Monday, August 26, 2013

Life, The Universe, and Everything

[Editor's Note: The title of this piece pays homage to the late great Douglas Adams]

Well, where do I begin. Life for me began around 11:30 PM on June 4, 1957. Before that year, I didn't exist. I was dead in much the same manner as I will be in forty years or so from now.

Afterlife is an oxymoron. Reincarnation, past lives, all that stuff is an interesting thought exercise, but nothing more. If someone can provide the mechanism for a consciousness from a dead being to be transferred to a different living being I'll take a look at it, but since we know so little about the nature of sentience and the 'soul' that I'm doubtful that it could ever be proved. Of course, there are stories and anecdotes about this phenomenon, but nothing more.

Life to me is precious gift that shouldn't be taken for granted ever. It is our one chance to experience, share, contribute, love, and be a part of this great drama of existence on this little planet Earth. Why do we fight? Why do we permit suffering and pain and untimely death? Why do we have more children than we can support and love and educate and employ? Why do we make so many mistakes and waste so much time?

My parents were from the old school. Protestant Christians that wanted a dozen children. When the reality of six children hit them slowly but surely, they decided that half a dozen would be just fine; then they had me. I was an afterthought; a punctuation mark on a family tree that, on hindsight, they were very pleased about. My very existence had odds that would make the Powerball lottery look like a crap shoot.

The fact that I am here now writing this only testifies to the concept that one more child in this world might be better than not. I'm happy to have the chance at life that I have. It's been a wonderful ride so far. But I question the wisdom of some people who have children out of wedlock or do not have the financial resources to properly raise a child to be a well-adjusted contributor to society. But who am I to question anyone's right to procreate? Education in the art of living is sadly lacking in our schools. Our culture is rife with shallow media and poor examples of humanity that it becomes so easy to accept it as the norm.

After learning about cultures and world history, I am faced with a dilemma. While being empathetic with the weaknesses of 'the flesh' and that we humans are driven by emotions and evolutionary traits handed down from our primitive ancestors, my opinion of most individuals currently living is quite low overall.

I know, there are lots of good people out there too, but the few bad ones spoil it for the rest of us.  The fact that everyone now has to take off their shoes at the airport because one thwarted terrorist had a shoe bomb exemplifies how our world has changed since I was born.

Think about this: how much of your life is spent protecting yourself from the dishonest few that would take from you whatever they wanted, perhaps ruining your life just to benefit their own?
 The locks on our doors and passwords on our computers. Do you lock your car in your own driveway? When you go for a short walk in the evening, do you lock up the house? Do we treat a stranger with suspicion long before we engage in trust?

Information; the boon and perhaps bane of our modern world, is a jungle of knowledge and garbage that we must all carefully traverse every day of our lives. Walk into any public gathering area and try not to see advertisements or warning signs. When was the last time you saw some window blinds that didn't have a warning sticker on it because of the choking hazard of the draw string? We think by putting up signs that we are protecting everyone from stupidity - or are we just placating ourselves and saying that it's all we can do?

I am constantly reminded of the bell curve in our population and with the numbers rising, the extreme edges are also increasing in numbers. There might be only one in a million people crazed enough to want to shoot and kill innocent people at random in a shopping mall or movie theater, but given 400 million people, now there's 400 guys out there planning their next massacre.

I suppose all we can do as individuals is try to avoid places where disaster could strike and hope we're not among the unlucky ones. It is important to use history as a perspective lens through which we look at our lives here in the U.S. Other parts of the world and other times in the past, human life has been much harder, much more cruel and deadly. How we survived this long is amazing. I am glad to be living here and now rather than just about anywhere else and at any time in the past. I don't know what the future holds, but all in all, the here and now is pretty fantastic really.

The universe, as we currently know it, was born about 13.8 billion years ago in what cosmologists call the Big Bang. The energy of that penultimate explosion rapidly formed quarks, the building blocks of matter, which then organized into quanta of particles consisting of matter or antimatter which quickly annihilated and much of what was left over became the basic elemental particles: protons, neutrons, electrons which had the dimensional ability to form atoms of mostly hydrogen and helium, but little else.

There was still energy in the remnant of that big explosion, and the clouds of simple atoms spread outward through space-time and began to cool enough that some denser clouds began to contract through the action of the warping of space-time in the presence of mass (gravity) which draws the clouds of matter closer to itself and began to spin. The more compact the cloud became, the hotter it got. Gravity drew in more matter and the clouds formed spheres of dense gas that further compressed the atoms closer together and at higher and higher temperatures. When the pressure at the center of these spheres became so great that atoms were colliding enough to undergo nuclear fusion, a star is born. A million years later the photons, a by product of the fusion process reach the surface of the star and it begins to shine.

The generation of visible light (electromagnetic radiation) has now become a constituent of the new universe as more and more stars are born out of the gigantic swirling clouds called galaxies. Stars form in widely varying sizes and masses. The more massive stars burn hotter and live shorter lives than the smaller red dwarf stars. These large hot stars explode after fusing all their hydrogen into helium, and helium into more massive atoms as the pressure becomes greater and the nuclear fuel starts to run out. Once iron is formed in the core of the star, the balance is broken and the outer part of the star collapse in on itself producing a titanic explosion which blows out all of the massive atoms that the star formed into open space.

Thus, the new stars that form from these supernova remnants contain heavier elements and the accretion disk surrounding a newly-formed star will also contain these heavier elements such as oxygen, carbon, iron, silicon, gold, etc. as well as molecules of combined atoms such as hydrogen and oxygen (water), hydrogen and carbon (methane, other hydrocarbons), and hydrogen and nitrogen (ammonia) and other organic compounds. Rocks mostly of iron and silicates (silicon and oxygen) had the most mass which attracted other materials to it as the accretion disk slowly condensed into fewer and fewer larger massive bodies.

These aggregations of material had enough mass and therefore enough angular momentum to achieve stable elliptical orbits around the star. Gradually, most of the gas and dust from the accretion disk falls into these planetary bodies contributing to their mass and structure. Other smaller massive bodies mimicked the solar accretion disk by revolving around the planets and forming moons. Surrounding the solar accretion disk there forms icy balls of mostly water which occasionally change their orbits (due to collisions or reactions with other massive bodies) to fall inward toward the inner planets and some of them collide with the newly-formed Earth. This may be where some of the water in our oceans came from.

Everything came from basically nothing. Throughout the life of the universe (there's those two words again), the physical laws resulted in more complex atomic, molecular, chemical, and biological arrangements producing all the diversity of the galaxies, stars, planets and even space itself. The concept of 'everything' can be mind boggling if taken in too large a context. What is 'everything' to you?