Summary of Our Improbable Universe
Chapter 1: Fourteen Stepping Stones
We live in a universe in which energy has spontaneously evolved into people. This is an astounding reality. From the start of the Big Bang up to the formation of the Solar system the evolution of a fertile universe depended on fourteen features of physical reality being just the way they are. These fourteen, correctly positioned, stepping stones on the path to life are described briefly in this chapter. Though the physics is deep the drift of the discussion is available to readers with a rudimentary understanding of atoms. The story of the evolution of simple energy of the Big Bang, into the complex matter from which life could evolve, is the first part in an historical trilogy. The second part is the story of the evolution of the biosphere on top of the foundation that complex matter provides. The third part describes the evolution of the ecosphere of individual and collective intelligence on top of the biosphere. Many key developments in the evolution of biology and mind were also required to produce our reality. These developments are also stepping stone to the existence of our self reflective consciousness. They are discussed in later chapters.
The fourteen stepping stones that relate to the physical structure of reality were in place from the earliest moments of the Big Bang. The first two stepping stones to life are needed for the universe to produce any matter at all. The first requirement was the existence of at least six different kinds of the elementary particles call quarks. The nuclei of our atoms are built out of only two kinds of quarks. The remaining four came into play at the earliest moments of the Big Bang. The sixth quark was recently discovered and reported in the popular press. The existence of six kinds of quarks allowed the Big Bang to create of a tiny bit more matter than antimatter. After fifteen seconds all of the antimatter consumed most of the matter. Our bodies are made from the miniscule excess that was not annihilated. If there had not been at least six different kinds of quarks, there would have been no excess of matter from which we could evolve.
The second stepping stone to life is also required for there to be any matter at all in the universe after the first fifteen seconds. It is called the CP Symmetry Violation. Our universe is not exactly the mirror image of a universe in which all of the electric charges are reversed from positive to negative and negative to positive. If it were, then there could be no long lived matter. Instead, the sub-structure of our universe weakly violates CP Symmetry. The existence of this violation was unexpectedly discovered in 1963. Even now the details of how it caused the production of an excess of matter are not well understood. But it is clear that this slight symmetry imperfection conspired with six quarks (and three other properties of nature) to produce the excess of matter that made our existence possible.
The next two requirements for a fertile universe are that the amount of mass energy relative to the expansion rate be just right and that the lumpiness of the matter distribution be just right. If the amount of matter were significantly different than what it is, then the universe would either fail to produce stars or it would be short lived. Stars would also fail to form if the distribution of the matter was too smooth. On the other hand if the lumps were more than tiny bumps, the universe would be dominated by gigantic black holes that gobble up almost every thing. Their violent belches would sterilize everything in their vicinity.
The next three stepping stones are related to the details of how the matter from the Big Bang interacts with itself to produce long lived stars and the complex elements upon which our life is based. The most important of these requirements for life is the existence of the four different kinds of forces in our universe. These are: the Gravitational Force that holds stars and planets together; the Electric Force that sticks electrons to nuclei to form atoms; the Nuclear Force that glues complex nuclei together to form the core of the complex elements of life; and the Weak Force that changes protons into neutrons in the cores of stars so that they can burn and produce the complex elements of life. The exact balance of these forces determines the shape of our physical reality.
Not only must the four forces exist, but they must also have exactly the right strengths. If the nuclear force were 1/2% stronger than it is, stars would burn up in millions of years instead of billions. If it were much weaker than it is helium would not burn into carbon. Other details of nuclear physics are required to be exactly the way that they are in order to: prevent the complete conversion of carbon into oxygen in stars; produce deuterium in the Big Bang; make protons stable; and make neutrons heavier than protons. All of these features are important consequences of the dynamics of the Strong Force. They are all needed for our universe to be fertile.
The strength of the Weak Force is also critical. It throttles the burning of stars so that they can last long enough for intelligent life to evolve. It also regulates the supernova explosions that liberate most of the complex elements that stars create in their cores. Our planet and our bodies are the star dust from a supernova explosion that occurred ten billion years ago. The natural radioactivity of our soil is energy from that explosion. Without it the renewal of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere from volcanic activity would have slowed long ago. Our food chain would be broken and our ocean would bleed off into space.
The last four stepping stones are diverse in character. The three dimensional nature of our reality is key. A universe that produces intelligence must have exactly three dimension. Intelligence can not exist in two dimensions. In four or more dimensions, the orbits of planets would spiral into the central star or out into the chill of deep space. This would be our fate as well if stars were packed too close together. They would disrupt each others planets and fling them out into space. The last two features of reality that are required for fertility, relate to the fact that all matter behaves like waves. If this were not the case stable atoms could not exist and all matter would tend to collapse into black holes. Though Quantum Mechanics and the Pauli Exclusion Principle are not easy to understand, they conspire to make an incredible reality in which understanding can exist.
This list of fourteen stepping stones to life is not complete. There are many more phenomena that might be added to the list. In fact three additional candidates are discussed but not included in the list of essentials because their universality is debatable. Many of the items on the list of fourteen essentials can be subdivided as well. But it is not necessary to lengthen this list any further. It is long enough to establish the fact that this remarkably creative universe had to be exactly the way that it is for intelligent life to have evolved out of the raw energy of the Big Bang. If this was all due to design then the creator had to get it just right for protons to turn into people automatically. This is a far greater achievement than the detailed meddling that is depicted in mythological explanations of creation. The story of how it actually happened is much more intricate and astounding than any of the mythological products of human creativity.
The fact that many things had to be just right for life has been emerging for many centuries. In the past this fact has been used to claim that the universe had to have been designed for it to have been so suitable for us. More recently theories that involve the random creation of sub-universes in a larger meta-universe are being considered. If there are enough randomly structured sub-universes, then the odds aren't so bad that at least one will have all fourteen stepping stones lined up just right. In this unique universe, intelligent life would marvel at the improbability of it all. However that improbability cannot be used as evidence for a creator. In order for the sub-universe to produce witnesses it had to be just right. This is known as the Anthropic Principle. It replaces belief in a creator with belief in the random creation of a huge number of randomly structured universes. Only a minute fraction of these mindlessly structured universes would evolve minds.
The odds of these fourteen stepping stones being just right for life are miniscule. Therefore either the Universe was created with deliberation or there had to be a zillion randomly generated universes before this very creative one happened along. In the former case life has value derived from the mind of the Creator. Much of that value must reside in the creative processes of life. In the latter case, its value derives from the fact that this universe is the one rare gem among a collection of a trillion-trillion sterile universes. In either case the conclusion is the same and the imperative is to go with the flow of on going creation.