While drving to the Adler a couple of days a week, I sometimes look past the final thirty minutes of morning rush hour traffic I always find myself in and notice all that painted steel, glass, plastic, and fossil fuel in motion is part of the grand cycle of life. Human beings are behind each wheel, heading north or south, going somewhere, presumably with purpose. Maybe not very fast. But with purpose.
The thought never lasts long because, well, there are taxis around, and if you've done much big city driving you know exactly what I mean. This is one reason why I have an aftermarket PIAA horn under the hood. It's much louder than the original and I figure at least ten times more effective. It's telling that since the school year began I've used the horn on my bus only once, and that was in our parking lot because I couldn't get to my radio fast enough to prevent a collision. Not so in my own car on the Kennedy or Lake Shore Drive during rush.
Honk if you love accident-free commutes.
Anyway, back to purpose. And something called the anthropic principle, which is the idea that the "seemingly arbitrary" constants in physics and chemistry: natural laws, elements, and quantum phenomena -- the fundamental building blocks and operational processes of the universe -- exist precisely to make life in the cosmos possible, and specifically intelligent life as represented by you, me, and our full extended family here on planet Earth. In other words, the universe is finely-tuned for making life, and if things had been just a little bit different here and there, life as we know it would be an impossibility.
Examples of this fine-tuning are impressive at first pass. Here's a sample from a book called God: the Evidence; The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World, by Patrick Glynn (1999):
"Gravity is roughly 10 [to the 39th power] times weaker that electromagnatism. If gravity had been 10 [to the 33rd power] times weaker than electromagnetism, stars would be a billion times less massive and would burn a million times faster
The nuclear weak force is 10 [to the 28th power] times the strength of gravity. Had the weak force been slightly weaker, all the hydorgen in the universe would have been turned to helium (making water impossible, for example)
A stronger nuclear strong force (by as little as 2 percent) would have prevented the formation of protons--yielding a universe without atoms. Decreasing it by 5 percent would have given us a universe without stars.
If the difference in mass between a proton and a neutron were not exactly as it is -- roughly twice the mass of an electron -- then all neutrons would have become protons or vice versa. Say good-bye to chemistry as we know it--and to life.
The very nature of water -- so vital to life -- is something of a mystery (a point noticed by one of the forerunners of anthropic reasoning in the Nineteenth Century, Harvard biologist Lawrence Henderson). Unique amongst the molecules, water is lighter in its solid than liquid form: ice floats. If it did not, the oceans would freeze from the bottom up and earth would now be covered with solid ice. This property in turn is traceable to the unique properties of the hydrogen atom"
But the anthropic principle raises some serious questions, too: Is the design intelligent, the product of a Creator? Cosmologists and others have varying opinions about this. If so, how does intelligent design impact science and our understandings derived through scientific methods? If not, can we accept that fine-tuning is completely accidental? And how do we get around the problem of circular reasoning? (If everything wasn't so-finely tuned, then obviously we wouldn't be here to make the observation that it is.)
Another problem: the anthropic principle theoretically allows for multiple universes -- a multiverse -- but we (presumably) live only in this one, so the existence of the others can't be verified by us using our science. We can say they're there, but there's no way to prove it.
If this weren't enough, there's also something called the "Goldilocks enigma," which says that in order for life to exist, planets can't be too close or too far away from the stars they orbit. They have to be in the "just right" zone, avoiding extremes of heat and cold. This seems right (and figures prominently in NASA's Kepler mission) but exactly how and why does it happen? How many Goldilocks planets are there besides Earth?
Cosmologists have been asking and writing about these questions ever since the anthropic principle was first described by an astrophysicist named Brandon Carter back in 1973, at a conference honoring the 500th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copenicus. The irony of the event is that the father of modern astronomy transformed human thought by removing Earth from the center of the universe, altering its status as the focal point of creation; the anthropic principle gives back to Earth a unique status as that rarest of places in the cosmos: the home of life.
Meanwhile, people are writing books about what this all might mean. One of the latest is by best-selling author-physicist-cosmologist Paul Davies, often mentioned here on CB, whose Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life (2007) explores the anthropic principle and its implications in a very engaging and entertaining way. Davies suggests there are infinite universes, each one ever-so-slightly different than the next. Our cosmos and the life we know within it (so far confined to Earth) is a product of chance, a fortunate result of all the right variables combining in all the right ways at just the right time.
In short, we are the jackpot.
Contemplating all this fine-tuning is a pretty heady exercise. As Davies describes it:
". . . science is at last coming to grips with the enigma of why the universe is so uncannily fit for life. The explanation entails understanding how the universe began and evolved into its present form and knowing what matter is made of and how it is shaped and structured by the different forces of nature. Above all, it requires us to probe the very nature of physical laws."
OK. So maybe getting to the Adler on time and in one piece isn't so difficult, after all.
Next stop: Newberry Update: Are We Alone?
Banner bus photo credit: Dorothy Delina Porter.