December 10, 2011

Reflections: Our learn'd astronomers depend on dice to make theories work

By JOSEPH R. MCKENNA

I watch a lot of science programs on PBS and the History Channel. I have a pretty good science grounding for an amateur. I've been keeping up with the latest in quantum physics and astronomy and the origins of the universe. I heard Stephen Hawking say on TV lately that you don't need a creator to explain where the universe came from. Particles just appear and disappear at random. I watched Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Universe." He is a spokesperson for that scientific community that is investigating this very intersting topic.

REFLECTIONS is a column written by members of Maine's faith-based community. Opinions expressed in the column reflect the author's view and not necessarily that of the newspaper.

Let me set up the problem that Greene's community is involved with.

Here I am sitting at my computer typing this essay. Back 12 billion years ago, there was nothing but quarks. So how did I get here from those quarks and why am I smart enough to write this essay?

If I do not accept a creator, then the only solution is that I got here by chance. Yes, the same chance/luck that is involved when you are sitting at a slot machine. (Well, not exactly because they are fixed to favor the house.) But explaining how I got here by chance requires a lot of lucky outcomes. Here are just a few: By lucky-chance, stars were formed. By lucky-chance, our sun was formed to be just the right size. Cosmic dust was attracted by our sun, and formed planets and by lucky-chance one of them -- the planet Earth -- was just the right distance from the sun to have the right temperature and just the right weight to keep its atmosphere from spinning off, etc., etc., etc. All these strokes of luck are now called the "Goldilocks effect": Everything had to be "just right" for life to even start.

What are the chances that each of these fortuitous circumstances would happen? And that they would occur at a given moment in the progress of the universe, because if they don't happen at the proper instant as the universe progresses, they do not have a second chance.

Just like you have to pull the lever on the slot machine quite a number of times to finally get the lucky prize, so there has to be multiple universes in which the chances for all these events can play out to finally get a universe (ours) and a planet (ours) where life can evolve and I can sit here at this computer.

The task that Greene and others have set for themselves is to put into mathematical formulae all the variables that go into all these chances happening, ultimately resulting in me sitting here. It takes more than one blackboard on which to write them all out.

They use the mathematics of statistics. That's what all those equations are that fill their blackboards. This is what Brian Greene means when he keeps saying "mathematics says that you have to have billions of this or billions of that"-- and of course he is right -- you would have to have billions of universes if everything depended on chance. And because he is a philosophical Determinist (no free will, everything is "determined") he goes one further: He maintains that in some of these universes, there could be another person just like you.

Do you have to accept this theory? Will you be considered a science denier if you don't? Will professors look at you with a condescending smile?

Many of them probably will. We're supposed to be intimidated by all those equations on those blackboards. Because we're not cosmologists in the halls of science, it can be considered "rubey" (do they still use this word?) to disagree with these very learned researchers.

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