Category Archives: Academic
Mankind has always asked “Why?”. Why indeed? Through one simple three-letter word we have asked questions of the stars, unearthed secrets of our planet, harnessed the power of nature, developed technology, and explored the deepest depths of the oceans. The word “WHY” has fueled the engine of human exploration, discovery, and advancement for thousands of years. We know almost all there is to know about our planet and are well-versed in the workings of the universe (though our knowledge be vastly incomplete), but one “why” has eluded us since the dawn of time. Why does the universe exist?
I’m sure you’ve heard a story of someone in college who, when asked on their biology final the simple question, “Why” wrote “Because” and received full marks. Whilst that answer might have sufficed for the purposes of the freshman Biology course it is a supremely inadequate answer. It is an extremely disappointing answer to say the least. We learn of this answer’s disappointment from a very early age. When a child asks why he can’t have ice cream for dinner the parent responds, “Because.” ”Why?” asks the child. ”Because I’m your father and I said so” in order to avoid having to embark upon a futile dissertation on why ice cream is not healthy and dinner is. However, the child is always disappointed because their question was not adequately answered (in their mind).
As humans we are driven and we feel compelled to understand the nature of things around us. Why does the sun move across the sky? Why does the moon go through phases? Why does everything stick to the surface of the Earth instead of floating away into space? Why does it get cold in the winter and hot in the summer? Through the simple word “why” we have developed science which is nothing more than the art of asking “why?” We are curious beings and a cop-out answer of “because” simply won’t suffice. We seek the truth and nothing less.
The science of seeking the answer to why the universe exists is known as Cosmology. The popular belief among today’s cosmologists seems to be that the universe exists because of a cosmic dice game. Conditions for the universe existing are just right because the dice fell the correct way. On a traditional die there are six outcomes so the die is a cube. In the case of the universe, the dice used would have so many sides that it would almost be spherical with the probability of the current outcome being rolled is almost infinitely small. This has led to the exploration of a theory of the multiverse. Are there more than one universes? Are there an infinite amount of universes existing simultaneously? If so then that would greatly increase the chances of our universe being the way it is more realistic. Are we really just the result of chance? Is the complexity of our bodies, the planet, the stars, and galaxies really just by accident and random? If so, then the universe is a dreadfully bleak and meaningless object. My life has no purpose and neither does yours. The Milky Way galaxy is here, but it could not have been here, or there, or anywhere at all. If the power to exist is derived from the sums of all its parts probabilities of existing then it would seem that we’re just multiplying by 1/∞.
We all know you can’t divide by infinity. It could be true that the probability of anything existing is the sum of all it’s parts existing, but for this to be possible you would need a finite probability for each component. One way of rationalizing this would be to assume that the universe was created on purpose. There are simply way to many components that influence the existence of any one object that to quantify them would always create a denominator so large, the resulting probability is infinitely small. So for me, chance is out right. There has to be some purpose and order to it all.
I am neither a cosmologist nor a scientist. I am simply a layman who is taking what he sees and using it to make sense of the world. As John Milton says in Paradise Lost, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” It is impossible for us to make truly objective conclusions about anything because we always see things and approach things based on personal opinion, experiences, and perceptions. The trouble with the cosmic dice game explanation of the universe is that those scientists have always had a perception of the universe being random and chaotic and harsh and will see only the evidence that supports their perceptions. If only there was a source of knowledge that came from outside a human mind not subjected to false perception or bias then we could accept that as pure truth. Could this be the same external force that exists outside of human knowledge and mathematics that created the universe on purpose? Could there be a designer who’s knowledge and power caused all things to be? My belief tells me that there indeed is. There is a Creator who exists outside of human existence in whom all creation finds its source.
Apart from my personal beliefs, the notion of a creator is not as completely crazy as it sounds. If you think about how marvelously fine-tuned the universe is and how everything works together in complete harmony it seems almost ridiculous to think that the order of the universe evolved from chaos by chance. If say, the gravitational constant was less than it is stars would not be able to hold their elements inside where more complex and heavier elements are created there would be nothing in the universe except hydrogen and helium and nothing worth note could have formed from those lightest of elements. Similarly, if the gravitational constant were larger then even the smallest of stars would explode into supernovae and black holes would ravage much of the known universe. Planets would almost never form and galaxies would look very different. Just in the case of gravity alone there seems to be evidence that a creator fine-tuned the knobs and locked them in place to the perfect setting.
This could easily turn into a 5,000 word essay but I will conclude here. I believe there is simply too much detail and evidence of fine-tuning to believe that it all happened as a result of chance. There has to be some kind of intelligence behind it. The mathematical laws of the universe suggest this. Math is beautiful and it binds the universe together. Could we even have math to explain something that is infinitely random? We study probability but balk at the thought of infinity. So what if infinite probability is not even a part of the equation? What if the probability was 1? That certainly seems possible if there is a creator.
Last night the Republican primary scene offered up another crackling debate! I say that with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek. I don’t usually enjoy watching debates because every candidate is a raving egomaniac so the debates are rather farcical in nature. But there was a topic which sparked my interest in this debate. The question came up about NASA and what kind of future does America have in space and how do we fund it? Only Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were given time to answer the question and they both said basically the same thing. Romney specifically said that the future of space exploration is critical to the advancement of America because it fuels passion for science and engineering in youth and the technological advancements made in the space industry keep our society moving forward. He then added that the future of space exploration has to be a joint venture between government, private sector, and educational institutions. His view is that we should be leaning towards a more privately funded space program and that the commercial benefits would help pay for the high costs of innovation. He then stated that our country needs a mission to get excited about again, similar to how President Kennedy’s challenge to NASA to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960′s inspired the whole country, and succeeded. Newt Gingrich’s answer, while novel, seemed more like a cop-out and might have represented a lack of a real plan. The former Speaker said that space exploration should also be more privately funded and that it should be fueled by prizes. He likened this plan to Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris for a $25,000 prize. I assume he means to use the success of the X-Prize plan, beginning with the Ansari family’s competition to launch the first private spaceship into orbit and Google’s Lunar X-Prize to send a privately funded and designed robotic probe to the moon. The Ansari X-Prize was a huge success and the Lunar X-Prize is well underway. While this is certainly a novel idea and has seen success, as the envelope is continually pushed further and further, it will require increasing amounts of support from established agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency.
What this means for NASA is that its days as the marquee space establishment are likely over, and have been for a while. NASA’s budget simply cannot be funded in full at their desired level of support. Although NASA occupies 0.5% of the federal budget, the government can’t justify sending that much cash towards a program that doesn’t cause people to rely on the government for their daily sustenance. I think that Governor Romney’s plan is probably the better of the two as Gingrich’s will likely involve too much reliability on NASA in the long-run as we get further and further along. If we are going to hand the reigns of space exploration over to the private sector then what the government needs to do is make a concerted effort to emphasize science education and specifically physics, engineering, and astronomy related topics to fuel a passion for space in our nations youth which is sorely lacking now. America was once the leader in space exploration and we’ve let budget cuts and uninterested citizens slow our progress. We should be back on top, maybe not as a government, but as a nation, with its citizens leading the way to better understand the universe we live in!
You can read the article on the NASA question from the debate at FoxNews.com.
So since I’m new to the whole astronomy gig I figured I must do what every new amateur astronomer must do and start mapping out the night sky on your own! I have no idea how I’m going to do it just yet but hey, it can’t be that hard! The ancient Egyptians figured it out 5000 years ago so I should be able to do it completely with my iPhone in one week, right? But seriously, I think it would be really cool to make a record of the movements of the stars and planets on my own. I’ll start with the planets to keep it simple for now. Jupiter, Venus, and Mars are all fairly visible at night right now. The moon should be pretty easy also. As long as there’s no complex math involved in the process I’ll be OK. I have a compass on my phone and I know all about angles of declination and the parallax angle and all that fun stuff but if you have suggestions feel free to comment away!
As I’m writing this I’m regretting not thinking of this sooner so I could have started on the first of the year But such is my life. For now I’m waiting here drinking some Jack Frost tea waiting for the clouds to break so I can log Jupiter and the moon for tonight. That is all for now. Good night planet Earth!
Since basically the dawn of civilized human society, we as a race have been fascinated with the night sky. There’s no denying its allure and attraction, its gravitas (pun intended). Humankind has always been attracted by the unknown. It is the driving force that lead us to leave our homes and explore the world and ask questions of the trees, rocks, and the seas. We’ve been blessed by our Creator with a sense of inquisitiveness that no other creature on the planet possesses and it was given to us to fulfill the command given to our parents Adam and Eve to subdue the Earth and rule over it. As our understanding of the world we live on increased from names of animals to geography, to the use of tools, to agriculture, to navigation, and building, we have used our inherent curiosity to explore the world around us and our relation to it, where we fit in. Nothing baffles us and intrigues us as much as the heavens as we consider this question. All one has to do is look up and you get an immediate sense of how seemingly insignificant you are and you begin to feel very small and out of place, but stuck in wonder all the same.
As a Christian, I believe the Biblical account of creation as initiated by God who exists outside of time and called all things into being by the power of His Word. The Bible states that God simply spoke to the darkness and light burst forth. But while that’s all fine and dandy, it hardly satisfies our human desire to know why and how the universe began. We can conceive the “why”. Because God commanded it so. But I want to know how that happened and what that looked like! That’s what we’ve been trying to do for thousands of years every time we look up into the night sky. Understanding how creation happened and what exactly occurred during that time should lead us to appreciate and love the God of the universe all the more for the beauty displayed in the heavens and earth and the fact that He cares for us even though we seem so small and insignificant!
One of the earliest known evidences of man’s interest in astronomy and celestial exploration can be seen at Stonehenge in England. Although it is not entirely clear what the full purpose of the giant stone structure was, there are clear markers to record the Summer Solstice and a rudimentary calendar in place. Other ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians and the Egyptians also kept record of astronomical events such as solstices, eclipses, and comets. The ancient Chinese astronomers kept detailed maps of the skies by the seasons and also recorded the appearance of “guest stars” which ranged from comets to nebulae, and supernova. However, it wasn’t until the time of Pythagoras and Aristotle did astronomy really emerge as a science. Pythagoras is credited with being one of the first to develop a theory for the mechanics of the solar system, how the planets move about the sky throughout the year. Aristotle was the first to suggest the theory that the planets moved in concentric circles around the Earth, or orbits. Aristotle’s orbits were perfectly symmetrical and the order of the planets was mixed but it was a very good start. Unfortunately for the science, Aristotle’s geocentric theory (perfected by Ptolemy) held for over 1,500 years due to the misguiding of the Catholic Church until Nikolas Kopernig (Copernicus) shook things up with his model of a sun-centered solar system.
From Copernicus on major advancements in astronomy and physics arose in dealing with planetary sizes, masses, distances from the sun and each other. When Galileo Galilei invented the first telescope a whole new world of astronomy was opened up with the ability to see further out into space than ever before. Galileo also laid the foundation for discoveries in physics such as laws of motion and gravity that would later in the 17th century be cemented by Sir Isaac Newton. Newton is arguably the greatest physicist to ever live and left a remarkable legacy in the fields of science and math. He improved the telescope by using mirrors instead of lenses, invented calculus, and discovered the basic laws of gravity and motion which hold the entire universe together.
Now we in the 21st century are privilege to so much knowledge pioneered by those who went before us. It is on their shoulders we stand as we seek to further our understanding of the universe around us. Thanks to those pioneers astronomy is now a widely respected discipline and is readily available for all who would pursue it. If you’re new to astronomy there are many, many great resources available to help you gain a better understanding of the subject. All you have to do is Google it and you’ll strike gold!