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Wonders of the Universe was a cosmology series on BBC, presented by Brian Cox in 2011, which dared to go back to where science originally came from: metaphysics. (I was intrigued to learn that ‘metaphysics’ originally came from a work of Aristotle, and the name refers to where it was located in the volume, ‘after the Physics’). The series is not too technical, and keeps it simple, inviting questions like “where did we come from?” and “why are we here?” to come to the fore. These are questions everyone has asked at one time or another. They are at the heart of our sense of wonder at our existence and behind our emotion of curiosity and our willingness to experiment.
Metaphysics is based on concepts evolved by ancient cultures about the nature of being, but cosmological science in recent times has revealed a world which in sheer magnificence eclipses anything conceived of in earlier times. I found it stimulating to see if I could update some of those “meaning of life” questions with data from the series, though I am neither a philosopher nor a scientist. I think most people would find such an effort rewarding.
“I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d”. (Henry Vaughan, c. 1650)
‘Universe’ means ‘moving as one’, or, ‘all that is known’. The series looks at only four concepts: time, creation, gravity, and light.
Time: hours, minutes, seconds, hands on a clock, calendars, schedules, awareness of ageing, time meaning lack of time. We are a bit overwhelmed by time. It’s a bit threatening. All too easy to forget it is a measurement of another process occurring in every part of the universe. Change. And change is the spread of entropy into all matter. The writing is on the wall. “Entropy rules!”. Entropy was an obsession with the great SF writer Philip K Dick and is mentioned in many of his books (as is the poet Henry Vaughan).
Entropy is the movement from organised or unlikely to disorganised or likely arrangement. The particular universe we are a part of (there may be others) started with the posited ‘big bang’ 13.7 billion years ago. Among other things this created space, all scientific laws, and gave rise to a highly organised, though turbulently explosive, arrangement of substance, of microscopic size but enormous density. What was before the ‘big bang’? Another universe? Another state of existence or being? Nothing? But how can you have nothing without something? The ‘big bang’ created all the matter in the universe, in the ultimate continuum, energy/mass. And as it also created time/change, it is still present, though occurring 13.7 billion years ago. Nothing in the universe dies, it merely changes form.
The ‘big bang’ was a state of very low entropy. Entropy appears to be the natural state of the universe, and as time passes, the movement of matter in spirals of galactic matter and clusters of galaxies which produce fusion and birth of new stars, has been observed to slow down. The ‘big bang’, like an enormous sound, is getting fainter and fainter. As it does so, the movement of matter in the universe approaches entropy, until, eventually, the universe will consist of static, disorganised matter, not stars, planets and galaxies. It will take trillions of years, literally more than we can count. Then, perhaps, there will be another ‘big bang’: or perhaps not. The measurement of this movement, or change, from low to high entropy is what we call time. At the edge of the universe galaxies seem to be hurtling away from one another as the universe expands. Closer to home, the motion of earth around the sun and moon around the earth seems unchanging. It’s an illusion, created by our own scale against the size of the universe.
Cosmic time from earthview has not changed much over the years of mankind’s evolution. Cox looked at the ruined towers of Chankillo in Peru, but he could have looked at Stonehenge. Here are remnants of ancient man’s attempt to measure the passing of time, using the most powerful force in the known universe for people of that time: the sun. To them it was a god, mighty and awe inspiring. And it continues to be so today.
How sad to demean the day. Nineteen shopping days til Christmas. Twenty one days to my annual holiday. When each day presents us with a daily miracle, as our earth rotates us 40,000 km in 24 hours to and then away from the sun’s light, and itself rotates the 970 million km of its journey around the sun each year. This is a magnificent spectacle, and we have front row seats to view it every day and night all the days of our lives. Meanwhile, on Neptune, observers would have a trip of 165 of our years each orbit/year; for them, time would seem to pass more slowly. And our galaxy, the Milky Way (the Greek word for galaxy, ‘galaxias’, first meant our galaxy, ‘Milky Way’) with its 200 billion star systems, takes 225 million Earth years each orbit/galactic year around its centre.
Time can be measured: sundials, water clocks, hourglasses, pendulum clocks, atomic clocks. But it can’t be stopped or reversed, because it is a measure of a phenomenon all over the universe, the spread of entropy. To enter the past you would have to create low entropy from high entropy matter, and only the ‘big bang’ has ever done that. The ordered arrangement which is perceived to decrease to show increase of entropy can be measured. But what is measured? Is it just what can be conceptualised by the human brain? It seems the future is created by the past, the ‘big bang’, because that introduced low entropy, or design, into a high entropy universe (which was only then being created). The present, so crucial to us, might be so to the universe as well.
Time/change looks like another continuum, like space/time. Perhaps they are the same, space/change. If we did not exist in time/change, we would not die. But neither would we evolve. This continuum could imply that the ‘big bang’ might itself be a form of life. A form of mind, what believers once called logos, a distinguishing characteristic of which is the faculty of organisation. As the universe moves from order to anarchy we play a part midway in the process. Product of an evolution that began almost four billion years ago in a place destined to be destroyed when the sun dies five billion years in the future, that future could be influenced by the actions we make and their effects on entropy. It might not be much, but every little bit counts. That could be why we’re here. Where do you stand, for or against entropy?
Highly organised matter in the universe after it was first created was quite dynamic. That creation, and organisation, gave rise to heat. Heat powered the creation of simple elements and their fusion into more complex elements. This in turn gave rise to movement in the galactic dust that was being formed. Galaxies were being created, and they in turn created stars and planets, comets, asteroids and all the matter in space. It is thought that this matter makes up about five percent of the universe, and that mostly the universe is an unknowable substance called dark matter (‘dark’, as in history that has ‘dark ages’, means unknown, hidden). This is because we cannot fully explain the universe.
The matter we can know we can break down into smaller and smaller components: up quarks, down quarks, which form neutrons and protons, which combine with electrons to form elements. The simplest of these is hydrogen, one electron around one proton. Hydrogen is the core element of the sun and of many stars. On earth it is commonly combined with oxygen to form water, two hydrogen elements and one oxygen element. The story of the evolving universe is the reaction of these simple elements to heat produced at first by the ‘big bang’.
During the life and death of stars, more complex matter, elements, were created through fusion, star transformations such as stardeaths, red giants, red dwarfs, novae, super novae, black holes. This matter spread to other galaxies and stars, and combined through fusion to create the 94 natural elements known throughout the entire universe. The foundation of all matter, including us.
This is the occupation of the universe in its present stage, and astronomers and physicists can explain views of the universe as transformations within galaxies, from nebulae trailing clouds of stellar matter, gravity arising to form this into spiral movements which eventually form stars, nuclear reactions that transform stars from one type into another, and finally the death of stars, as they become red dwarves, or exploding supernovae, and whose remnants form nebulae to start the whole process over. Trailing matter becomes orbiting planets. One star in the Milky Way is called Gliese 581, 20 light years away, and around this star are several planets. It has been surmised that one of these, g, orbits at a distance which produce temperature ranges conducive to life (as we know it on earth, which might be an unrealistic expectation). Would we recognise the inhabitants of g, if they exist, as a life form, perhaps a civilisation? I think we would have too many expectations to see clearly.
Three planets, two moons, two asteroids, one comet, and spectrum analysis of other stellar phenomenon: exploration of the universe always gives the same result. Some at least of the 94 known elements. Everything we can see and examine comes from the same source, created by the death of stars. And these elements endlessly combine and recombine to create the diversity of structures we know on earth, including life, including mankind. What a stupendous revelation, more awe inspiring than any other insight into our origins.
It’s a story of nuclear fusion, at first of hydrogen, the simplest element, into helium, the next simplest. This is the creative force we know, the one which created the universe after its first few minutes of existence. What we once called god, because we had such a limited knowledge of ourselves, the universe, and the nature of god. If god is the first cause, in Aristotle’s terms, the Prime Mover, then god is clearly something else than the creator of the visible universe, and it is limited of us to limit it so.
Attempts to look earlier than the first three minutes of the ‘big bang’ are plagued with conceptual difficulties (and are a product of mathematics). The emergence then of the four forces organising matter – gravity, weak and strong nuclear forces and electromagnetism – and the shaping of the first particles, quarks and electrons, lead to the world we experience today. But earlier? We may be limited in describing what happened by two disadvantages. The first is that we don’t know why there was a ‘big bang’, and the second is we are trying to know ourselves, and self comprehension has limits created by the observation point we take, much as the eye has a ‘blind spot’. Possibly a scientific explanation, if it emerges, might ‘flatten’ reality, give it a mechanical air from the very limitations of that method of comprehension, and need an intuitive, poetic, supplementary explanation as well.
If heat after the ‘big bang’ is like Vishnu creating and preserving the stellar matter of the universe, then gravity, which forms and destroys the structure of the universe, is like Shiva. Take out the matter of evil, and it’s not unlike the Jewish/Christian roles of Jehovah and Satan. The god of fire and the god of inertia. Gravity collapses the stars in upon themselves, and this causes nuclear reactions within stars that make them shine. Eventually nuclear reaction fails, the stars collapse, and a supernova is produced which creates new stellar matter. Within galaxies and solar systems alike, gravitational pull affects the orbit of every stellar body, creates its individual orbit, and, vital for us, is responsible for holding an atmosphere rich in oxygen close to the earth. The planet Mars, with a gravitational pull less than half of the earth’s, was not so lucky, and its atmosphere, and surface water, were lost in space.
Gravity is a constant in the universe, and its action is seen in the rotation of galaxies, solar system, planets, asteroids, the retention of atmosphere on the earth, gravitational pull of the moon on the earth’s surface, most noticeably the tides, weather fluctuations, and behaviour of the elements with which all these bodies are made, and the orbits of electrons around protons. It creates a stable system, while other factors such as nuclear reactions in the stars and rival force fields from neighbouring bodies work to destabilise that system.
One unpleasant factor of gravity is that involving the Milky Way’s nearest spiral neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy, two million light years away (25 million, million, million kilometres). Andromeda contains one trillion stars, the Milky Way 400 billion stars. The universe is expanding, but as both the Milky Way and Andromeda move away from the hub of the local galactic cluster, they are also moving closer to one another, expanding in the same direction. Gravity determines that they will collide. This has happened many times in the history of galaxies, including that of both the Milky Way and Andromeda. Collision date is thought to be in three billion years time. The view from earth will be spectacular, with hundreds of suns in the sky.
Gravity, if it was sentient, would be making decisions about moving galactic dust together and forming stars with it, then making them shine, then recycling them to form galactic dust again. This is the purpose of the universe, at this galactic moment at any rate. So where does life fit in to this scheme? Some say it is merely an accident, an incidental by-product of other processes. But that’s a value judgment not supported by any evidence. We still don’t know what the purpose of life is (probably because ‘purpose’ is a structure created by the human brain), and astronomy doesn’t look as though it can find an answer. The most it can tell us is that human beings are definitely not at the centre of the universe. It’s not all about us (or our sins). In a way this is not unexpected. Thinking of the purpose of life is like thinking about what a thought is. Can you do it? Are you sure your thought about a thought, if you can form one, is not distorted and inaccurate because it is itself a thought? So life itself probably can never see why it is.
Light is the means by which we see the world, and a source of much of the information we have about it. Light is the only source of information we have about the rest of the universe. One quality we know about light is its speed. So we also know that the picture of the universe, or part of the universe, we receive is as old as the time light takes to reach us from each observed object. And that it’s very old, because stellar distances are immense. We look up at the night sky and see not what is, but what was. Even the light from the Sun is eight minutes old when it reaches earth. Nearest star Alpha Centauri is four years in the past. So far there are 100 billion galaxies deduced, each with billions of stars. But we don’t just see them. Because of the nature of light, which is divided into a spectrum of colours, we can break up the light from objects to discern both their chemical composition, because each union of elements has a characteristic spectral pattern, and also calculate their motion and dimension, and their age. True, some of this information is relative to us as the observers on earth, but it still tells us much about the universe and what is going on inside it. We cannot see outside the universe.
Within the universe and its 100 billion galaxies the Milky Way itself is immense on our earthly scale. It is approximately 100,000 light years in diameter, that is, light, travelling much faster than we can, would take 100,000 years to cross the galaxy, which could contain as many as 400 billion stars.
We observe all this because heat, produced in stars by nuclear fusion under the pressure of gravity, also produces light, which travels at a constant speed across the universe and registers an impact on our optic nerve, which is then interpreted by our brain. How majestic to think this is all one process, a relationship between the creation of star light and its reception and interpretation within one of the products of that same emission of star light. Not only are we formed by elements created by stars, but part of that formation, our eye/brain, can try to understand what it observes of that process. I find that one of the most awe inspiring concepts I’ve ever come across.
Most people don’t look up, don’t see the stars (some look up but can only see smog covering the sky). Most other animals can’t look up. But, although there are many, many stars visible to the naked eye, they all look much the same til you view them in a telescope. However, certain cosmic events, novae, supernovae or hypernovae, will be visible in the night sky, or even the day sky. These have been observed at times from earth, and there are several which might appear at any moment. Of course they occur all the time in the evolution of the universe and its galaxies, we just can’t see most of them. What will we do when we see one again? Ooh and Ahh as we do at fireworks? Or panic at the coming end of the world? It’s an even bet. In either case it will be over-estimating what is within our field of vision, as though that was all that existed. It’s always better to think wide and deep than narrow and shallow. A neighbouring cosmic cloud known as Eta Carinae is only 7,500 light years away. It exploded in 1843, and was a cause of wonder on earth. It is due to go supernova any day now. Keep your eye out.
That’s not all that light does. Every object that light reaches uses part of its energy for survival. Because light consists of a spectrum of colours, the part of the spectrum not used by each object is reflected back, and gives it its characteristic colour to our eyes. That way light gives us a coloured world, not a monochrome one. And humans have developed a sensitivity to this phenomenon which enables us to register these colours, a gift not every animal species possesses. Light itself is part of a broader range of electromagnetic radiation, and includes microwave, infra red, ultra violet, radio, x and gamma rays. So the elemental forces, gravity, electromagnetism, shape not only our world, and our species, but also our experience of that world. Existence is a continuum. Space begins inside us, as we begin as part of the stars.
The series’ presenter, Cox, and the writer, have done wonders in explaining complex scientific matter, which is constantly being updated, in a comprehensible manner, in particular in intelligently compressing information, or generalising it. There is also a book of the series, which I found very helpful. The series features spectacularly impressive location shoots, as Cox searches the globe for analogies on earth to events in space. The producers obviously want to avoid the static “talking head” type of presentation, and cinematographer Kevin White has produced footage which would grace a high production nature or travelogue series. The music by Sheridan Tongue has its pluses and minuses, and the computer generated star images do too. The problem is that the subject is so visually spectacular the images soon lose their force, and so too does the music. Cox is an engaging presenter, and his personal reaction to the matter of the show carries it through. Perilously close to falling between two stools, too general for those already conversant with the subject, too detailed for those into visual fairy floss, the series worked for me. In fact I found it sublime. I may have some facts wrong in this essay, and made crass pseudo metaphysical observations, but I’ll never look at the stars again in quite the same way after viewing the series. Compared to my standard for this subject, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos of 1980, which I rate 10/10, this is 8.5/10. A much shorter series, it lacks the poetry of Cosmos, while updating the science. I learned a lot, and saw a lot of beautiful things on earth and in heaven. I learned that, no matter how much we discover, if we lose our sense of wonder, that knowledge is useless. And that’s what the series is about: it’s all in the title.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.
Welcome. The essays you'll find on this site are my opinions, my attempt to re-evaluate their subjects. I think the ideas, books, films, music, myths and history explored here are valuable just because they continue to be discussed, so let's hear what you think.