The universe – stranger than we could imagine

July 21st, 2022 in clues. Tags: , ,
Carina nebula

As long as I can remember, I have had an interest in astronomy and cosmology. As a young teenager, I visited the planetarium in the Sydney Museum of Technology many, many times, to see the show about the night sky.

The stars and planets were fascinating to me. But little did I know back then how strange a place the universe is. Vast and surprising on a big scale, and strange and paradoxical on a minute scale.

The enormous universe

For millennia humans have gazed up and the night sky and felt awe. But there’s so much more that we can’t see that way.

NASA’s space photos

NASA has a large collection of space photos – rockets, planets, galaxies, nebula and the rest. All this is made freely available and the collection is well worth perusing.

The gallery has been enhanced recently by photos from the James Webb Space Telescope, which has the capability to see distant objects not previously visible. Light from distant objects reaches earth as infrared radiation because of the expansion of the universe (the “Red shift”), and Webb is able to “see” this radiation.

Of particular interest to astrophysicists is the formation of stars and galaxies. The photo above shows the “Cosmic Cliffs“, a star-forming region in the Carina nebula, a gas and dust cloud 7,600 light years away and several hundred light years in diameter. It is believed that much of the gas and dust came from the “death” of old stars in the past. The nebula contains some of the largest and brightest stars in our Milky Way galaxy (two are about 400 million times brighter than our sun, and likely to become supernova in the future) plus many newly-born stars.

5 galaxies

This photo shows Stephan’s Quintet, a group of 5 galaxies. Four of these, about 200-340 million light years away, interact, colliding and “pulling and stretching each other in a gravitational dance”, and are likely in time to form into one larger galaxy. The other galaxy, on the left is much closer than the others (about 39 million light years), and includes star-forming regions.

Vast beyond comprehension

The more we can observe, the more amazing and vast the universe appears. The observable universe is calculated to be 93 billion light years across, and expanding. But there may be more that isn’t visible to us because the universe isn’t old enough for the light to have reached us yet.

(The universe is about 14 billion years old, so the most distant objects we see as they were up to 14 billion yars ago. Since that time, as the universe expands faster than light, they have travelled much further and are now up to 46 billion light years away.)

Astronomers estimate that in the obervable universe there are something like a trillion (10^12) galaxies and 10^23 stars at least. There may be more smaller galaxies that we can’t see, and of course there are almost certainly more beyond our observation.

Much more than what we can see

It turns out that the matter we can see (planets, stars, galaxies, nebulae) comprises only 5% of the universe. The remaining 95% is made up of:

  • Dark matter is more or less invisible to light (it neither emits or absorbs light) and other forms of radiation. It’s existence can only be inferred from its gravitational effects. Dark matter makes up about 27% of the total mass–energy and 84% of the total matter in the universe.
  • Dark energy is even more mysterious. It is an unknown form of energy which permeates space, makes up 68% of the universe’s mass-energy, and is believed to be causing the universe’s expansion to accelerate.

Einstein and all that

Albert Einstein is famous for his theory of special relativity, which has several strange outcomes:

  • As an object moves faster, its mass increases, approach infinite mass at light speed. Thus no object can travel faster than light.
  • Time is different for observers moving at different speeds. Moving at the speed of light results in time slowing down (time dilation). We tend to think of time as inexorable, but Einstein showed it can be varied.
  • Mass and energy can be converted to each other according the the famous formula e = mc^2, where e=energy, m=mass and c=speed of light.

Weird when it gets small

The universe is comprised of space, time, matter and energy. As scientists have studied the universe, all of these components exhibit unusual properties.

Strange but charming?

When I was at school (nearly back in the Dark Ages), matter was made up of atoms, which were were composed of protons, electrons and neutrons. It was all very tidy. But somewhere along the way, it got more complex.

In the Standard Model of Particle Physics, there are matter particles (fermions) and force particles (bosons).

There are 12 fundamental fermions, including electrons, neutrinos and quarks. The six quarks include the “strange” and “charm” quarks. But only a small number of these fundamental particles play a part in our universe now (the others existed in the early stages of the big bang). Quarks are not found in isolation, but combine to form protons and neutrons. Millions of electron-neutrinos produced by the sun pass through our bodies all the time, they are small, carry no charge and have no impact on us.

For every matter particle there is a corresponding anti-matter particle. When a matter particle meet its anti-particle, they annihilate each other and energy is produced. With enough energy, a quark can be created together with its anti-quark.

There are 6 fundamental gauge bosons, and bizarrely, these create the interactions or forces between the matter particles. There are 4 forces – gravitational, electromagnetic, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Photons are responsible for electromagnetic fields, gluons mediate the strong interaction, 3 bosons mediate the weak force which governs radioactive decay while the Higgs boson gives particles their mass, and it is thought that the as-yet-undetected gravitron may produce the gravitational force.

How does a particle mediate a force? When a particle exerts a force on another, a gauge boson passes between the two particles. For example, the repulsive electromagnetic force felt when two negatively charged electrons approach each other is felt when one of the electons emits a photon and the other receives it. I can’t say I fully understand it, but that’s how it works.

There is so much more that can be said here, but not by me. You can check it out on Wikipedia.

Quantum weirdness

Particle physics, or quantum mechanics, is the study of how these fundamental particles interact and produce the physics and chemistry we are more familiar with. But it is a strange world.

According to quantum field theory, quantum fields exist everywhere in space and time and have a specific value at every point. An example is a magnetic field, which is stronger near magnetic poles or magnets. Now here’s the weird thing (or one of them!). A particle can be seen as a fluctuation in a quantum field. A field can be present even when there are no particles (a quantum vacuum), and then a fluctuation in that field causes a particle to appear. It is thought that the dark energy we met earlier may be the energy of a quantum vacuum.

There are many other weird aspects of quantum physics:

  • Observing an object changes it (Observer Effect). Electrons behave as waves when not observed but as particles when observed, and this changes their behaviour.
  • If an object’s speed is measured, it’s location cannot be known exactly (Heisenberg’s Uncertanty Principle).
  • Particles can be in two places at once (quantum superposition).
  • When particles are generated, interact, or are close to each other, they may become entangled, which means that what happens to one can affect the others, even when far apart. So, for example, if two entangled particles travel light years apart and then one is measured, which changes its state, the other one is affected. This was described by Eistein as “spooky action at a distance”.

The normal laws and the familiar ways things work just don’t apply at the quantum level.

Mathematics: a different kind of strangeness

We start learning mathematics at an early age, with simple arithmetic (counting) and geometry (shapes). Later on, perhaps, we may learn algebra, calculus and trigonometry which are much less straightforward and often have little application to our daily lives. Many of the theorems we learn (or avoid!) are theoretical, and can be proven without resort to real world observation or experimentation.

But some scientists, especially physicists, use mathematics all the time. Physical formula are written in mathematical form. Complex mathematics is used to solve physics questions. And some scientists are astonished to find that the physical universe we inhabit seems to behave mathematicaly, everywhere and at all times. Somehow, something that is abstract and in a sense doesn’t exist in a tangible way, nevertheless controls everything that happens.

Some mathematics is actually impossible to realise in the real world. An example is imaginery numbers (the name says it all!). It is impossible to calculate the square root of a negative number. Yet the imaginery number i, which = the square root of -1, is an extremely useful concept in electrical and other calculations. So an abstract non-physical something that can’t actually exist helps describe the real world.

Nobel laureate physicist, Eugene Wigner wrote “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and … there is no rational explanation for it”.

Philosophical questions

So much about the universe, on the large scale and on the small scale, is surprising to us and contrary to what we experience and what we regard as “normal”. We naturally want to find answers to questions.

Science is in a sense based on trying to answer questions about how it all works and came to be the way it is. We (the scientists, not me!) are slowly discovering answers.

Philosophy and religion, on the other hand, ask questions about cause and purpose and ultimate reality.

How did it all get here?

This is the most fundamental question of all, asked for millennia. How did this universe come to exist, apparently out of nothing. As we understand how vast the universe is, this question becomes more pointed. How could such a vast universe appear out of nothing? Or, how could such a dynamic universe always have existed – wouldn’t all the scientific processes have “run down” in an infinite past?

It is no wonder that so many people have concluded that the universe didn’t appear out of nothing, but an infinite God made it. Either the universe had no cause, which seems crazy, or something that has always existed started it off. This is the basis of the Cosmological argument for the existence of God.

If God created it, why so vast?

If we were designing a world for humans to live in, we’d do it much more efficiently, surely? Why so much universe? I can think of several answers:

  • Why not? It’s no big deal for an infinite God.
  • The physics requires it, the cosmologists say. If it wasn’t as large, it wouldn’t work and stay around long enough for life to evolve. And while God can do anything that isn’t illogical, once he (or she) decides to create a physical world, he (or she) must accept the limitations that come with that. So the physical universe we know had to be much, much bigger than just our planetary home.
  • We may not be the only life in the universe. But we can be a very selfish and rapacious species. Perhaps God wanted to put all of us so far apart from each other that we would never travel as far as another civilisation, and so can’t harm them.
  • It gives curious humans something to think about, something that might lead us to seek God.

Was it designed?

Cosmologists have found that while the universe looks chaotic and random, the laws that govern it are anything but. If it occurred randomly and evolved randomly, the probability is almost zero that it would last for long, take on a form that allows stars and planets to form, and provide conditions and time for life to evolve. This is sometimes called “fine-tuning”.

But if it wasn’t random, what caused it to be so well designed? Perhaps there was a designer?

Several pages on this website examine this question:

Does mathematics point to God?

This isn’t such a strong argument, but some people believe the mystery of why mathematics works so well in the physical universe suggests it was designed. Read more at Does mathematics prove God?

Want to read more?

I’ve put links to most of the science in the text. Googling will always lead you to more references.

But if you want to check it out more thoroughly and systematically, I recommend the book A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos by astrophysicists Geraint Lewis and Luke Barnes, reviewed here.

Space photos by NASA show the “Cosmic Cliffs”, a star-forming region in the Carina nebula (top) and Stephan’s Quintet (5 galaxies, 4 of which interact).

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25 Comments

  1. The universe is very simple.
    Upon the realization of our singularity consciousness (1) in this universe of nothingness (0), there was a BIG BANG explosion of unanswerable questions.
    What am I ? Where when how why do I know I AM?
    Since those questions had no answers, we had to create answers.
    So “we created the god that created us in order to explain our existence …god did it.
    What we see angstroms vibrating energy
    What we hear Decibels vibrating energy
    What we think consciousness vibrating energy.
    There is nothing physical.
    Everything is made of atoms
    Atoms are made of subatomic particles.
    Sub atomic particles are just a perception of subatomic electromagnetic energy waves.
    Any questions?

  2. Hi James, you keep reading and commenting, for which I am grateful. But I’m sorry to say that what you write doesn’t make any sense to me. Could you maybe tell me a little about yourself please, and what you believe and think, so I can try to understand what you write? Thanks.

  3. Thank you for asking. It helps me in learning to communicate better.
    Please specify what does not make sense and I will clarify.
    I have been interested in finding out exactly what god is since I was 20 years old. Religion did not answer the questions of . What god is, what we are, what the beginning was or why we exist. The purpose. I m 71 years old and in the past 3 year I have formed a very comprehensive understanding of our consciousness and perception of this physical perception of reality.. briefly
    1: we began as one thought “I AM”
    2: that realization caused a BIG BANG explosion of unanswerable questions.
    What am I where when how why do I know “I AM”?
    3: since there were no answers to those questions, we created answers… god the creator and sustainer of our consciousness did it.
    4: the purpose of our existence is to make it as enjoyable as possible.
    5: we are a lonely bored singularity consciousness (1) in a universe of nothingness
    (0) vibrating and creating a binary expression of our consciousness. 100111000
    Energy cannot be created or destroyed so we will exist forever. Might as well make our existence as enjoyable as possible.
    Thoughts firing synapses vibrating energy
    Sounds decibels vibrating energy
    Sights Angstroms vibrating energy
    Everything is a perception of varying frequencies of that vibrating energy.
    Any other questions?

  4. OK, thanks for that. Let’s start with your “1: we began as one thought “I AM””

    Can you explain this please:

    (a) Who are the “we”?
    (b) Who had the thought?
    (c) Why does it matter what the thought was?
    (d) How do you know this?

    Thanks.

  5. Can you explain this please:

    (a) Who are the “we”?
    We are a collective consciousness created by observing our UNI verse from all different perspectives based on our various experiences

    (b) Who had the thought?
    No one existed before that first thought therefore we are like a spontaneous result of our first realization that “I AM”
    This caused a BIG BANG explosion of unanswerable questions
    What am I where how why do I know “I AM”?
    (c) Why does it matter what the thought was?
    It matters because it was the nature of that first thought that created our universe of circular reasoning.. I think therefore I AM.
    Who created me? The creator we label with the word God. Who created the creator? We created god in order to explain our existence.
    (d) How do you know this?
    EVIDENCE: I think therefore I know I am from personal observation and experience. Everything else is a creation of my consciousness.
    LOGIC: if I exist, something created me
    REASON: the purpose of this physical perception of reality, is to use our vibrating energy, aka firing synapses aka consciousness. The purpose: To create a more enjoyable experience than being a bored lonely singularity consciousness (1) in a universe of nothingness (0) .. I think… if you will pardon the pun and double entendre.

  6. Do you have any questions you need answered for me to prove there is a god, but more importantly why that god is not physical.
    In short atoms are subatomic electromagnetic energy waves… consciousness…not a physical existence.

  7. Hi Eric

    We share a common fascination with cosmology it seems. I find fine tuning a deeply curious idea, and while I am certain I am grossly oversimplify it ( I should note for the sake of honestly I believe I have much more to understand on the subject), it seems to me a foil for the idea of the multiverse. I have noticed some think it’s a competition between a fine tuned godly universe and a physicalist’s multiverse. But I’ve read about many atheist/agnostics/non-religious researchers that have a lot of problems with the multiverse theory. At the same time, Stephen Barr, a Catholic physicist has stated that he doesn’t believe either religious people or atheists “have a dog in that fight”, noting the the fine tuning Vs multiverse battle lines have never and likely will never be clearly drawn. I personally am skeptical of multiverse but not dismissive. I find it a cool idea. I don’t see how a multiverse really effects the arguments for and against God, although I do see how anyone who believes in a purely materialistic existence would favour it in answer the fine tuning question. There seems to be many views in both camps

    What are your thoughts on the multiverse?

    Wishing you and your loved ones well.

    Aaron

  8. There is no “multiverse” because this the “UNIVERSE” for a reason.
    We are a singularity consciousness in a UNIverse (1) of nothingness (0) creating a perception of our existence as a vibrating collective consciousness. 00101110
    Firing synapses .. decibels.. angstroms..
    With these vibrations we use various frequencies to express our existence..
    But being a bored lonely singularity consciousness is a very boring lonely existence.. so we use “suspension of disbelief”
    Like watching a movie to make life an exciting perception of those vibrations as a physical reality..
    But I can be more specific if you ask me anything about our existence

  9. Hi James,

    You say “We are a collective consciousness created by observing our UNI verse from all different perspectives based on our various experiences”

    I don’t see any evidence for that. Can you explain why you think that?

  10. The only EVIDENCE is I think therefore I KNOW “I AM”
    Just as Rene Descartes and the bible points out “tell them I AM has sent you”
    Everything else is. Product of MY CONSCIOUSNESS..
    vibrating energy firing synapses
    Vibrating energy sound decibels
    Vibrating energy colours angstroms
    EVERYTHING you think say hear or do as a physical PERCEPTION of atoms … subatomic electromagnetic energy waves is just an expression of vibrating energy.

    I know I AM from a singularity consciousness (1) in a universe of nothingness (0) or 100111000
    personal observation and experience.

    Any other questions? I have proven I exist
    Something created me . God is a word we defined as creator and sustainer of our physical perception of reality.

    Also I will always exist because energy cannot be created or destroyed.

    And only now ever exists because the past
    Does not exist anymore. The future
    Dos not exist yet.
    Only now exists as an ever expanding ever changing singularity consciousness in a universe of nothingness we call our consciousness.

  11. Hi Aaron, it is good we have that common interest. There are two questions about the multiverse:

    (1) Is it true? It sounds far-fetched and it’s certainly a hypothesis that stretches Occam’s Razor. I understand there are cosmological models that suggest it might be true, but also some serious scientific difficulties with it, not least that it seems it maybe can never be tested with data. I can’t help wondering whether there is a bias towards it by non-theist cosmologists because it seems to be the only answer to the fine-tuning argument, but hopefully the scientific method will prevent that being a factor.

    2. Is it an answer to the fine-tuning argument? I don’t think so, for three reasons.

    (i) Roger Penrose says the odds of a low entropy universe like ours are 1 in 10^10^123. So how many universes would there have to be in the multiverse to make it reasonable that our universe was one of them? It still seems unlikely.

    (ii) How likely is it that a multiverse that occurred randomly is capable of generating zillions of universes all with different physical properties? Again, it still seems unlikely.

    (iii) If the multiverse is scientifically doubtful, and quite possibly always will be, it can’t be a very strong alternative to design as a cause of the universe.

    So I conclude that the multiverse may be true, but it is unlikely to be something we can be sure of and thus not a strong alternative, as Stephen Barr says. I have heard a number of atheists say it is the strongest ofthe theistic arguments.

    I have a book by Stephen Barr which is very good. What have you seen from him lately?

  12. Hi James,

    You say “The only EVIDENCE is I think therefore I KNOW “I AM””

    I accept that. But I asked how you know we are a collective consciousness. Knowing you are is no evidence of that. Can you explain how you think it is?

  13. Thinking……
    What I was saying is the only thing I know is that “I AM” from personal observation and experience… everything else could be and is.. from my perspective… a creation of my consciousness . Firing synapses vibrating energy… based on my experience of sounds decibels vibrating energy and sight angstroms vibrating energy.. our total understanding of our existence is based on vibrating energy..
    100111001.
    In order to understand our existence, we must experience it from an unlimited number of perspectives.
    And every new perspective, created even more different perspectives.
    Unlimited different perspectives of the same UNIverse. Do you need any other specific clarifications of our perception of our universe

  14. I’m sorry James, but I don’t feel that is any explanation at all. Let’s stay with your first point. I agree that “the only thing I know is that “I AM” from personal observation “.

    So how do you get from there to “collective consciousness”? Or are you no longer saying you believe that?

  15. . Collective. More than one thought.
    A million people can collect different views and join them together to come up with a more complete understanding of their .
    I think therefore I am… but what am I?
    I think the ice cream is good because I enjoy the taste. Someone else thinks ice cream is bad because it’s fattening and causes calories.
    I think people should save money for a rainy day.
    Someone else thinks we should use money now because tomorrow may never come for me.
    Personally I Think about things from many different points of view.. A COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS based on a collation of many different experiences I have had.
    Every one of our thousand consciousness experiences can be collected to come to a more complete understanding of our existence.
    However
    We can choose to ignore other peoples point of view and be IGNORANT self centred uneducated fools doing stupid things because we have not learned all the different and better ways of accomplishing our goals to meet our needs.
    A collective consciousness to me is a more efficient way to create a more enjoyable life. Instead of trying to force each other to do what we ignorantly think is right based on our individual experience.

  16. Oh yeah I can be an individual (1) consciousness , but I can have many different thoughts based on many different experiences looked at from many different points of view.
    A collective consciousness…
    Do you get it now?
    If not what do you need clarified?

  17. “Do you get it now?”

    No, I’m sorry, I don’t get it, because I don’t see an “it” to get. I don’t see a coherent idea, nor a coherent explanation. I’ve asked you about just one aspect (collective consciousness) and I haven’t seen an explanation of what you think that is, not any evidence for it being true. What I see is a bunch of disconnected statements that don’t make sense to me, don’t tell me anything coherent and don’t offer any reason to believe any of it even if I could understand it.

    It is obvious our minds work very differently. So granted all that, I won’t try to understand or comment any more. You are welcome to read and to comment, but unless something changes I won’t ask any more questions. Sorry about that.

  18. My guess is that you do not “get it”, because your mind is still locked into the false premise that there is physical evidence.
    Even though I pointed out that atoms are actually a perception of subatomic electromagnetic energy waves or a consciousness that is taking that vibrating energy and imagining it as a physical reality.
    You are oblivious to Rene Descartes understanding that “I AM” just a creation of my thoughts or consciousness.
    You obviously simply refuse to accept the FACT. that physical is just a perception of the non physical vibrating energy we call thinking or consciousness.
    Until you are willing to look at what life really is you will remain ignorant of the “truth”
    As Col Jessup said in a few good men
    “Truth?, YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH”.. yet…. Look more closely at what you perceive as physical… subatomic electromagnetic energy waves… are not physical… you just choose to think they are, to make your existence as a singularity consciousness in a universe of nothingness a more enjoyable experience…

  19. Hi James,

    “your mind is still locked into the false premise that there is physical evidence”
    You haven’t demonstrated that that is a false premise. All you have done is assert it. I don’t believe it.

    “physical is just a perception of the non physical vibrating energy we call thinking or consciousness”
    Even if that is what “all” is, it still means it is something. That becomes the definition of physical (if that is true).

    “you just choose to think they are, to make your existence as a singularity consciousness in a universe of nothingness a more enjoyable experience…”
    You cannot know why I choose things, and in this case you are quite wrong. I don’t see how believing what you say (if I could understand it) would change any of my enjoyment of life. As we agree, I think, therefore I am. I am conscious and reasonably happy. Whether the physical is of one form or another actually makes no difference to my consciousness and my enjoyment of life.

    “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH””
    Do you see where this is leading? You think you disagree with me but so far you have been unable to offer any evidence to support your statements in answer to my questions. And so you choose to use insults instead of evidence. I am sorry you choose that. I have tried to be respectful of your view and question you rather than insult you.

    Like I said before, now might be a good time to terminate this conversation. Thanks.

  20. Too bad you have not idea what EVIDENCE LOGIC AND REASON..,are.. but sadly you are ignorant of the FACT that atoms are a perception of Protons electrons neutrons… are a perception of subatomic particles… leptons quarks bosons… are just a perception of subatomic electromagnetic energy forces, NOT PHYSICAL OBJECTS..
    Go back to school and learn about QUANTUM physics. Pure consciousness creating eating and sustaining this dreamlike illusion of a physical reality to make its lonely boring existence as a singularity consciousness (1)
    in a universe of nothingness (0) s’more enjoyable experience by vibrating 1001101001 .. different frequencies creating sounds decibels colours angstroms thoughts consciousness… all just a perception of vibrating energy we are using to make our existence a more enjoyable experience..
    Go look up “suspension of disbelief “ if you can figure out the progression of
    Fictional stories we are creating… evolving into …moving pictures … colour moving pictures .. 3D.. moving pictures finally our consciousness actually believing the stories we are creating are a physical reality…

  21. Hi Aaron,

    “You may find this Stephen Barr article interesting”

    It was very good, thanks. I think I will add to or amend one of my pages as a result. I have his book. It’s very good though a bit old now.

  22. It is just looking at the same consciousness from different points of view.
    I think therefore I am…I take literally
    We are just vibrating energy, 10011100
    Firing synapses.. thoughts .. perceiving our existence as a physical reality to make it more enjoyable.. a bored lonely singularity consciousness (1) in a universe of nothingness (0)….
    Upon the realization that we exist, there was a
    BIG BANG explosion of unanswerable questions … what where why how when.. those questions are unanswerable so….
    We created the god that created us in order to explain our existence. God the creator did it.
    I think we are in agreement on the concept of our existence.. we can look at it like a chair.. from up “D” from front an “H” from side an “h”
    All the same chair from a different point of view.
    Thanks for sharing… we are making the universe a more interesting and enjoyable experience as we are creating different perspectives based on our differences.

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