January Giveaway: We are All Stardust

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    Write about how you are inspired by our current understanding of the life cycle of stars leading to the formation of solar systems, planets, and in our case life.

    Formation and evolution of the Solar System – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Stellar evolution

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    Matthew Lee Knowles

    Thoughts on physics, cosmology, evolution, mathematics and the beginning and end of the universe, by Matthew Lee Knowles

    On Valentine’s Day 1990, at Carl Sagan’s suggestion, Voyager I took a picture of Earth from four billion miles away, registering at twelve hundredths of a pixel. Six years later, shortly before his death he made a poignant speech about the ‘pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known’, this ‘mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam’. It pains me to see Korans and bibles in plethoric overabundance when Sagan’s three-hundred and sixty words would suffice. Here is an extract: “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. […] How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.” I urge you to look up this text, but not just yet.

    There will be a time when we don’t exist, at all. When there is a zero percent biological connection between us and the future. There will be a time when even the atoms that have constituted our several bodies over a lifetime are indescribably separated, when they fall apart. For many years now I have deeply considered nothingness and I have enjoyed the paradoxical condition of finding meaning in things meaningless and I confidently believe there is no supreme sense in or for life, which isn’t as glum as it sounds. Richard Powers has stated, “for every way there is of being here, there are an infinity of ways of not being here”, who was no doubt reiterating the brilliant Richard Dawkins who wrote in ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, when I was in my first year of life: “the essence of life is statistical improbability on a colossal scale.” We are stowaways on a universal, possibly multiversal ship and it is easy to philosophise and stir drolly or with solemnity on how to live and what to live for, usually making one feel guilty that they are wasting an only chance, but I think E. M. Forster got closest when he wrote that, “life is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.” In ‘Apocalypse’ D. H. Lawrence wrote, “We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh and part of the living incarnate cosmos.” The second word there, ‘ought’, is awfully telling. Equal arguments can be made for any view you wish to take, be it that of Camus who said that life is absurd or Gustave “what an awful thing life is” Flaubert, or simply the words of Robert Frost – “it goes on.” There are things that can give meaning to life, for some this is others, for others it is themselves, and for others still it is the misery of others which gives them energy – for me it is science. What pursuit could bear more fruit, but the study and search for truth around us? “The biological task of science”, wrote Ernst Mach “is to provide the fully developed human individual with as perfect a means of orientating himself as possible. No other scientific ideal can be realised, and any other must be meaningless.” Personally, it fascinates and stirs me to awe and creativity, disembodiment and speechlessness, the latter of which I will, with your acquiescence, forget for the next few minutes.

    Everything that makes up you, your family and friends, the planets, stars and galaxies, and all the rest of recognisable matter only accounts for 4.9 percent of the cosmos and 99.9 percent of this is in stars in the state of plasma (a fundamental state of matter, the others being gas, liquid and solid) – if all this disappeared, space would be largely the same and any cosmic bookkeepers would lose little sleep over it. We know little of the remaining ninety-five percent, the dark matter and dark energy, which Martin Rees sees as nothing short of embarrassing, (though there are many good guesses, Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or WIMPs for short, seem to be the best contender), but Carl Sagan set the law when he remarked: “Nothing is the rule, something is the exception”, although, he also said: “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” It is my opinion that the dark energy/matter conundrum will be solved before I am thirty-five years old. As Dave Goldberg and Jeff Blomquist have written, “like it or not, dark matter is running out of places to hide!” The most frustrating thing is that it is, right now, pervading the air between my eyes and the computer screen in front of me as I am writing, in fact, it’s everywhere – you’re touching it right now. Head out into space in any direction and you could go straight for billions of years without touching anything. Things are not what they seem. The Earth moves around the Sun, the solar system moves around the Milky Way galaxy, the galaxy in turn moves within the local group of galaxies. Thinking of our galaxy being static is wrong, it moves with a velocity of one-hundred and eighty-five miles per second. So, you might think that once a year in your house, you are in exactly the same place – wrong, you will never be in the same place twice, unless of course, you live for several hundred million years. You are not sitting on that chair, you are hovering a ten-millionth of a centimetre above it, due to the repelling exchanges between the electrons in both your body and the chair. By now, it is common knowledge regarding the absurdities of atoms, their size, wave/particle dualities and their mostly empty space (0.9999999999999% to be precise!), but I do not think the time is far off when we are no longer shocked by it, although, if I’m honest, my head hurts when I contemplate that from a photon’s point of view there is no such thing as time. The truth of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which states that we cannot simultaneously know the location and velocity of a particle with equally high accuracy will become as accepted a fact as Pythagoras’ theorem in Euclidian geometry. If you are yet to be even shocked, read about the famous Double Slit experiment, or quantum entanglement – both sincerely surprising and staggering in the facts they purport; that single electrons can exist in multiple places at the same time (indeed every position in the Universe at the same time) and that the act of observation fundamentally changes the outcome of an experiment, and that entangled particles can respond to each other at ten thousand times the speed of light – a phenomenon Einstein referred to as ‘spooky’. There is no contradiction here; information cannot be exchanged faster than light speed, but for anything else, there is theoretically no limit. Physics shows us that there is no such thing as perfect emptiness – hold your palm close to your face – in your hand, virtual particles in pairs of electrons and positrons (or any other possible pair) are being created through vacuum fluctuations and annihilated quicker than you can say ‘Paul Dirac’, a lot quicker – they are gone within twenty-one orders of magnitude below a second. It gets better. If this happens at the event horizon of a black hole, the electron can fall into the black hole whilst the positron is released from its marriage without obligation. This subject alone is dense and knotty and covers much ground: quantum mechanics and general relativity unification (i.e. quantum gravity), Hawking radiation, black hole decay, quantum uncertainty, entropy, the no hair theorem, the Information Paradox, entanglement, black hole thermodynamics, the Holographic Principle, String Theory, Planck scales, singularities and has occupied some of the best minds, Hawking, Penrose, Bekenstein, Susskind and Thorne. Interestingly, if you were to find yourself in a situation where you were watching someone fall into a black hole, you’d never see them reach the centre as it would take an infinite amount of time for them to do so! If that doesn’t cause you some distress, consider that, hovering at a sufficient closeness to the black hole, you would be able to watch the entire future of the Universe flash by your eyes like a movie in fast forward!

    On this mundane ball of rock, orbiting an average star as its inconsequential satellite, a leftover from the initial formation, positioned in a gravitationally bound collection of billions of other stars, planets, moons, gas clouds and trillions of asteroids, being transported on the fabric of spacetime, accelerating to infinity, along with hundreds of billions of staggeringly large galaxies that we know of, are a self-aware species dwarfed by bacteria and insects, in quantity now and history then, among an order of life where most species that have ever existed no longer do so. One-in-a-trillion random mutations, cosmological and ecological happenstances, a by-product of the Sun called visible light (of which only one part in two billion we actually greet), feeding photosynthesis with its initially toxic by-product of oxygen which once wiped out most life on Earth, the globe’s magnetic field and Jupiter’s protective gargantuan size, both deflective in our favour, our atmosphere keeping us warm and protecting us from harmful ultraviolet light, burning up small objects and allowing for long term evolution. Billions of years of trial and error, numerous fortuitous blind happenings ranging from the atomic to the bacterial to the colossal – run planet Earth a billion more times and you won’t get Homo sapiens, search every planet in the universe, you won’t find another human being. The feeble strength of gravity on small scales (forty-two orders of magnitude weaker than the other three forces) and the tuning of the nuclear constants, so galaxies could form and stars don’t collectively burn their supplies too fast, electrons don’t spiral into their nucleons and vaporize matter instantly, the apparent ultra-longevity of subatomic particles, the production of only slightly more matter than antimatter at the birth of the universe, abiogenesis in the Eoarchean Era (or, as there is increasing evidence for it – Panspermia), the arrival of a self-replicating molecule and symbiotic relationships between free-living bacteria, the abundant initial collisions of icy impacts delivering liquid water to create the oceans many times over and the mass extinctions that allowed for future life forms to have their turn and supernovae disseminating newly forged elements outwards into space, spreading their ‘genetic material’, ready for a new generation of stars. This is a tiny taster of our ‘statistical improbability’.

    The vast distances in space make for limited communication – if we were to travel to the Andromeda galaxy on current technology, it would take more than twice the age of the Universe to get there. Even if we could travel at ‘Warp 7’, six-hundred and fifty-six times the speed of light (and I categorically assure you that we cannot), it would still take us one-hundred and fifty-two years to just get across our own galaxy! It seems quite likely though that deep space exploration will never be worth it, but let’s entertain the idea regardless. The Voyager I spacecraft I opened this talk with has very likely just left our solar system, one-hundred and twenty-three times the distance from the Sun to the Earth – to send it an instruction and to receive a reply takes thirty hours. When its plutonium runs out, in a decade or so, the instruments will fail, but it will keep going and perhaps outlive the human race. Travelling faster creates more problems than it solves – just 0.01% the speed of light, (the velocity of the Earth around the Sun, thirty-thousand metres per second), is already a formidable figure and every increase requires more energy. The human body will almost certainly not survive appreciable fractions of light speed, of which the time dilation effects are well known, utterly absorbing, but for our bodies, mostly theoretical, which is a shame, as the visual aberration, Lorentz Contraction and extreme Doppler Effect would be a beautiful new understanding. In fact we experience mild dilation effects all the time, going on an aeroplane, spending time at the top of a tall building, but the measured effects extend way into the zeros on the right hand side after the decimal point. (Our bodies warp the space around us, but again, the differences are far too miniscule for us to notice.) A wonderful conclusion of this is that your nose literally ages faster than your toes! The acceleration towards light speed, if not done very gradually, would kill and just as much fuel and time for the acceleration would be required for the decelerating as well, each of which could take hundreds of thousands of years. Dave and Jeff, whom I quoted earlier talking about dark matter, computed the following calculation, so I didn’t have to. Imagine standing on the ground and looking up at a plane travelling at six-hundred miles per hour. Looking at the pilot’s watch, you’d notice that it was moving slower than yours by one part in ten trillion, which means, if she travelled continuously like this for her whole life, she wouldn’t even manage to escape from a solitary second of aging! Even if you were standing a single ten-centimetre step higher than your friend, after three-billion years (or ninety-five quadrillion seconds), you would be one second older. Taking this further, it would be possible to go to Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light years away, accelerating and hitting a maximum velocity at the midway point of ninety-four percent the speed of light. From an observer’s point of view this would take 5.6 years, but measured from the point of view of someone on board, it would only take 3.6 years, which is less than the distance we started with! Fear not, I haven’t gone nutty – this is due to the distortion caused by the extreme speed, which slows down time and shrinks distances – it’s not an illusion, it actually happens and both measurements are equally justifiable. If you were to run very very very quickly you would shrink in the direction of your travel, again this is not an illusion – you would actually shrink! Another option is to travel more slowly and reproduce in transit, passing the generations amongst the stars, but this is risky for several reasons – space radiation and high energy cosmic rays would bombard the body constantly (although a liquid water surrounding in the walls or a large superconducting magnet in the middle of the ship would be simple solutions), there is also the need to transport oxygen to breathe, or cultivate genetically engineered plants on board that will manufacture oxygen organically, or even master cryogenic suspended animation. There is also the need to avoid rare though deadly space dust and debris, but most important, the effects of zero gravity on the earthly gravitationally evolved frame and anatomy could be disastrous – muscle and bone weakening would reduce bodies to frail sights, unless we could evolve to adapt quick enough. On board exercise and rotating the entire craft may be a small contribution to a better health. A long journey would need to either be powered by means of a nuclear reactor (an early idea was to drop atomic bombs out the bottom of a space ship to gain thrust) or antimatter harvesting – carrying conventional fuel would need more fuel and thus defeat the object, as more fuel needs more energy to move it. Creating on Earth the amount of antimatter required for interstellar travel is not currently feasible and will not be so for a long time indicating that the plan would be to harvest it in space. To give you a brief insight, the amount of antimatter ever created in the laboratory can be measured in terms of billionths of a gram and it has been estimated that it would take one-hundred billion years to produce a gram with a price tag of eleven figures. We should keep options open though, and take a lesson from Einstein’s inability to look forwards; in 1932 he thought there was not the “slightest indication that nuclear energy will be obtainable.” A few hundred years from now, no house might be complete unless it has an antimatter creator alongside the coffee machine, although you’d have to be careful not to ingest or touch any of it, lest you and it dramatically annihilate, taking the kitchen with you. These are all engineering problems which will no doubt be trounced in due time, maybe the only real problems will be of a political quality and working out who will pay for it? The effects of long time in space on the mind and a person’s sanity is still being studied and the data amassed, but experiment on Earth cannot paint the picture so clearly. Sending unmanned self-replicating Von Neumann probes to explore the universe and report back on rich habitable new worlds should be the first stage. Travelling at around thirty-million meters per second, it is possible that the entire Milky Way galaxy could be explored within only five-hundred-thousand years. Unfortunately, because of this, there is the possibility that another civilization could permanently destroy any life in our galaxy in the same amount of time – we could be visited and vaporised today. The worst humans on Earth may pale in comparison in terms of potential for vitriol and destruction, to another civilization where the reality of Darwinian Evolution is painfully practised, prolonged and imposed, resulting in a world where one could, if one were so inclined, recognise as Hell.

    Even sending messages outwards at the speed of light is impractical for any meaningful conversation between civilizations – the very first transmissions ever thrown away from the Earth still haven’t left our galaxy and won’t for some time. “Space is big.” Wrote Douglas Adams in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space”. To the question of there being life elsewhere in the universe, bearing in mind what we know about the apparent ease and speed with which simple life can get going, it should be difficult for any person to say we are alone – the elements in and around us are not exclusive. Even unenthusiastic solutions of the Drake equation can produce numbers in double figures, although it should be said that the answers range wildly from N stating that even we shouldn’t really be here, to its hypothesising hundreds of millions of worlds – a problematic ponderousness for some believers. Drake himself crunched the numbers using the Milky Way as a target and calculated that there could be ten civilizations in the same solar system as us. Civilizations could have come and gone already or yet to have even started on an evolutionary course – equivalent solar systems or dust settlements might still be tens or hundreds of billions of years from being created. It is only very recently that we have achieved the ability to send and receive radio communications, so it would be dangerously ethnocentric to assume that any civilization currently out there is at the same place technologically as us – not just unreasonable, but statistically improbable. It was recently suggested that intelligent life might even reside on the side of black holes, meaning they would be forever hidden from us. Perhaps these unquestionably advanced organisms have a way of hearing the sound waves emanating from a supermassive black hole, a million billion times below the limit of our ears, but this might be just more ethnocentrism again, this time of an auditory nature. If the black hole was about five million times the mass of our Sun, its temperature would be about a million trillionth of a Kelvin, so, make sure you wrap up warm. When we search for life we look for telltale signs based on our own understanding, we discern liquid water and carbon compounds within the Goldilocks Zone, because it’s a safe bet – liquid water is a great solvent and carbon is unparalleled at forming bonds. However, there may be life existing as pure energy or information, between dimensions, or in the middle of a vast void between galaxies. Would we even recognise new life as life? Just as we can’t see higher dimensions, maybe it would be impossible to even identify a new form of life when we see it! (It has been said, in response to the question of where all the time travellers from the future are, that they do visit, but are always committed to homes for the insane and bewildered.) Another life form might only be a few hundred atoms thick, many miles across and float through the air, burying itself in dark matter and then passing through twenty-six higher and smaller dimensions in the blink of an eye. There may well be a thousand new technologies to be discovered in our future, each one completely rewriting the science, indistinguishable to magic from the view of any earlier culture. It’s possible that in the future, we look back on quantum theory and laugh at its tested accuracy of only one part in a hundred billion. New knowledge is waiting to abound, beyond the wildest dreams of even the most imaginative string theorists and Nobel laureates, new materials that make graphene and carbon nanotubes look like wafers and Hula-Hoops, recall abilities that make Kim Peek look like George Bush.

    The universe is expanding and accelerating, most galaxies are rushing away from us and those further away are moving faster than the closer ones. However, this is a little misleading, as the galaxies aren’t actually speeding away, but the spacetime fabric around them is, which in turn is not expanding into anything, it is expanding, just like the Big Bang (a name coined on radio by Fred Hoyle as a mischievous slur) wasn’t an explosion into space, but an explosion of space (incidentally not as big a bang as Inflation which, in a hundred billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second amplified the baby universe a hundred trillion trillion trillion trillion times, that’s an increase of one followed by fifty zeros!), which logically implies that the Big Bang happened exactly where I am currently sitting, in Hackney. Or you could say that the Big Bang happened precisely, nowhere at all. The ‘bang’ is misleading, there was no bang, there was no sound at all, as there existed no medium for the sound waves to propagate through – it was an impossibly bright and silent event. Neil Turok has suggested the name ‘Big Bump’, but for more complicated reasons. A quick aside about this spacetime fabric I mentioned; John Wheeler summed up everything you need to know in this sentence: “Matter tells space how to curve and space tells matter how to move.” Remember that sentence and Einsteinian Relativity suddenly becomes obvious. Any life is being moved indefinitely and ultimately infinitely far away, beyond visibility and communication. To quote Lawrence Krauss, (described as the Woody Allen of cosmology by Richard Dawkins), “we live in a special time, the only time, where we can observationally verify that we live in a special time.” In the far distant future, if there are scientists, they will look out and see that they are the only ones and therefore, falsifiable science will give the wrong answer. (I’m assuming pessimistically that we will have been erased from the record by this point.) A fairly recent idea is that of the Big Rip, which would occur when the universe is moving so fast, its very foundation will come apart violently, with dark matter pervading into gravitational matter at the sub-atomic level, perhaps in a hundred billion years or so, although if we are capable, we may be able to stitch it back together with a very large needle and cosmic string, after we have joined ourselves back together of course. Brian Schmidt has said that this would be a very cool way to go…

    The Sun is fusing six-hundred million tons of hydrogen each second, that’s one thirtieth the mass of the Earth every year, and on average it takes about ten-billion years for two hydrogen atoms to meet and fuse with each other, which is inefficient, but made up for by the fact that there is so much of it. Pound for pound, our stomachs are a more resourceful system! Throwing out tiny and speedy neutrinos at a rate of two-hundred trillion trillion trillion a second, these particles take about two seconds to escape from the Sun, whilst photons take twisted and tortuous paths, taking tens or hundreds of thousands of years, sometimes longer, millions or tens of millions of years. We all know that light takes eight minutes to reach us, so when we look at the Sun; we are seeing it as it was eight minutes ago, but in reality, that light is much, much older. These weakly interacting particles, the Neutrinos, are passing through you right now, regardless of where you are or what time it is, like a cross country runner darting through trees. Send a bunch of neutrinos through ten trillion kilometres of lead and only half of them would interact with the lead atoms, the other half would have found no difference to travelling through empty space. If the Sun was 1.4 times more massive (the Chandrasekhar Limit) then it would go supernova, reaching perhaps two-hundred billion Kelvin and briefly outshining the entire galaxy of two-hundred billion stars. Earth will become inhospitably warm whilst our sun is in its final death throes, long before its massive swelling either engulfs the inner planets or knocks us into deep space. Five thousand million years from now, it can be certain that our species will not even exist as a memory. We may recognise whatever hyperthermophilic life as a bizarre fantasy in the dream of a child. If there is intelligent life around then, it would probably move the Earth into another orbit or manipulate the material of spacetime and find another solar system or another universe, maybe hijacking one of the bubbles of the space foam. Perhaps by that stage, there will be intelligent life across the entire universe, but anything on the subject has to be wild speculation, as it is difficult to see a hundred years into the future never mind a further seven orders of magnitude. As well as the possibility that we might, due to orbital fluctuations, collide with Mars or Mercury, the Andromeda galaxy, of a trillion suns and perhaps trillions more planets, is on a direct course with our galaxy, (colliding galaxies might well be the status quo), they will perform a cosmic dance, colliding and coalescing over hundreds of millions of years. In spite of this, because of the vast distances between anything, it could be happening now, we wouldn’t notice. (Likewise, the universe could be contracting and shrinking back to a point right now and we wouldn’t be able to distinguish this – our lives would be running in reverse, but we perceive it as moving forwards!) One vast galaxy will be the result as gravity sculpts and carves and joins them together, creating new star forming regions called stellar nurseries. One thing is certain – it will be beautiful. Just look at the currently interacting Antennae Galaxies in the constellation Corvus.

    It didn’t have to be the way it is. The splendour of endless nebulae, supernovae, super-clusters, neutron stars, pulsars, quasars, binary star systems, stars at all stages, galaxies, satellite galaxies, colliding galaxies, moons, gas planets, rocky planets, dwarf planets, giant planets, asteroids, comets, meteors, molecular clouds, supermassive black holes, colliding black holes. These are the things hydrogen atoms do, given 13.82 billion years, a figure now known to within just thirty-seven million years, thanks to the trillions of observations of slight variations in the Cosmic Microwave Background by the Planck Satellite. Consider that number, well within an acceptable margin of error, 0.3 percent of the total figure. There was a time when rocks on Earth were thought to be older than the Earth itself, when the Earth was believed to be older than the solar system, that there were stars older than the Universe – and recently that neutrinos exceeded the speed limit set by light. Getting it wrong, generating discussion, creating self-doubt can be a healthy start to getting it right. We used to think that the splodges of light we saw in the sky were in our own galaxy, but it turned out they were individual galaxies many light years away. We used to think the Earth was flat and that the Sun orbited it – but thanks to people like Nicolaus Copernicus, Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble we now have a better idea of our place. We only know about all these things thanks to an invisible phenomenon called light, only a thousandth of one percent which is available from the electromagnetic spectrum to our eyes in the form of visible light, due to the evolutionary advantage it afforded us. I just said that light is invisible, we only see what it touches and this leads to a perplexing conclusion, that colour does not exist – our eyes chronicle a narrow band of wavelengths and bestow upon them a visual significance. I do not think the universe will ever cease surprising us – Tom Stoppard’s ‘empty shore’ does not exist, the mysteries will never be all found. “The sole purpose of human existence”, according to Carl Jung, “is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.” There is much to think about in that reflection.

    “It’s hard to imagine”, says Brian Greene, “a more mind-stretching experience than learning, as we have over the last century that the reality we experience is but a glimmer of the reality that is.” If the Holographic principle is correct, then it could be that nothing is real, which is, don’t you think, somewhat queerer than we can suppose? Every decision you make involves a mass of chemical and electrical movement, displacement and exchange at the cellular, molecular and atomic level, perhaps each dividing into individual parallel universes (there are several similar theories here, but let’s keep things simple) – not just conscious thoughts about which herbal tea to drink or which route to take to work, but the things happening which you are not consciously aware of, like the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system controlling heart rate and respiration making thousands of decisions every second for your entire life. However, neat as this sounds, the concept of universe branching may only apply to atomic events and not our dreams, but who knows, in one universe some atoms may come together to form three people gesticulating and throwing dice across a table – myself, yourself and Hugh Everett. So, the wavefunction might not collapse, but proliferate wildly. Think what that means – some billion billion billion atoms in your body are each changing direction one hundred billion times a second and when multiplied to accommodate for the ninety billion humans that have ever lived, in fact, for any living organism that has ever lived, or indeed for that matter, anything that has ever been – the number of new worlds, being created each second on Earth alone, never mind the atoms in the rest of the universe make googols seem undemanding. One outcome is that there may be an infinite number of universes forever outside our view where the constants of nature, the particle masses, charges, spins and force strengths exist in all possible permutations, or even with more components than we can ever dream of. This would make our position seem less confusing; we find ourselves in the Universe which can support us, how could we find ourselves anywhere else? We can only ask questions if we exist to ask them and this is known as the Anthropic Principle. An infinite number of worlds where you exist, where you were never born, where conscious, intelligent or even elementary life never formed, where stars burned out in tens of millions of years, where matter never coalesced and stars and galaxies were never created, where the expansion rate was too fast, or where black holes grew too big too rapidly, where you hair grows at a rate of forty-five instead of 4.5 nanometres per second, or a world where squirrels attained sentience.

    Just how many universes could there be? A landscape of ten followed by five-hundred zeros? How about ten followed by ten to the power of ten million zeros? Perhaps it’s Skewes’ Number to the power of Graham’s Number to the power of Moser’s Number to the power of a googoloctplex? I love numbers, all of them, from the impossibly small to the impossibly large and I see eye to eye with Daniel Tammet who in his book ‘Thinking In Numbers’, writes, “numbers, properly considered, make us better people”. Counting at a constant rate of one per second, to get to a billion would take roughly thirty-two years, a trillion would take thirty-one thousand seven-hundred and ten years, a quadrillion would take just shy of thirty-two million years and a quintillion (a one with eighteen zeros) would take 31.7 billion years – nearly two and a half times the age of the universe. If you lived to be a hundred and spent every living hour counting, at what rate would you need to count to reach that final quintillion? You would need to count three-hundred and seventeen-million every second. Seen as plain unhelpful to most, the fact that the billionth digit of pi is a nine, or that the ten trillionth digit is a five or that the largest prime number discovered is two multiplied by itself fifty-seven million, eight-hundred and eighty-five thousand, one-hundred and sixty-one times – my reaction couldn’t be more different – my brain illuminates all over and I get giddy. I could say that I am twenty-seven and a half years old, but I’d rather say that I have attained the grand old age of six-thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion Planck times, a number with fifty-three digits. We don’t generally measure the distance to work by quark lengths or weigh potatoes by proton mass, but these measurements are real (and more accurate). I think it’s delightful that we can say of the universe that it is around four-hundred and thirty quadrillion seconds old, or that the smallest factor of a googolplex+1 is three-hundred and sixteen undecillion, nine-hundred and twelve decillion, six-hundred and fifty nonillion, fifty-seven octillion, fifty-seven septillion, three-hundred and fifty sextillion, three-hundred and seventy four quintillion, one-hundred and seventy five quadrillion, eight-hundred and one trillion, three-hundred and forty-four billion and one. When numbers get so large, fun can start to be had – what’s the chance of a particularly special space mouse surviving on the surface of the Sun for a week? The odds against it are flabbergastingly large but calculable, John Littlewood made it to be 10^10^42 to one, which is deceptive when written down in succinct scientific notation – I have grappled and fought to try and understand it, or at least visualise it in some tangible way, but it’s so far from anything real. (Interestingly, the idea of a free living space mouse living in five- thousand degree temperatures seems not to have caused any logical glitches in my brain.) This colossal colossus is not a one followed by forty-two zeros, or even four-hundred and twenty zeros – it is a one followed by a million trillion trillion trillion zeros. Ten to the power of ten (10^10) means to multiply ten by itself ten times, resulting in the number ten billion, a one followed by ten zeros, with each new zero multiplying the entire number by ten, or an order of magnitude. Understandably, our minds can sometimes struggle to understand exponential growth, (it’s tough not to identify with the king who unwittingly agreed to paying a servant with doublings of rice on the sixty-four squares of a chess board). A googol, 10^100 is a one followed by a hundred zeros, vastly larger than the oft quoted number of particles in the observable universe (?10^80), and could be articulated as being ten thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion, remembering not to mistake, for example, a trillion trillion representing two trillion, when it is in fact equal to a trillion lots of a trillion! (In case you’re still wondering, the total number of rice pieces on the chess board would equal eighteen million trillion and you’d be forgiven for mistaking the resultant pile for Mount Everest, even though it would be even larger. The king got his own back though, by telling the servant that if he wanted the rice pieces, he’d have to count them out!) Because of the discrepancy between these latter two large numbers, the googol and the universal particle number, it is physically impossible to fully write out a googol – there’s not enough matter in the entire cosmos, even if you were able to impress upon individual atoms! We are nowhere near Littlewood’s mouse number, but let’s keep going. The Planck length is the smallest extent that can have any physical meaning and there are, give or take one or two, 10^186 cubic Planck volumes in the observable universe, that’s one-hundred and eighty-six zeros, massive, but tiny in comparison to the mouse number. But let’s fill each one of those spaces with a googol particles (stay with me) and imagine a googol people doing this every Planck time (the smallest meaningful duration of time) for a googol years. Even if you had all this happening in String Theory’s hypothetical landscape of 10^500 solutions, the number you end up with has only a little more than a thousand zeros – paltry! So, continuing in this way of thinking is just not practical or helpful, as I remind you, Littlewood’s number contains a million trillion trillion trillion zeros. Perhaps we can gain a little understanding of what it would mean just to write these zeros down, remembering that what we are about to do does not represent the actual number – a number with a hundred zeros is not a hundred and so a trillion zeros should not be confused with being a trillion, it’s just that we have no non-mathematical language to describe a number with so many digits! Let’s imagine you could count at a fantastically virtuosic rate of ten trillion trillion per second and you did so non-stop from the Big Bang to now – you would successfully count to our million trillion trillion trillion. For comparison, to count the hundred zeros of a googol at the same rate would be achieved in a mere trillionth of a trillionth of a second. To bring this portion to a conclusion, if we were to compare the mouse’s survival rate to a number like a googolplex (a one followed by a googol zeros), because it is so much bigger the odds are much greater than one of the mouse’s survival and it joins the physicist’s animal cruelty hall of fame ranks along with Schrödinger’s cat. David Hilbert, the mathematician who at the arrival of the twentieth century stated twenty-three mathematical problems which required solutions, has this to say about his own subject, “it [mathematics] is a game played according to certain simple rules with meaningless marks on paper.” I earlier quoted the high functioning autistic savant Daniel Tammet, who has an affinity with numbers and sees them visually in shapes and colours and in multi-dimensional landscapes; he writes – “properly understood, the study of mathematics has no end: the things we each do not know about it are infinite.” I once read a description of infinity in David Lodge’s novel ‘The Picturegoers’ which brought me close to tears. “Think of a ball of steel as large as the world, and a fly alighting on it once every million years. When the ball of steel is rubbed away by the friction, eternity will not even have begun.” With primes, cyclic numbers, infinite sets of infinities, factorials, conjectures, proofs, number/game/graph/group/decision theories, topology, fractals, geometry, fluid dynamics, calculus, chaos, probability, cryptography – with this minuscule list it’s little wonder that Paul Lockhart said: “There is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics.” You only have to look to the names of some brilliant mathematicians, Gauss, Euler, Erdös, Poincaré, Leibniz, Fermat, Archimedes, Newton, Ramanujan, Cantor, Pythagoras and my personal favourite – the code breaking, morphogenetic Alan Turing. They all conjure up fantastic stories of the human imagination being pushed over the horizon.

    We have no language for 10^80 particles compressed to an infinitely dense singularity, we have no understanding of 1.7 trillion days – the age of the Earth, we are hard pressed to make sense of light in a vacuum, travelling at over four thousand times faster than the fastest thing humans have ever built. More femtoseconds elapse in each second than there have been hours since the Big Bang. An entire lifetime of calculation performed by a human can be executed in a few seconds on a smartphone. David Blatner asks us to imagine a time-lapse film “where each frame captures a moment every ten-thousand years. If we started shooting at the birth of the planet, the finished movie … would be four hours long, and the entire history of the human species wouldn’t show up until well into the final one second of footage”. If the age of the universe was compressed into a single day, the average human lifespan would last but one two-thousandth of a second. Edward Kasner asks us to consider how many drops of water pass over Niagara Falls in a century and then think that same number is equal to the number of electrons passing through the filament of an ordinary fifty-watt bulb in a minute. We don’t know a millionth of a percent of anything, but if we compared the things we don’t know or understand to the things we can grasp, then the latter is but a single member of the world’s smallest fly species, Euryplatea nanaknihali in a swarm of grossly oversized mutant locusts covering the landmass of Africa entirely.

    We are here, in the Anthropocene, because Evolution by Darwinian Natural Selection happened, with no foresight, no concern, simply a blind process capable of creating something as complex and wonderful as an ant or a peacock or the human brain and linking them all together by a beautiful and miraculous code. The natural world is far, far more fabulous, bewildering and astonishing that you or I can imagine – the minutiae of the mating habits, metamorphoses or predations of a single species are enough to contain the mind for hours. There are an estimated nine million species on Earth, only a quarter of which are discovered, and this number doesn’t take account of bacterial species, which could number in the tens or hundreds of millions alone. As a related aside, our cells are mainly bacterial – we are not even us! Trickery, mimicry, manipulation, co-evolution, symbiosis, parasitism and incredible ingenuity that need to be seen to be believed abound. However much we don’t wish to admit it, our feelings are not unique or new. “We all like to think that we are in control of everything” says Jeff Brantingham, “but, in fact all of our behaviour is very regular, very patterned in ways that is often frightening to us”. This behaviour is the product of a long process, hundreds of millions of years of working out the kinks, but no back-trotting ability, which is why no designer would build the internals of a human being as we find them today. You only have to look at the urethra in my own gender, which passes straight through the prostate gland – a plumbing faux-pas by anyone’s standard, or even more extreme, the giraffe’s recurrent laryngeal nerve which has been taken on a detour of fifteen feet, when a matter of inches would have sufficed and ultimately been less costly. I find this proof of evolution reassuring – the odds are sometimes stacked against perfection, but very fine compromises are constantly encountered. Sexual Selection (in Evolutionary Game Theory) by females can sometimes advance dramatically, producing magnificent birds of paradise with extravagant appendages, expensive to build and awkward to manoeuvre, but to our eyes it is Nature at her finest. On our current situation, it’s preposterous to say we’ve stopped evolving – viruses and bacteria can go through several generations in the time it takes us to wake up of a morning. Compared with an average human lifespan, a virus or bacteria can go through two-and-a-half-million generations, evolving all the while, which reckoning alone should be enough to conclude that there is continued biological pressure. Plants flower to attract pollinators, to continue the species, to live their life as best they can – once started it is difficult to stop, but stop these things must and then they don’t care, they could never care. Continuing to ponder the question of why plants flower will result in much information, detailing areas of chemistry, physics and biology, ultimately leading to the question of what happened before Lemaître’s ‘primeval atom’, the Big Bang, which may well prove to be the point of absurdity. “We can’t define anything precisely”, said Feynman in a 1964 lecture, “if we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers … one saying to the other: “you don’t know what you are talking about!” The second one says: “what do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you? What do you mean by know?”” Considered by most as the twentieth century’s second Einstein, maverick physicist, safe-breaker and bongo player Richard Feynman, famous for Quantum Electrodynamics, nanotechnology, solving the Challenger disaster problem and devising the diagrams that bear his name, which incidentally he jokingly referred to as ‘absolutely ridiculous’, was once described by The New York Times as “the impossible combination of theoretical physicist and circus barker, all body motion and sound effects.” Open any of his books, articles or lectures and point randomly to a sentence, you will be transformed by his exceptional warmth and unparalleled brilliancy in communication: “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” When asked to nominate a single sentence that would pass on enough science if ever the mass of human knowledge disintegrated he said “all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.” His comparison of the laws of physics to a giant game of chess which we observe in play and pick up rules as we go along is wonderfully watertight. One more quotation: “We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. […] Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.” We are at the stage where we are globally creating seventy times more data each day than the sum of all human knowledge so far, where ninety percent of all data ever created has been done so in the last two years, with computers that can crunch at a rate of quadrillions of calculations per second. Where this is heading is a hot debate, the end of humanity or the beginning of transhumanity – what do you think?

    Before I finish, by talking about the end of the Universe, I’d like to present an elegant passage from Richard Dawkins’ book “Unweaving the Rainbow”, which incidentally the author would like to be read at his funeral: “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.” And here we are. I quote this in full because it says many things succinctly and packs a poetic punch.

    In a thousand trillion quadrillion quintillion sextillion septillion octillion nonillion years there will be nothing left, all stars will have turned off, black holes will have evaporated and particles of light will all be heading towards the same temperature – maximum entropy will have been reached, the temperature of the cosmos will be absolute zero, it will be the same everywhere, there will be nothing left – the universe will have died a Heat Death because it cannot get any more disordered. As Brian Cox put it “nothing happens and it keeps not happening, forever.” (I’m reminded here of the eternal present in Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ where all information is constantly rewritten to make Big Brother permanently correct, with no way of ever knowing otherwise and also of the Pirahã people, who because of their lack of a documented past and no discussion of future aspects told Daniel Everett that history is “where nothing happens, and everything is the same”). Anyway, at this stage, time itself will die. It was born in the Big Bang and will have had a good innings. (Einstein remarked that the only reason for time anyway is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.) There will be no way of measuring or distinguishing between the past, present and future because there will be no change and no change means no arrow of time – which will vanish. Talking about the window of opportunity for life to exist within these boundaries, (the Stelliferous Era), Cox goes onto say: “As a fraction of the lifespan of the universe as measured from its beginning to the evaporation of the last black hole, life, as we know it is only possible for one thousandth of a billion billion billionth billion billion billionth billion billion billionth of a percent. And that’s why, for me, the most astonishing wonder of the universe isn’t a star, or a planet, or a galaxy – it isn’t a thing at all, it’s an instant in time, and that time, is now.” Optimists among us might suggest that to survive this bleak outlook, the Degenerate Era (or as Penrose calls it, the ‘boring era’), any intelligent life will need to work out extra dimensional space travel, violate the first law of thermodynamics, or be able to create their own universes, although they would have to discover it within a few trillion years, as decreasing energy supplies could mean that a single thought may take a thousand or even a billion years to accomplish. Some humbling thoughts there, possibly overwhelming, or bamboozling – they might even make you feel meaningless – good. A little humility can go a long way to becoming a noble virtue and besides, where would we be without these mixed complimenting contemplations?

    I started by stating that there is no ultimate meaning in life, which I hold to be true, just a happy sequence of fermionic, hadronic, bosonic, baryonic, leptonic and mesonic proceedings. Nevertheless I believe, there are, in this grandeur, things that can deliver meaning, like the odds and ends I’ve just briefly presented. Marcus Chown, to encourage his mother’s approachability to being taught science once asked his mentor Feynman to write her a letter, which read: “Tell your son to stop trying to fill your head with science – for to fill your heart with love is enough!” We can all help by, as Stephen Fry so often suggests, being exceedingly lovely to each other. What good is knowledge if we can’t share it?

    Profile photo of Jacob van Tienen
    Jacob van Tienen

    I could spout out dozens of facts I’ve learned through my short life through various science classes and from research on topics of space and the cosmos, but that isn’t really answering the question.
    We understand so much of our solar system, our galaxy, our Universe, and yet so little. From when we first looked up and wondered how much there is out ‘there’, we’ve been seeking an answer ever since. We have some answers, but not all of them, and who knows if we ever will!
    It is inspiring to me that how much the great unknown of the Universe inspires myself and others to go further, work harder and longer and live fuller to make our little difference in our world, in our solar system.
    Knowing that from such simple chemical and physical processes such a complex and intricate form of life such as ourselves can be made is truly awe-inspiring. Atoms and particles travel for millions of years and billions of miles to get where they currently reside and become a relevant part to our life in some infinitesimal way. Inspiring in the way that from such incredibly long odds, life as we know it has come into being.
    We don’t need a god to explain the creation of something so amazing, it could never be proven (and won’t, because a god does not exist). There is nothing stopping us from unlocking the answers to every unknown thing in the Universe except time. Time heals everything, it is the omnipresent barrier that nobody can get past. In the future, however, in other generations and groups of people, we will slowly reveal more and more of the unknown because we are persistent and curious, and always will be. That is the most inspiring thing to me.

    Profile photo of Christopher

    I cant fathom to believe how much we have unearthed about the distant stars and planets and potential life forms in space. What I can believe is how much we don’t know about the nether. I am more inspired about the unknown because it grants me the power to make the unknown, known. We accept something after being scientifically proven and evidence is just that evident.

    Profile photo of Esoptros

    How am I inspired? How does the stars and what we’ve learned of the universe impact my life as it is? It does by curiosity. We’ve come so much further then we used to be as a human species, evolving as the cycles and planets and stars evolved into what they are today. We’ve advanced and begun making our way out into the Solar System. We are beginning to understand, but it’s just barely begun. This affects my life, my ideals, of wanting to explore. To map out and learn. To go places I’ve yet been or perhaps mankind? It’s sort of like the Tale of Icarus and the wings of wax. If you don’t get it, or understand how, think about it.

    In the end, The stars remind me of our own body and the cells that make up it. The Atoms in each cell. And so forth. In the end, it’s about Unity and balance.

    Profile photo of Gary-Jake

    stardust is our cosmic makeup
    nothing more than continuous collisions of atoms and particles.
    forever in freefall spiralling and falling and colliding and crashing into noisy, painful, excruciating existence

    Profile photo of Diego

    Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons betweeen right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations. There is truly, no life without agitation isn’t? Nice video!

    Profile photo of BraD the VolFan
    BraD the VolFan

    Well It Is The Sign the the biggest things in the Universe is made up of the smallest bits of Dusk out there & How the death of one Star being to begins of Life of Another & How it show the smallest thing make the biggest things & how Life always Keep Going even in death there is a start of life

    Profile photo of Blake

    Here are the results from the January Giveaway. Once again, great responses!

    These are the eligible contestants in the order in which they responded:

    1 – Matthew Lee Knowles (@matthewleeknowles)
    2 – Jacob van Tienen (@hpapocrypha)
    3 – Christopher (@css4193)
    4 – Esoptros (@esoptrosoer)
    5 – Gary-Jake (@gary-jake)
    6 – Diego (@diegosaur)
    7 – Drad the VolFan (@volfan1983xxx)

    As always, we’ll use a random number generator to choose a winner ( http://www.random.org/ )

    And the winner is …

    Random number generator results

    Congrats Esoptros (@esoptrosoer)!

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The topic ‘January Giveaway: We are All Stardust’ is closed to new replies.

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