The universe is a big place, which is hardly surprising, considering that it contains all that we can ever know in the physical dimension. Strangely enough, our understanding of the vastness of space, the world of sub-atomic particles and of distant times isn’t restricted by the abilities of modern technology but is clouded by the limitations of our own minds.
According to scientists, who are supposed to understand these things, there are twice as many stars as there are grains of sand on all of the world’s beaches. That’s a lot of stars; and a lot of space in between. The human mind can’t comprehend such a number, let alone understand the nature of every star: to all intents and purposes the universe is infinite. The distances between the stars are similarly awesome. For example, using standard notation, where 1,000 is written as 103 and 1,000,000 is 106, we find that the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4 × 1013 kilometres (km) away. To get there, travelling at the speed of light, which is about 300,000 km per second (km/s), would take 4.2 years. Hence this star is said to be at a distance of 4.2 light years.
The diameter of our galaxy is even more amazing, being calculated as 105 light years, whilst the furthest known objects are 1.4 × 1010 light years away. The massiveness of the universe implies that it might be of an infinite size. Some scientists have suggested, however, that it may have a specific shape. One theory, based on the fact that the gravitational pull of objects can bend the path of a beam of light, possibly causing all light to return to the point from where it started, is that the universe is a sphere, beyond which there is nothing, although ‘nothing’ in this context is difficult to describe. The other idea is a three-dimensional parabola, with two ‘mouths’ opening to infinity and the major constellations located within the ‘neck’.
All things can be measured in terms of distance (length), mass (also incorrectly known as weight) and time. Of these, time is the most difficult, since it only exists by virtue of change. If the universe consisted solely of a clock suspended in the void, then it would be the clock that actually created time. In our world, we can only measure time by our heartbeats, the changes of the seasons, the movement of the sun and modern technology. Curiously enough, most creatures have a similar number of heartbeats over their lifetimes, so that an ant, whose span is rather short, has a correspondingly faster beat than that of a longer-living human being. Time is also subjective: in the dentist’s waiting room the heartbeat is faster, but the hands of the clock move more slowly.
Although we can travel over distances, we can’t move independently through time. Instead, we are forced to go with events as time carries us along. So, does the past still exist and is the future already there? With the universe seemingly infinite in the physical plane, it’s tempting to think that both of these things are true, but that we, being mortal, simply cannot see them.
According to the laws of Isaac Newton, the distance travelled by an object between two points can’t possibly be influenced by its movement. But in the space-time continuum, an important element of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, a really weird thing happens: increasing the speed of an object actually reduces the distance, at the same time increasing the time taken. In 1976, experiments were undertaken using atomic clocks fitted in rockets and aircraft: they proved Einstein to be correct.
Einstein also calculated that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Increasing the speed of an object towards this limit requires more and more energy, eventually resulting in an increase in the object’s mass. Einstein postulated that the speed of light was always the same, irrespective of the relative speeds of the source and the observer. The General Theory also explained the effective equivalence of mass and energy, defined in Einstein’s famous equation
e=mc2. This indicated that a pound of helium, if converted into pure energy, would create enough power to run a 10 watt light-bulb for 100 million years.
Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity of 1916 expanded his original work to accommodate space-time curvature, where the effect of gravity becomes significant. He observed that the people and objects in a lift free-falling towards the earth would feel as if gravity didn’t exist, whilst those standing in a lift accelerated through outer space would feel a gravitational force. He also suggested that the gravitational pull of the sun could bend the light from a distant star, a fact that was proven years later.
For a time, many scientists accepted the steady state theory, which suggests that the universe has existed forever, but continually changes. Today, most accept the big bang theory, in which the universe begins as a dense mass of matter, exploding outwards from a central point. This idea comes from the observations of Edwin Hubble in 1927, who noticed that the light from other galaxies had a red shift, implying that they were moving away from us at a great speed. Further investigation indicated that the furthermost galaxies were moving faster, whilst those close to the very edge were almost at the speed of light. This leads to a bit of a conundrum: at what speed are the outermost galaxies travelling at, and, if so close to the speed of light, are they visible?
According to current thinking, the universe was created around 1010 years ago, although it could be up to twice as old. This is apparently confirmed by the discovery in 1965 of ‘background’ electromagnetic radiation, which is at a ‘temperature’ of 3 kelvin (K) or 270° C. Here’s one view of the sequence of events, although it doesn’t sound particularly convincing:-
So there it is, an infinitely large universe, of an almost infinite age and with a possibly infinite future; a place of many inexplicable things, including pulsars, dark matter with a strong gravitational pull and black holes of incredibly density.
There are all sorts of ideas concerning the future of the universe. Some believe that it will continue expanding forever, and, after around 10100 years, even atoms and sub-nuclear particles will begin to fragment, leaving nothing but darkness, and perhaps the smile of the Cheshire Cat. Others contend that the system will again begin to contract, possibly returning once more to nothing, a scenario known as the big crunch. Some think its will return to its original density, but exploding again into a new universe; presumably, this could go on forever, resulting in a sort of ‘pulsating’ universe. And the final idea, accepted by many, is that the universe will eventually stabilise and so retain something of its current state.
The world of very small things is as difficult, if not more difficult, than the cosmic universe. In around 460 BC the Greek philosopher Democritus considered the result of continually cutting up material into smaller and smaller particles. He concluded, perhaps because of limitations in his human mind, that eventually you would reach a point where the particles could no longer be divided. This indivisible object became known as the atom. It wasn’t until 1800 that John Dalton’s experiments confirmed the existence of such an incredibly small particle. And very tiny it is, with a diameter of 10-10 metres (m), or around one three-hundred-millionth part of an inch, and, in the case of an oxygen atom, a weight of 2.7 × 10-23 grammes (g).
The discovery of the electron, an even smaller particle with a mass of 9.11 × 10-28 g, which operates as the vehicle for electrical currents, really messed things up. In 1897, J J Thomson proposed a model of the atom, consisting of a sphere, on which electrons sat, like raisins on a pudding. Unfortunately, Thomson’s idea was shattered by experiments made by Rutherford in 1911, who then proposed a new concept, in which the electrons revolved around the atom’s core or nucleus, in much the same way as the planets rotate around the sun. In 1912, Niels Bohr suggested that the electrons followed different orbits, and by 1924 electrons were also being assigned different orbit shapes and tilt, as well as spin, where the particle itself rotates. At this stage, the whole thing was beginning to look like a fairy story, created by scientists desperate to create a model that fitted the facts.
Dozens of different particles were found throughout the middle of the 20th century, beginning with the proton, which gives the nucleus its positive charge, discovered in 1919 and found to have a mass 1,836.1 times that of an electron. This was followed by the neutron, also in the core, which has a relative mass of 1,838.6.
Every time scientists thought they had things worked out, another anomaly appeared and a different particle was discovered to explain it. These included anti-particles, such as positrons, anti-protons and anti-neutrons, which had an opposite charge, spin or magnetic moment to those of standard particles, introducing the possibility of antimatter.
Most of the later particles were discovered by bombarding materials with other particles. In this sense, they were actually created and didn’t exist in nature, and perhaps had never done so. It was also discovered that some particles disintegrated into smaller particles when outside of an atom: the neutron, for example, would split into a proton, electron and anti-neutrino after an average period of 18 minutes. Other short-lived particles were found, which continually slipped in and out of existence.
In 1964, Gellmann proposed that all sub-atomic particles were constructed of three types of even smaller particles known as quarks, with the names of
strange, together with matching anti-quarks, although none of these have been actually detected. By 1984, three more quarks had been introduced, known as
top). It’s even been postulated that each quark may itself be composed of two types of preon particle.
The world of the atom, although complex, initially appears to be a solid place. Further investigation reveals it to be a chimera. Einstein, in his equation
e=mc2, proved there wasn’t any dividing line between energy, such as heat, light and other electromagnetic waves, and matter itself. Einstein’s ideas derive from those of Max Planck, who in 1900 described the transmission of light in the form of ‘packets’ of waves. Each packet, known as a quantum, behaves in the same way as a particle, and, in the case of light, is called a photon. The frightening thing is this: all the particles that make up matter can be considered to be waves, which means that the universe, despite its apparent solidity, isn’t really solid at all.
As scientists have explored the universe they have found it to be ever more complex. Numerous mathematical solutions that accurately predict the behaviour of planets or particles have been produced, but it has become increasingly difficult to visualise what’s actually happening. The atom, for example, is impossible to understand in the context of relativity and quantum mechanics, even though scientists often use specific models to solve particular problems.
Despite often making rash assumptions and simplifications, things are very complex. For example, in analysing the cosmos, scientists assume that the nature of matter is the same throughout the universe and that it hasn’t changed significantly over time. Even then, the results are difficult to understand. The only real conclusion you can come to is that the universe is infinitely complex and that, as far as we are concerned, the stars go onwards forever, the past and future are infinite and that the structure of sub-atomic particles also extends forever into a world of infinite smallness.
Accepting the universe as infinite isn’t too difficult, since we can then assume that it’s beyond the reaches of our finite minds. Paradoxically, we often discover things when we stop looking. So, if we can accept that we can’t comprehend the universe, we may well come to some form of understanding.
In the Western world, we’re all familiar with rational thinking, which forms the basis of scientific development. However, one of the greatest minds, that of Albert Einstein, possessed a greater perspective, as illustrated by the following random quotes:-
Mathematics deals exclusively with the relations of concepts to each other without consideration of their relation to experience.… As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.
The only justification for our concepts and systems of concepts is that they serve to represent the complex of our experiences; beyond this they have not legitimacy.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.
The role of the artist is to deepen the mystery.
The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.
Some of these statements seem rational, others less so. However, Einstein is in good company: if you read Plato’s Republic you’ll find that most of it’s about logical argument, but at the end he diverges into a remarkable and visionary account that involves the ‘music of the spheres’. Clearly, a deeper understanding of the universe requires more than just rational thinking.
Various ideas have been mooted about the universe: some say that it’s entirely an illusion created by our minds, or that it’s a result of the ‘collective will’ of humanity. Since our minds are obviously limited and there’s little evidence of human beings having unity in anything, these humanist suggestions are best discounted. The established wisdom that the universe is the spontaneous result of some kind of ‘accident’ is also preposterous, in that any accident requires something to initiate it. In fact, this idea probably demands more faith than it takes to believe that God created the world in seven days.
The idea of a supreme being, which we in the Western world call God, wasn’t a problem for Einstein, who saw that the path to understanding the universe had to rely on ‘non-rational’ belief, saying:-
Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘Old One’.
A person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his abilities, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and aspirations to which he clings because of their supra-personal value.
My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.
Here we have one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century, possessing sufficient modesty to describe his mind as ‘frail and feeble’, whilst at the same time showing considerable wisdom.
Sometimes it’s impossible to see what’s in front of our very eyes until we open our minds and take another look. Only then can we ask, ‘where does God fit into the universe?’ The answer is either ‘not at all’ or ‘entirely’. You can either see the universe as an accident or perceive it as something created by God. Some of the greatest minds in the scientific world have to admit that the universe shows the hallmarks of the hand of God, as witnessed by the following statements:-
A common-sense interpretation of the facts suggest that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. — Sir Fred Hoyle.
The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the proton and electron. … The remarkable thing is that the values of these numbers seem to have been finely adjusted to make possible the development of life. — Stephen Hawking.
So who or what is God? In the Western world, prior to the modern age, this all-powerful being was perceived as residing above the clouds, but following space travel he’s considered as existing on a different plane, external to our own. This is an unfortunate way of thinking, as it tends to separate God from the real world. The Eastern approach, on the other hand, is often less rational, treating the universe as a single entity in which all things exist, some of which are simply hidden from our eyes.
In fact, there is little reason to separate God from the universe itself, and it could be argued that God is the universe. At first, this seems mind-boggling, but, since God is the infinite power and the universe appears infinite, it’s not such a mad conclusion. However, if God is the universe and we are part of the universe, can we ever do anything contrary to God? The answer is ‘yes’. To illustrate this in slightly gruesome terms, consider God as a super-human being, who, wishing for a companion, chops off his own thumb and uses his powers to make a small human being with a will of his own. Unfortunately, this creature disobeys God and even denies his existence. But whatever he does, he, like us, is still part of God.
The universe, which can be viewed as God’s body, is like our own bodies, loving the things within itself, but containing elements that are both beneficial and harmful. Sadly, human individuals are the only ones who do real harm, although our conceitedness and lack of perspective may blind us to this. At the most difficult point in our lives, or perhaps at the moment of death, we’ll have to face the inevitable crisis. We must then bend the knee and accept that God, who is the universe, has the right to do whatever he wishes to do with us, or we can shake our fists in defiance. If we choose the latter, then we cannot be surprised if, in the words of Jesus Christ, we are ‘cast into outer darkness.’
1997 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, ©Grolier Inc. 1997
American Concise Encyclopedia, ©Zane Publishing Inc. 1996
Atoms, compiled by Jim Walker, Flight Engineering, 1988
Pears Cyclopedia, 90th Edition, ©Pelham Books, 1981
©Ray White 2004.