Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Fine-Tuned Universe? Works for Me

Do you believe there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? When I was growing up in the 1960s, that was a given.

Orson Welles’s legendary radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” was only twenty-five years gone; the “flying saucer” craze had even Carl Sagan looking for UFOs; and Hollywood was spinning out a thousand goofy space-invader movies. My favorite? “The Blob” (1958). Hey, I was seven.

You just knew there was life “out there.” The only question was, friend or foe? Probably foe. Foe made better movies.

Now, though, it turns out we all might have been wrong. I am listening to Eric Metaxas’s thrilling new book Miracles in which the author explains the notion, now becoming scientific consensus, that our universe is “fine-tuned for life.” The implication of this notion is that the probability of another planet like ours, with life anything like ours, is infinitesimally small.

Chapters 4 and 5 of Miracles begin by asking whether (a) human existence is a miracle and (b) the universe itself is a miracle. Of course, it all depends on the meaning of miracle, but the simple answer is yes, in the sense that both life and the universe are extremely unlikely. With a triple-x in extremely.

All because of the theory of a fine-tuned universe.

Back in the 1960s, Carl Sagan and other cosmologists saw a universe filled with possibilities: You just needed a star of a certain size and a corresponding planet and water and oxygen and presto—you could have life like ours. That’s why we are consumed with discovering whether there’s water on Mars, or even evidence that there once was water. Water = life, right?

Not exactly. It turns out you need more than water. You need something like 150 variables, each to hit its number. There’s gravity and electromagnetism and dozens of variables too complicated for Metaxas to even try to explain them to the lay reader. Each of these must measure something or other quite definite to allow for the existence of life. Gravity can be neither too big nor too small. The same goes with the other 149.

When you run the probability of all 150 of these variables falling within their ranges, you end up with a probability of life something like 1 in 10 to the sixtieth or seventieth power. That’s a 1 followed by sixty or seventy zeroes.

That’s the probability of intelligent life (chapter 4). Then there’s the probability of a universe existing at all (chapter 5). I’ll cite one example here. Metaxas explains that if the Big Bang had been less powerful by the smallest amount, everything would have collapsed back on itself, drawn in by its own gravitational force. If the Big Bang had been more powerful at all, everything would have scattered beyond coherence.

It seems that a calculation of some sort had to have been made before pressing the Big Bang button. That is, it seems the universe was designed. Or else “we just got lucky.” And that power-of-the-BB condition is again only one of dozens that had to be met for the universe to have happened at all. The designer had many calculations to make before pushing the button.

Obviously I am wading in way over my artsy, non-scientific head here. So let me end by asking you:

What would it mean if we were alone in the universe, after all? It seems to me that it would mean one of two things.

(1) Either we are terribly unlucky to have been made at all, since we are alone and it’s all meaningless.

(2) Or we are special. We have a unique place and possibly even purpose in the universe. And all of this wonder—the near infinite number of galaxies, for God’s sake—was created for us to contemplate and to praise.

No one else is going to do it if we don’t.

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