Our Goldilocks Universe

Fr Frank O’Dea SSS

Our universe is just right for life.

Remember the story of Goldilocks? One day she went for a walk through the forest and came to a house. The door was open so she went in and saw three bowls of porridge on the table. The first one was too hot, the second too cold, but the third was just right. She went upstairs and saw three beds. The first was too hard, the second too soft, the third just right.

Scientists are saying we have a Goldilocks universe because it’s just right for life. The slightest variation to the conditions we have in the universe would mean that life would be impossible.

The Beginning of the Universe

Our universe began about 13.7 billion years ago with what is called the ‘big bang’, an explosion of an intensity that we can’t even imagine.

At that zero time the universe was the size of a dot on this page. One second after the big bang the temperature would have been ten billion degrees. The universe was a soup or plasma of the subatomic particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. These are the particles that make up atoms, but the mix was too hot for these particles to form atoms at this time.

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A ‘myriad of galaxies’. Detail of the deepest-ever view of our universe, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. Image courtesy NASA (9601396).

The universe expanded at an incredible rate, but was slowed by gravity, the attraction between any two bodies. Gravity eventually caused the particles to come together to form atoms. The atoms very gradually formed into matter. Eventually this matter became galaxies, stars and planets.

Enter Goldilocks:

‘. . . a bigger bang would have dispersed the cosmological gases too swiftly for them to accumulate into galaxies. Conversely, had the bang been not so big, then the universe would have collapsed back on itself before life could get going. Our universe has picked a happy compromise; it expands slowly enough to permit galaxies, stars and planets to form, but not so slowly as to risk collapse.’ (Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma, Penguin Group Press, 2006, p. 61)

The Four Forces of Nature

In nature there are four forces. One is electromagnetism which operates all our electrical devices such as light globes, hair dryers, washing machines.

Two other forces operate within the atoms. The strong nuclear force binds the atomic particles together, the weak nuclear force accounts for the decay of atoms.

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The galaxy cluster IDCS1426, recorded by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory on 7 January 2016. This cluster is 10 billion light-years from Earth and is as massive as nearly 500 trillion suns. Ninety per cent of its mass is ‘dark matter’, which has ‘so far been detected only through its gravitational pull on normal matter composed of atoms.’ Image courtesy NASA (PIA20063).

The force we are most familiar with is gravity, the mutual attraction between any two objects in the universe. It is gravity that causes objects to fall when we drop them, gravity keeps the moon circulating around the earth and the earth around the sun. Stars and galaxies are attracted to each other by the force of gravity.

You might remember from high school days the force of attraction varies inversely according to the square of the distance between the 2 objects and according to their mass (weight).

These four forces operate throughout the whole of the universe and this gives order to the universe. It would be chaotic if these forces applied on earth but not on Mars or other planets and galaxies.

The strength of each of these forces cannot be measured by theory; they have to be measured experimentally. Scientists have done this. Surprise! Surprise! The weakest force is gravity.

‘. . . gravitation, electricity and magnetism account for almost all phenomena in the everyday world . . .’ (Davies, p. 108)

The strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force are much stronger but only operate within the atoms.

‘There have to be the rights sorts of forces acting between particles of matter to make stable atoms, complex molecules, planets and stars. If almost any of the basic features of the universe, from the properties of atoms to the distribution of galaxies, were different, life would very probably be impossible.’ (Davies, pp.2, 3)

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Magnetic field arches on the surface of the Sun, captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on 28 September 2016. Inset: the Earth. Image courtesy NASA (PIA21101).

Why This Particular Strength?

The question arises: why do these four forces have the strength that they do? Why not some other strength, say, twice the strength or half the strength of the one that has been measured?

Who or what decided these forces would have that particular strength?

Science can’t answer this question. As far as scientists are concerned that particular strength is a given. It just is. When you ask ‘why?’ you are getting into philosophy or theology which most scientists avoid.

‘. . . Modern scientists are mostly not religious, yet they still accept that an intelligible script underlies the workings of nature, for to believe otherwise would undermine the very motivation for doing research, which is to uncover something meaningful about the world that we don’t already know.’ (Davies, p. 5)

Universe Obeys Laws

Nature always behaves consistently. The way nature behaved yesterday is the way it will behave today and tomorrow, so it’s obvious there are laws of nature and everything in the universe obeys these laws. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote that ‘the ordinary course of nature in the whole of creation has certain natural laws.’ (Davies p. 7)

Scientists have discovered many of these laws. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) discovered the laws of motion. His laws of gravity have been of immense value to science and are still used. He began modern science.

Albert Einstein (1879-1855) refined these laws to accommodate very large masses such as the mass of stars and very high speeds such as the speed of light. He has given us a whole new vision of the universe with his theory of relativity.

He showed that very large objects such as the sun and other stars warp space. His analogy is that if you stand on a trampoline it will sag. Stars warp space in the same way.

For the believer the answer to why there are laws and why they have the strength they do is very simple. God invented the laws and decided on their strengths.

Many scientists are uncomfortable with this answer. They want a scientific explanation.

Multiverses

One solution that has been proposed is that there are many universes, the so-called multiverse solution. There may be millions of them or even an infinite number. The other universes have different forces, different laws. It just happens that we are the lucky ones who inhabit a universe that is fit for life, the Goldilocks universe.

The problem with this idea is that it can’t be proved. We have no way of investigating these other universes. They are beyond the reach of science.

However, there are eminent scientists who firmly believe in other universes. They point out that sometimes in science a theory is not proved experimentally till years after the theory is first put forward.

However the question would still remain: who or what brought these other universes into existence?

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The first image of Earth viewed from the surface of the planet Mars, photographed by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit one hour before sunrise on 11 March 2004. Image courtesy NASA (PIA05547).

Theory of Everything

Many scientists such as David Gross ‘. . . are convinced that a unique theory describing a unique world, with all laws and parameters completely fixed by the theory, will eventually emerge – maybe one day soon.’ (Davies, p. 233)

This is the theory that a formula will be discovered that covers everything from the tiny atomic world to the vast cosmos. This is called ‘TOE’, the Theory of Everything. Scientists have been searching for TOE for many years but with no success as yet.

‘. . . Einstein once remarked that what interested him most was whether God had any choice in the creation of the world. If Gross is right the answer is no; the universe has to be as it is. There is only one mathematically self-consistent universe possible. And if there were no choice, then there need be no Chooser. God would have nothing to do because the universe would necessarily be as it is . . .’ (Davies, p. 233)

I can’t see this as the answer even if scientists do discover the Theory of Everything. I hope they do as this would be a wonderful scientific breakthrough but would not solve the problem of why there are laws of nature or why the forces of nature have the particular strength they do.

Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) said the bio-friendly universe looks like a ‘put-up job’. ‘It appeared to Hoyle as if a super-intellect had been “monkeying” with the laws of physics.’ (Davies, p. 3) I guess Hoyle means that the ‘super-intellect’ had fun playing with the laws of physics when he created the universe.

Paul Davies has an interesting metaphor. He suggests – playfully – that God used a Cosmic Designer Machine which had knobs on it. God twiddled the knobs that control gravity, electromagnetism and the strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force until he got the universe just right for life. (Davies, p. 159)

The author of the Book of Proverbs says God has a somewhat playful, rejoicing face. He has Wisdom saying,

‘. . . when he (God) marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.’ (Proverbs 8:30)

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Earth rises above the horizon of the moon, photographed from the Apollo 8 spacecraft on Christmas Eve, 1968. Image courtesy NASA (as08-14-2383).

How the Elements Formed

As I remarked above the big bang gave rise to protons, electrons, neutrons and many other subatomic particles, but the plasma was too hot for these particles to form atoms. After about 400,000 years this plasma had cooled sufficiently for these particles to form atoms of hydrogen (one proton and one electron), helium (with two protons and two neutrons in the nucleus) and deuterium, a rare isotope of hydrogen with one proton and one neutron.

The universe is made up of three parts of hydrogen to one part of helium. In every star including our sun, hydrogen is being converted into helium in a process which is called nuclear fusion which releases an enormous amount of energy. This is the source of the heat and light from the sun which is so necessary for life on earth.

But where do the other elements such as carbon, iron, silicon, lead and silver come from?

When stars come to the end of their lives, they explode. This explosion produces all those other elements which are listed in the periodic table of elements. We humans and all life are made up of these elements.

We are literally made of star dust!

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The remains of exploded star Cassiopeia A, recorded by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (2004). Image courtesy NASA (0401563).

The production of carbon depends on the interplay between the strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force. ‘If the strong force were slightly stronger or slightly weaker (by maybe as little as 1 percent) then the binding energies of the nuclei would change and the arithmetic of the resonance wouldn’t add up; the universe might very well be devoid of life and go unobserved.’ (Davies, p. 157)

Another example of our Goldilocks universe is that the ratio of the weights of the subatomic particles is just right. A very slight change of a fraction of 1 percent would be disastrous for life.

The big bang produced what is called the Cosmic Microwave Background which still pervades the whole of space and which can be measured. Without going into the complexity of this phenomenon, a variation of one millionth would make life impossible!

Before the Big Bang?

A question that arises is, ‘What happened before the big bang?’ Before the big bang, before the moment of creation, there was nothing. Space and time did not exist before creation. If you travelled south to the Antarctic until you got to the South Pole, no matter which way you went from there you would be going north. There is no such thing as going further south than the South Pole. In the same way there is nothing before the big bang or creation.

Someone asked, ‘What did God do before the big bang?’ The answer: ‘He was busy making hell for the likes of you!’

Universe and Mathematics

Mathematics is a fundamental tool of science. Without mathematics we could not do science.

Galileo (1564-1642) said, ‘The great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And this language is mathematics.’ James Jeans (1877-1946) said, ‘The universe appears to have been designed by a pure mathematician.’

God the Creator

The Christian answer to the problem of how the Goldilocks universe came into being is that it was created by God who did not himself need to be created. His nature is such that he has within himself the source of his own being. He is unique.

Out of love for us he made the universe just right for life.

For the wonders of creation as he knew it, the psalmist said:

‘When I look at the heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?’ (Psalm 8:3-4)

We know so much more about the wonders of the universe now. In particular we know God has created the universe just right for life. Let us praise and thank God frequently for showing such great love.

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The most crowded part of the Milky Way, the Arches Cluster, photographed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope on 8 January 2015. Image courtesy NASA (18051161100).