of complex organisms would simply not exist.
- Strong Nuclear Force: The strong nuclear force ensures the stability of atomic nuclei. It holds protons and neutrons together, enabling the formation of atoms. Elements vital for life, such as carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen, might not have formed in sufficient quantities. Without these elements, the chemical basis for life as we know it would not exist.
- Weak Nuclear Force: The weak nuclear force, or weak interaction, is involved in processes such as radioactive decay and specific particle interactions. A slight difference in this force would lead to less stable and long-lasting elements. As a result, the formation of complex molecules and the maintenance of stable environments necessary for life would not be possible.
Collective human intelligence has done an incredible job in theorizing how the universe and its particles operate, to the point of predicting the behaviour of cosmic objects beyond our realm of observation. The laws of physics seem to be universal and applicable to all cosmic objects above a certain size. While these laws can precisely describe the workings of the universe, they do not provide answers to the profound “why” questions.
We began at that infinitesimal point of explosion. Over billions of years, the universe expanded and cooled, and the fundamental forces gradually emerged. Gravity, in particular, became the dominant force, causing matter to clump together and form stars, galaxies, and planets. And on one planet, Earth, conditions were just right for life to emerge. But why? What makes Earth (and other planets that may support life) so special? The vast scale of the universe is mind-boggling. Estimates suggest billions of galaxies exist in the observable universe, each containing billions of stars. Yet, we seem to be the only known planet supporting life. Even if other life exists, we haven’t heard from them yet! Why is that? What sets Earth apart? The fundamental forces of nature are incredibly mysterious. We don’t fully understand why they possess their specific properties or why they interact in the way they do. However, we do know that they are essential for life. Without gravity, planets would not form. Without electromagnetism, the molecules crucial for life would be unable to interact. And without the weak and strong nuclear forces, atomic nuclei would lack stability.
The Anthropic principle and fine tuning
Picture this: our universe appears to be custom-made for life, with its intricate fundamental constants and precisely balanced conditions. Even the slightest adjustments to these values would have rendered carbon based life impossible. This remarkable observation has prompted some to argue that the universe must have been meticulously fine-tuned to accommodate the existence of life. It’s as if the universe followed a blueprint, ensuring every ingredient was just right for life to thrive. This life centric version of the purpose of the universe is termed the Anthropic principle and many seem to believe this to be the proof of “god”.
That’s where religion comes in,
Hinduism: Before the Planck time, Brahman, the supreme cosmic force, existed in a state of pure potential. From this state, the universe emerged, guided by Brahman in a cycle of creation, preservation, and dissolution. Within this cosmic dance, everything finds its origins and purpose.
Christianity: “By faith, we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” The purpose of life is to have a personal relationship with God, follow His teachings, and attain salvation and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.
Islam: “Allah is the Creator of all things, and He is, over all things, Disposer of affairs.” The purpose of life in Islam is to worship and submit to the will of Allah, striving to live a righteous life and fulfill the teachings of the Quran.
Buddhism: The purpose of life in Buddhism is to attain enlightenment (nirvana) and end the cycle of suffering. This is achieved through following the Noble eightfold Path and cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and selflessness.
Judaism: The purpose in Judaism is to live a righteous life, build a covenantal relationship with God, contribute to the world, and participate in the coming of the Messianic age. Jews fulfill their purpose through observing commandments (mitzvot), practicing acts of kindness, and pursuing justice.
Though there is no evidence pointing to the presence or absence of an intelligent creator/overseer approximately 80-85% of the human population believes in the concept of god.
The multiverse is a concept that suggests there are many parallel universes, each with its own unique rules and possibilities.
Let’s flip a coin.
While our universe has heads or tails as the outcome, the multiverse may contain parallel universes where infinite different outcomes happen simultaneously. In one universe, the coin lands on heads, while in another, it lands on tails. There may be a universe that exists where the coin explodes when you toss it ! There may even be a universe where the coin would just fly away !
Now when we try to apply the concept of infinite different outcomes to the big bang it can be understood that different outcomes could have occurred since and before Planck time. Some versions of the universe may have experienced slower expansion, resulting in denser and colder conditions. In contrast, others may have undergone rapid expansion, leading to less density and hotter environments. All these parallel versions of the universe would possess distinct physical laws, compositions, and even varying forms of matter, energy and possibly life.
In certain parallel universes, the conditions may have been conducive to the formation and evolution of galaxies, allowing life to thrive. However, in other universes, the circumstances could have been unsuitable for galaxy formation or the emergence of life. Each universe exists independently, with its unique timeline and possibilities branching off from the moment of the Big Bang. And we exist is one of those infinite possibilities where life seems to have evolved by chance.
Think about it !
Some may argue that the universe and life are the result of random chance, a product of natural processes without any inherent purpose. Others may believe that there is a grand design or plan behind the existence of the universe and life, whether through a divine force or a cosmic order.
Personally, I know I don’t possess the answer to these profound questions, and it is perhaps beyond current human capacity to know with certainty. Regardless of the origins and purpose of the universe, we can appreciate the rarity, preciousness, and fragility of life in this vast and mysterious place. The fact that we exist and have the opportunity to contemplate such questions is itself a remarkable .
As for why the universe and life evolved the way they did, it seem to be a complex and multifaceted topic that encompasses the laws of physics, the conditions of the early universe, the emergence of fundamental forces, the formation of galaxies and stars, and the intricate processes of biological evolution. Scientists continue to investigate and explore these phenomena, seeking to unravel the mysteries of our existence.
Exercise one – Origins
- Find a quiet and comfortable space where you won’t be disturbed, set a timer on your phone/watch for 5 minutes.
- Close your eyes and take a 5 gentle breaths.
- Visualize yourself floating in a dark and vast space.
- Start thinking about how the universe came to be. Ask yourself questions like: How did it all start? What was there before the universe? What did the big bang look like ? Is there a god ? Who made the universe ?
- Instead of looking for definite answers, just pay attention to your thoughts and feelings as they come up.
- If your mind wanders to other places, gently bring your focus back to the idea of the universe’s origins.
- Embrace the sense of wonder and awe that comes with thinking about these big questions.
- After 5 minutes, shift your attention back to your breath and your body.
- Take a few gentle breaths and gradually open your eyes.
- Take a moment to reflect on your experience and any new insights you gained, write them down.
Remember, the goal is to explore and expand your understanding of the universe, not to find firm answers. Enjoy the process and be open to any new perspectives that arise.