A Book by Michael Mallary


Our Improbable Universe asserts that this universe is of inherent value whether or not it was created. The evolution of energy into matter, matter into life, life into mind, and mind into collective mind, is scientifically traced from the earliest moments of the Big Bang up to the present. This picture shows that a large number of physical phenomena had to be almost exactly as they are in order for us to have evolved out of the raw energy of the Big Bang. If the life begetting substructure of our universes arose from a random process, then our fertile universe is a rare gem amongst an uncountable number of dead ones. If its physical laws were micro-engineered by a creator, the accomplishment is awe inspiring. Either way, this incredible universe, and the life it has spawned, should be cherished. We are inherently part of an ongoing creative process that is majestic in and of itself.

Chapter 1: Fourteen Stepping Stones

The energy of the Big Bang has spontaneously turned into people who can find joy in being, no inquisitive mind can ignore this fact. How did it happen? Why did it happen? How might the sequence of events have gone differently and failed to produce life? Is the universe the result of deliberate design? Was cosmic evolution a random chain of events? If so, what were the odds? Though it is impossible to provide complete answers, these questions cry out for our best effort attempt using all we know today.

In the spirit of this curiosity, all human cultures have generated creation myths. These myths have provided insight into the origins and workings of the beautiful and capricious reality that has spawned our existence. Modern science comprising a vast body of observations and theories has greatly enhanced our understanding of our origins and fate. Through the scientific mind's eye, it is possible to see back into the history of the cosmos, and as we look in detail, we see an ever-lengthening list of characteristics that had to be just the way they were for intelligent life to have evolved. In other words, our extremely creative universe is also extremely improbable. Our Improbable Universe elucidates this assertion and explores some of its philosophical implications.

To comprehend how improbable it is that this particular physical reality with its biological riches, came into being, we have to follow the story of creation from the beginning to the present. About fourteen billion years ago our universe exploded from a tiny point, a moment called the Big Bang. Though many of its details are still controversial, very few scientists dispute that the Big Bang happened. In the twentieth century, astronomers have established that all of the galaxies beyond our local cluster are rushing away from us. The most distant ones are moving away at nearly the speed of light. By mentally reversing this motion, one sees that all of the matter in this universe must have arisen from a single point in the distant past.

As scientific knowledge expands, consensus develops about the detailed history of the Big Bang. Currently the greatest controversy involves the details of what happened when the entire visible universe was smaller than a grapefruit, i.e. this is when the great-grandparents of matter were created out of the unleashed energy. This early matter later coalesced into the protons, neutrons and electrons that are the bricks and mortar of the atomic level of reality. The fact that any matter was left after only three minutes is actually one of the unsolved mysteries of science.

It is astounding that we live in a universe in which particles can spontaneously organize into people and other incredible beings. Adding to the wonder is the fact that this depends on an exact delicate physical structure that resulted from the Big Bang. Had this structure been slightly different in any of a large number of ways, the result would be a sterile universe. There would be no people, trees, or even bacteria.

In the last several hundred years, science has provided new ways to appreciate the beauty and complexity of existence. Unfortunately, a relatively small number of people have access to this way of seeing. Even practitioners of the scientific arts in many cases do not take a broad enough view to see the whole picture. Because this life-enabling sub-structure is not well understood by most people, it is often taken for granted. Life, taken for granted, is abused. The wanton destruction of our ecosystem is one example. The degradation of the human spirit in mass society is another. Possessed only with ignorance, we are as bulls in a china shop. Through knowledge of the universe, we can learn to love and respect humanity and our fragile biosphere.

In this book, I hope to provide a glance into this universe upon which life is based. This view will show that many balancing acts are taking place one on top of another, to produce us and all that we see. The phenomena that led this universe to produce galaxies, stars, and planets are some of the "stepping stones" on the path to our emergence. For example, just a slight change in the amount of energy and matter produced by the Big Bang would have resulted in a universe without galaxies or stars let alone people.

In addition to the amount of mass-energy, there are at least thirteen other properties of our universe that were required to be the way they were for the Big Bang to have produced anything like us. One doesn't need to understand the science of these properties completely in order to appreciate how critical they are to our existence. Much of the science described here even baffles expert physicists. There are intricate dynamics beyond present human comprehension. The tip of the iceberg that modern science can see is incredible, but importantly, it hints at a deeper reality that is even more astounding. Here is a quick overview of the fourteen stepping stones; more explanation of the importance of these phenomena is provided in later chapters.

Fourteen Stepping Stones

1) Six Kinds of Quarks:

The mass of your body is 99.95% nuclear matter, the clumped neutrons and protons of the nuclei of your atoms. Each particle is a clump of two different kinds of quark particles. In order for any of this mass to have emerged from the Big Bang, the universe had to be capable of producing at least six different kinds of quarks. Why? Because six quark varieties allows for a subtle asymmetry between the behavior of matter and antimatter. This lack of perfect symmetry is called Charge Conjugation-Parity (CP) symmetry violation, put more simply as CP Asymmetry.

2) CP Asymmetry and more:

Though six kinds of quarks allows for a CP asymmetry, it does not require it. Without CP asymmetry, the Big Bang would have produced exactly the same amount of matter and antimatter. Then after several minutes, the matter and antimatter would annihilate each other leaving nothing but an expanding ball of light and the nearly inert particles called neutrinos. This would have been the sum total of the history of the universe. The future would contain nothing new after the first few minutes. But because of CP asymmetry, thanks for there being six quarks, for every billion particles of antimatter created in the Big Bang, a billion plus one particles of matter came into existence. All matter that we see today is that extra one part-per-billion left after an incomprehensibly huge conflagration of mutual annihilation.

But in addition to CP asymmetry the production of a surplus of matter depended on two more conditions. In the early universe there had to be an era when energy and matter were in a state of non-equilibrium and there had to be a mechanism for transmuting quarks and antielectrons into each other (see Chapter 2).

3) Just Enough Energy and Matter to Matter:

When the part of our universe that we can now see was the size of a grapefruit, its density of mass and energy was just right relative to its rate of expansion: a difference of one part in a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion would have precluded our existence. If the density had been higher, the Big Crunch, a contraction of everything, would have occurred too soon. The Big Bang would have been the Little Pop. Had the density been less than it was by the tiniest of fractions, the era of star formation would never have come to pass. Gravity would have been unable to overcome the outward rush, and the universe would have become a diffuse ball of isolated atoms, with no potential for congregating into stars. An explanation for this paradoxically precise amount of mass-energy density is one of the great triumphs of the Inflationary Model [1] of the Big Bang.

4) Just Enough Lumpiness:

There had to be a slight amount of lumpiness in an otherwise smooth distribution of matter to form the seeds for galaxy formation. Some regions of space had to have slightly more matter than others. If the universe had been too smooth in relation to the expansion rate, then matter would not have pulled together to form stars. On the other hand, if the early universe had been too lumpy, then it would have become a very violent place. Gigantic black holes would have formed everywhere and gobbled up everything.

5) Four Forces:

The complex behavior of matter is prescribed by four different forces and the existence and relative strengths of these forces have been essential to creating a fertile universe. The most familiar is gravity, the effects of which are only visible on a scale much larger than our bodies. Importantly, it holds the Earth to its orbit around the sun. The raw energy of the Big Bang, from which all matter and energy emerged, came from the gravitational force. The coalescing of matter into planets and stars depends upon gravity.

The next most familiar force is electromagnetism. It makes magnets stick to refrigerators and lint stick to your clothes. At an atomic level, it causes electrons to orbit the nuclei of atoms. This force also allows atoms to stick together to make the thirty thousand complex proteins that our life depends upon. Our very thoughts are carried by neural impulses that are a complex mix of chemistry and electricity.

The last two forces are called "strong" and "weak." They are much less familiar to us because they operate only at sub-atomic distances. The strong force (also known as the nuclear force) glues protons and neutrons together to make complex nuclei. The weak force conspires with the strong to allow stars to burn hydrogen in a slow and steady way for billions of years. It changes protons into neutrons so that complex nuclei like carbon and oxygen can be built up. Without the weak force, giant old stars would not blow up and disgorge into space these important complex atoms, without which life would not stand a chance.

Life would be impossible without any one of these four forces. Each could be considered a stepping stone to life in its own right. It is only a matter of bookkeeping convenience to group them as one very important stepping stone.

6) Protons Don't Quite Stick:

The existence of long-lived stable stars like the Sun depends on the relative strengths of all of the forces being just right. In particular, the nuclear force between two protons must be almost exactly what it is. If it were stronger by one half percent, two protons would stick together permanently to form a helium 2 nucleus and throw off a lot of radiation. Fortunately, this does not quite happen. If it did, hydrogen would burn into helium at such a high rate that all stars would burn out in less a hundred million years. In this universe, helium 2 nuclei hold together just long enough (i.e. 0.00000000000001 of a second) for our sun to burn hydrogen slowly and steadily, meaning it will go on for another four billion years. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were several percent weaker than it is, hydrogen burning would occur only in giant short-lived stars. In either case, there would not be enough time for anything complex to evolve. Though life might have been possible without stable stars, it would have been much less probable. If life's only stable habitats were chemical-rich hot springs, deep in the crust of the earth, then it is very doubtful that it could ever evolve from the primitive bacteria that live there into anything like us.

7) Helium Nuclei Don't Quite Stick:

Two helium nuclei stick together for even less time than two protons. This is good. If they stuck more readily, helium would burn into carbon at such a high rate that stars would burn quickly and then blow themselves to smithereens. If they did not stick at all, helium would not burn into carbon and the other elements of life. Had this been the case, the only complex atoms remaining would have been the tiny residue of lithium from the age of nuclear synthesis that ended three minutes after the Big Bang.

8) Excited Carbon and Calm Oxygen:

Carbon has an excited state of energy [2] that is just right to be reached when one more helium nuclei joins two others that are tempora