More Evidence of a Creator?

English: René Descartes, the French philosophe...

English: René Descartes, the French philosopher, by the French engraver Balthasar Moncornot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve already made note of the fact that the big bang looks a lot like the Bible’s description of the formation of the world. We’ve noted that the rate of expansion of the early universe had to be within tolerances on the order of 1 part in 1015 either way. That much more and stars wouldn’t have formed; that much less and everything would have collapsed by now. In the last post we saw the asymmetry between matter and antimatter necessary for the stars and galaxies to form and that that asymmetry is on the order  of one part in 109. As they say in TV commercials, “but wait! There’s more.”

If the asymmetry between matter and antimatter had been smaller, say one part in 1011 there wouldn’t have been enough matter for galaxies to form.  And if it had been greater, on the order of one part in 108 the abundant matter would have congealed into enormous lumps without forming discrete stars.

The same surprises exist in the world of particle physics.  If the strong force that binds atomic nuclei together were a few percentage points greater quarks wouldn’t form protons.  If it were five percent weaker stars couldn’t make heavy elements past hydrogen. If the weak force was much stronger the big bang would have cooked atoms all the way up to iron, leaving no lighter elements. If gravity was stronger stars would be mostly weak red dwarfs; much weaker and they would be fast-burning blue giants.  Either way so-called normal stars like our Sun would be non-existent or rare.

Many have seized on these incredibly improbable coincidences as evidence that some “Cosmic Designer” is at work. It is ironic that cosmology and physics can be conscripted to give evidence of a creator. This notion that the Goldilocks universe in which we live didn’t happen by chance is called the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle can be expressed many ways but the most common is, “the universe is the way it is because we are here to see it. If it weren’t the way it is, we wouldn’t be here.” This is reminiscent of Rene Descartes statement Je pense, donc je suis (I think, therefore I am, or cogito ergo sum in Latin). Descartes, a French philosopher of the 17th Century, set out to develop a set of fundamental principles that one can know without any doubt. As a starting point he had to prove his own existence. This he did by concluding that because he thinks, he exists. “The simple meaning of the phrase,” he wrote, “is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof he does exist.” Similarly, the universe exists as it does because we are here to question its existence.

Does all of this mean there is someone or something behind the big bang? Consider this hypothetical. You have been sentenced to death by a firing squad of 100 trained sharpshooters. You stand blindfolded and hear “ready, aim, FIRE” followed by a volley of shots. Suddenly you realize you are not dead. Under these circumstances the law says you may go free. Is it not realistic to see a higher power behind this? Aren’t the odds against all 100 sharpshooters missing you so astronomical as to be impossible in the absence of divine intervention?

On the other hand, the odds of a bridge player being dealt a particular hand are something like one in six billion. Does the bridge player marvel at the hand she has been dealt or does she simply play the hand she has? Most bridge players play the hand they are dealt rather than wonder why they got that particular hand, since all hands are equally likely.

Many scientists have taken the latter position — that the universe just happened this way. But to bolster their position against the “astronomical odds” argument, they suggest that one view of reality is that there is an enormous number of existing universes, on the order of 10500 (1 followed by 500 zeroes). With so many universes it is virtually certain that one of those is suitable for life. Therefore the Anthropic Principle holds true: the universe is this way because we are here to see it. We need not wonder at this particular state any more than we wonder at any other state. By making the universe non-unique in the sense that this is not the only one there is, the need for a creator is eliminated and replaced by simple laws of probability.

So where did these 10500 universes come from? For that we need to enter the world of string theory.

Why is There Something Rather than Nothing?

This question has puzzled philosophers for at least 300 years, ever since Gottfried Leibniz wrestled with it.  Leibniz postulated that “nothing” was a simpler state than “something;” therefore it was natural that there should be nothing.  However, since there is something (because, if there were nothing, he and we would not be here to ask the question), there must be a creator in there somewhere.  With the current state of humanity, some would argue that Leibniz’s value judgment that something is better than nothing, old Gottfried was on to something (no pun intended).  His question is profound and poses a challenge for deists and atheists alike: the necessity to explain creation out of nothing.

Let’s take a closer look at the “something.”  You can get something in two flavors, light (radiation) and matter.  In physics, light and matter “particles” are called bosons (light) and fermions (matter) after the two scientists who described their properties statistically (we will soon see that nothing is real, it is just a matter of probability).  Fermions are aloof and individualistic.  In terms of their probability, no two fermions are exactly alike.  Bosons, on the other hand, are promiscuous.  Bosons are the carriers of all the forces in nature.  Photons, which carry light, can have the same energy and occupy the same space.

The universe has far more bosons than fermions and this discrepancy bothers physicists.  After all, what little matter (fermions) there is was enough to make billions of galaxies and stars.  Now if the number of fermions is only a small fraction of the number of bosons, imagine how many bosons (or, how much energy) there must be.

In addition to this puzzle, in the 1920s Paul Dirac, an English physicist working on the new theory of quantum mechanics, made a prediction for the existence of antimatter.  Dirac solved the fundamental equation that explains the behavior of the electron and found two solutions.  One solution involved the square root of a positive number, the other included the square root of the same negative number.  Generations of college calculus students have grappled with this notion of the square root of a negative number, since any two numbers that are either both positive or negative, when multiplied together yield a positive number.  In mathematics there is the imaginary number i, which is the square root of negative one (i = -1).  Many math problems have these two solutions, one real and one imaginary, but when it comes to “real world” solutions, the imaginary solution is usually discarded.  Rather than discard it, Dirac left it in his paper.

Four years later Carl Anderson was watching cosmic rays in his cloud chamber.  A cloud chamber is where scientists can observe particles interact with a supersaturated vapor.  By applying a magnetic field to the chamber the particle can be made to curve.  The vapor trail left by the particle registers the passage of the particle.  Anderson was observing electrons and noticed that, while most of the vapor trails curved in the expected direction, a few curved in the opposite direction.  This meant that a few particles had the same mass as electrons but had the opposite charge, positive rather than negative.  Anderson called these “positrons” for positive electrons.  In the context of Dirac’s work, positrons are the particles predicted by the solution to the problem that involves the imaginary number.

Paul Dirac

Paul Dirac (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It turns out that the existence of antimatter is far less than the existence of matter, which is a good thing.  If the number of fermions of the antimatter variety were roughly equal to the number of fermions of the matter variety, it is likely there would be “nothing” rather than “something.”  While this difference should be comforting to us in the sense that we need not fear being annihilated by our antimatter counterpart, to scientists this discrepancy is troubling.

In terms of Einstein’s E = mc2 that shows how energy and matter are interchangeable, matter and antimatter are on equal footing.  Quantum theory predicts that every particle has an antiparticle.  But antimatter particles don’t survive very long while matter particles do.  In Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons, the bad guys steal half a gram of antimatter and high-tail it to Rome to make a bomb.  The mark of good fiction is to cause “the willing suspension of disbelief,” that is, to make the reader willing to ignore the little voice in her head that says “that would never happen.”  By that criterion, Brown is a master of fiction because his premise, that half a gram of antimatter could exist, is outrageous.  At current production rates it would take 10 million years to create half a gram of antimatter.  The cost to create one-billionth of a gram of antimatter is about a billion dollars.

To understand particle physics and the extreme rarity of antimatter we need to understand, at least a little bit, what physicists call the Standard Model.  To do this, we have to lay some groundwork that includes a Laplace transformation of a Calabi-Yau manifold across a chronosynclastic infindibulum.  I made that last part up but that’s the kind of language particle physicists speak.

Projection of a Calabi-Yau manifold, one of th...

Projection of a Calabi-Yau manifold, one of the ways of compactifying the extra dimensions posited by string theory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


That’s Heavy

In an earlier post we saw that Newton developed three significant theories, any one of which would probably have earned him a Nobel Prize but for two small details: The Nobel Prize didn’t exist when Newton was alive and the rules of the Nobel Prize prevent posthumous awards.  In any event, his theory of gravity governed the cosmos for over three centuries.  The story of Newton developing his theory while sitting under an apple tree and having an apple fall and hit him on the head is probably apocryphal, but there is little doubt that he was inspired by watching apples fall.

Newton’s theory of gravity simply says that any two bodies attract each other with a force that is proportional to their two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.  As millions of high school physics students know, this formula is expressed as

F = (G x m1 x m2)/r2

Here F represents the gravitational force, G is the gravitational constant which is necessary to make the force of gravity somewhat congruent with other natural forces such as magnetism, m represents the masses of the two objects in question and r is the distance between the two objects.  This formula explained why planets remain in orbit around the sun, why apples drop from trees and even why astronauts feel weightlessness in space.  It coalesced all the concepts of Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo about the solar system.  It seemed complete, though even Newton himself felt it wasn’t the final answer.  He said “I seem to myself to have been a little boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me.”

The problem with Newton’s theory is it doesn’t explain how gravity works.  We say that it is an attraction between two bodies, a force that pulls them together, but how is that force transmitted through space?  For example, consider a golfer addressing a golf ball on the tee.  He swings the club, which strikes the ball and sends it into a graceful arc, up, up, until gravity, that relentless force that cannot be defied, pulls it back to earth.  At least that’s how it works in my mind when I swing a club.  Reality is uglier.  If we consider the source of the forces acting on the golf ball, it initially moves due to the impact of the club head.  That impact is the product of the momentum of the club head, which is caused by the synchronous contraction of the golfer’s muscles, which in turn is caused by complex chemical reactions that contract and relax the muscles.  Those chemical reactions are caused by the conversion of food the golfer ingests.  All of this is complex but completely understood by science.

On the other hand, what is this mysterious force of gravity?  All we know about it is that it can be measured by Newton’s equation, but that doesn’t tell us how it arises.  We generally pass that off as a natural property of mass.  But why should mass have this property?  And, more importantly, how is it transmitted through space?

Einstein’s special theory of relativity led him to the conclusion that gravity is caused by a deformation of the very fabric of spacetime.  This deformation causes bodies to follow the curvature of spacetime.  This notion sounds crazy and indeed Einstein himself doubted himself.  Yet he could not bring himself to abandon the theory.  He spent eight years, from 1907 to 1915, trying to refine this vague notion of curvature of spacetime into a formal theory explainable by a mathematical formulation.

In the next post we’ll try to describe this whole curvature of spacetime and how it creates gravity concept.