Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Pale Blue Dot

The late astronomer Carl Sagan once claimed, "the cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever shall be." This is a pretty good definition of naturalism.

With the picture to the left in mind (which was taken from Voyager 1, 1990), Sagan delivered these words in a commencement address in 1996 just prior to his death:

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

When you really consider the enormity of "this vast cosmic arena," in many ways it is difficult to deny Sagan. Astronomers tell us that the diameter of the observable universe is at least 93 billion light years. For perspective, our galaxy is 100,000 light years across and roughly 2.5 million light years from the nearest sister galaxy (a light year is a unit of length equal to just under 10^13 Kilometers). In a world where astronomers now estimate the existence of billions of galaxies like the Milky Way, our pale blue dot seems to many scientists "the product of a mindless and purposeless natural process which did not have us in mind" (biologist George Gaylord Simpson). Many scientists believe that the earth is a fairly typical planet orbiting around a fairly typical sun in a spiral arm of a fairly typical galaxy positioned in a fairly typical universe (John Lennox, God's Undertaker).

But from modern physics and cosmology a new idea is starting to emerge, calling into question the concept of a "typical" earth; instead, it contends for an earth that is "finely-tuned." Proponents of a "finely-tuned" earth believe that the sustainability of life on earth demands an explanation that is more than mere chance. Among the examples of "fine-tuning" from the fundamental constants of nature are our abundant carbon supply (modify the resonance of the nuclear ground state energy levels by 1% either way and life on earth no longer exists) as well as the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force (had it been different by 1 part in 10^16, no stars could have formed). In fact, if you increase it by only 1 part in 10^40, then only small stars can exist (Lennox).

Just what is 1 part in 10^40? Glad you asked. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross provides this illustration to explain. "Cover America with coins in a column reaching to the moon (236,000 miles away), then do the same for a billion other continents of the same size. Paint one coin red and put it somewhere in one of the billion piles. Blindfold a friend and ask her to pick it out. The odds are about 1 in 10^40 that she will" (Lennox).

Those examples however pale in comparison to the precision necessary for our current rate of entropy in the universe. The mathematician Sir Roger Penrose states: "it would be relatively 'easy' to produce a high entropy universe...but in order to start off the universe in a state of low entropy - so that there will indeed be a second law of thermodynamics...the 'Creator's aim' must have been accurate to 1 part in 10 to the power 10^123, that is 1 followed by 10^123 zeros, a number which it would be impossible to write out in the usual decimal way, because even if you were able to put a zero on every particle in the universe there would not even be enough particles to do the job" (Lennox).

On a smaller-scale more pertinent to earth's "fine-tuning" including surface gravity, temperature, rotational speed, distance to the sun and so on, Ross "makes a rough but conservative calculation that the chance of one such planet existing in the universe is about 1 in 10^30" (Lennox).

The real impetus for this blog entry came several months ago after watching The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W Richards. Their main point is that the earth is the most ideally suited place in the universe in which to observe the universe. In other words, not only is the earth "finely-tuned" for habitation, but it is similarly "finely-tuned" for science. In other parts of the universe there would be too much starlight, or an atmosphere too opaque or translucent rather than transparent, or the visibility of the sun would not be possible without a perfect eclipse from the moon. And as they point out, other more specific examples are abundant.

They conclude: "And yet as we stand gazing at the heavens beyond our little oasis, we gaze not into a meaningless abyss but into a wondrous arena commensurate with our capacity for discovery. Perhaps we have been staring past a cosmic signal far more significant than any mere sequence of numbers, a signal revealing a universe so skilfully crafted for life and discovery that is seems to whisper of an extra-terrestrial intelligence immeasurably more vast, more ancient, and more magnificent than anything we've been willing to expect or imagine" (Lennox).

When pondering the content of The Privileged Planet several ideas occurred to me.

First, the infinite mind of God as the author of creation is truly a stupefying notion, especially when all that we see in the created universe only represents six days of an eternity. As Bridges has written, "what he has brought to light only shews how much is concealed."

But then, when considering the universe and our pale blue dot as a terrestrial metaphor of a greater spiritual reality, something even more telling about the nature of God with respect to man comes to the surface.

Is it possible that something seemingly "obscure" on a "very small stage in a vast cosmic arena" is actually the most "finely-tuned" of all?

Could a "lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark" really be more significant than the wonder and splendor of all the world?

If you read him with a right perspective, Sagan's words might actually point to The Truth, albeit a different truth and one more significant than he had intended - "it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

To Gonzales and Richards' point about the earth - our pale blue dot - being the only capable place of true observation of the cosmos, of seeing reality without the obstruction of an opaque or translucent atmosphere, of seeing more clearly the function of the sun during a dark and very rare solar eclipse, consider the implications of this notion as a spiritual reality as well.

Do you see the Pale Blue Dot?

Perhaps those who have lost the spiritual for the material and the Creator for the creation need only consider more deeply the spiritual significance of the Pale Blue Dot?

Now, understanding more clearly our vast universe and the place of the pale blue dot within it, perhaps the implications of Paul's first chapter of Romans are even further reaching than even he might have realized when it was penned?

Perhaps the implications of spiritual life reflected by creation run deeper than we have ever considered?

But then again, it is only from the perspective of a "finely-tuned" Pale Blue Dot that one can truly see into eternity.


Hal Brunson said...

Beau, I am increasingly amazed at the increasing quality of posts that appear on our blog. Thank you for this excellent article.

Edward Allen said...

Humbling to myself, and exalting to our God. How quick we are to get so wrapped up in our day to day crises of life, our disappointments, our fears, our frustrations. When what we should do is look heavenward and be reminded that we are sons of the Most High. To remember that the same God who made the heavens, made us also, and that He loves us and intends us good and not harm.

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