The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] Our Improbable Universe [Chalice]

Presented January 23, 2011, by Paul Miller

Listen to a recording of "Our Improbable Universe"
31:11 minutes - 12.5 MB - Our Improbable Universe .mp3 file.
And watch the included YouTube video: Hubble Deep Field: The Most Important Image Ever Taken.

Opening Words:

I sure do miss Bob Mathieson. I never had an uninteresting conversation with him. Our conversations frequently involved some new idea or discovery in physics. I had all the questions, and he had all the answers. Every conversation confirmed that he was smarter than me.

The last time I saw Bob was at the church plant sale. He snuck in the back door and playfully poked me in the ribs with his cane. Naturally, this prompted a discussion of super-light-speed communication. What else would two old friends talk about at a plant sale? I said" The laws of physics prevent information from traveling faster than light, right?"

"Right", he said.

"OK, so if you had a cane several light-years long, and I was floating in space somewhere near Alpha Centauri, holding the tip of your cane, and you pushed on the handle, even though the cane is moving only a few inches per second, I would feel the tip move instantly, right?"

"Wrong, "he said. "When I push on the handle, the atoms in the cane are compressed, and the motion travels down the cane in a wave, so the motion would reach you several years later."

"Damm! I was so hopeful that I had busted the light-speed limit."

Bob was good at shooting down my half-baked hair-brained ideas, and he did it with such grace that I never minded being dumber than him. Everything in the universe obeys the laws of physics, and nobody, not even Professor Mathieson has found a way to break them.

Words for Meditation:

The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.
(Albert Einstein - The Merging of Spirit and Science)

First Reading:
Total Perspective Vortex

The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettlingly big place, a fact which for the sake of a quiet life most people tend to ignore.

Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do. For instance, in one corner of the Eastern Galactic Arm lies the large forest planet Oglaroon, the entire "intelligent" population of which lives permanently in one fairly small and crowded nut tree. In which tree they are born, live, fall in love, carve tiny speculative articles in the bark on the meaning of life, the futility of death and the importance of birth control, fight a few extremely minor wars, and eventually die strapped to the underside of some of the less accessible outer branches. In fact the only Oglaroonians who ever leave their tree are those who are hurled out of it for the heinous crime of wondering whether any of the other trees might be capable of supporting life at all, or indeed whether the other trees are anything other than illusions brought on by eating too many Oglanuts.

Exotic though this behaviour may seem, there is no life form in the Galaxy which is not in some way guilty of the same thing, which is why the Total Perspective Vortex is as horrific as it is.

For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says "You are here."

The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.

To explain - since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation - every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.

Trin Tragula - for that was his name - was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.

And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

"Have some sense of proportion!" she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex - just to show her.

And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula's horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.
From The Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Second reading:

Watch the YouTube video: Hubble Deep Field: The Most Important Image Ever Taken.


Wow, The universe is really big! Big beyond our ability to comprehend it. Every few years, as astronomers look farther into deep space, we learn that the universe is even bigger than we thought. Meanwhile, the scientific laws that govern the universe get even weirder. Astrophysics now has a menagerie of objects that defy common sense: curved space, time warps, black holes, wormholes, faster than light massless particles, dark matter, dark energy, and particles that are nowhere in particular, and everywhere at once. It would give Sir Isaac Newton fits!

As simple minded humans, getting our heads around these concepts is difficult to impossible because the human brain evolved in a world where survival depended on an intuitive understanding of Newtonian physics; the everyday physics of ordinary objects that we were supposed to have learned in high school. For example, a prehistoric hunter needed to know that a spear thrown at a mastodon would continue on a parabolic trajectory determined by its momentum and the downward pull of gravity until it meets another force, hopefully the inertia of the mastodon's vital organs. Your average cave man might not have expressed it in those terms, but he intuitively understood the principal. "Trog throw spear. Spear go straight. Spear hit mastodon. Trog family eat." We have evolved to grock Newtonian physics. The new physics of relativity and Quantum Mechanics are another matter. The warping of space-time near a neutron star was of no practical concern to Mister Troglodite, so our Newtonian brains have not evolved to grock Relativity or Quantum Theory.

I am here to talk about the bigness and weirdness of the universe, and also about the improbability of it. Is there any reason for the universe to be the way it is, or to exist at all?

We are reasonably certain that it all started about 15 billion years ago with the Big Bang, when the whole universe exploded out of a "Cosmic Egg". I remember this was hotly debated not so long ago, when I was young, and just beginning to ponder the origin of the universe, and to question the biblical creation story. Well, OK, maybe it was a long time ago, sometime in the previous millennium. At the time, many cosmologists supported the Steady State Theory, which says the universe stays pretty much the way it is, on average.

When Albert Einstein developed his theory of relativity, he calculated that the universe is expanding, which seemed absurd to him, so he put a cosmological constant into his calculations to allow for a universe of constant size. Then, in 1929, Edwin Hubble (the guy they named the telescope after) observed that the farther you look into space, the faster things are moving away from us. The universe really is expanding. Oops! The greatest scientist of the 20th century had cosmic egg on his face.

The universe is constantly getting bigger, which implies that long ago it must have been really small, and there must have been a beginning. Many scientists still wanted to live in a steady state universe, with no beginning and no end. The idea that the whole universe came out of a tiny point, seemed absurd at the time. Astronomer Fred Hoyle coined the term "Big Bang" to make fun of what he thought was a ridiculous idea. Hoyle proposed that as galaxies moved farther apart, new matter spontaneously formed in space, and eventually coalesced to form new stars and galaxies. Thus, the universe could expand forever and remain the same average density. It wouldn't take much. Just one subatomic particle per cubic kilometer per year would be enough to keep the universe at a constant average density, and nobody would notice such a slow rate of matter creation. The debate over Big Bang versus Steady State continued until 1964, when astronomers using radio telescopes identified the cosmic background radiation. That is the energy left over from the Big Bang. It is the radiation that causes snow on your TV screen, if you are old-fashioned enough to have a TV with an antenna. Even Fred Hoyle then agreed with the Big Bang Theory, and his pejorative epithet become the common name for it.

15 billion years ago, all the matter and energy in the universe was scrunched into a point of infinite density, or nearly so. Physicists call it a singularity. The universe exploded out of this tiny dot, and expanded in an almost, but not quite uniform distribution of matter. It was lumpy enough that gravity pulled the lumps together to form stars, and planets, which worked well for us.

Back in Galileo's day, the Church insisted that Earth was the center of the universe. Galileo got in trouble for showing them that it ain't so.

Looking into deep space with modern telescopes, we see pretty much the same stuff in all directions, so it appears that we are in the center of the universe. Could the pope have been right? Well, not so fast, your Holiness! Actually, the universe has no center and no edge.

By analogy, the 2-dimensional surface of the Earth has no center and no edge. The Earth is not like a tabletop with an edge you can fall off of. It wraps around the earthly sphere in 3 dimensions. Thus, the surface of the Earth is "finite yet unbounded" as Einstein called it.

Similarly, the 3-dimensional space that our Newtonian minds are accustomed to, bends in a fourth dimension. The universe is finite, yet unbounded, with no center and no edge.

In a universe with trillions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, it is not surprising that at least one planet would be the right size, at the right distance from a star of the right temperature for life to exist. But this fortuitous population of galaxies, stars, and planets is less probable than you might think.

If the universe had slightly more matter than it does, gravity would have stopped the expansion and the whole universe would have re-collapsed after 10 years. If it had slightly less matter, the lumps would not have pulled together. Our universe would be as empty and uninteresting as north Texas, with no stars, no planets, and no ranches for ex-presidents. Was the mass of the universe fine-tuned for our benefit, or was it just a happy coincidence?

If the mass of the universe is a fortunate coincidence, it is not the only one. Gravity pulled lumps of matter together to form stars. The strength of gravitational attraction depends on the mass of the objects, the distance between them, and the universal gravitational constant: 6.67x10 -11 Nm2/ Kg2. The equation is simple, and arguably intuitive or even obvious to the astute physics student. The value of the gravitational constant is not so obvious. Why is it exactly 6.67x10 -11 Nm2/ Kg2 ? This turns out to be a very fortunate number. If it was slightly different, medium size stars like our sun would not form; only stars too hot or too cool for life to evolve on their planets. Gravity is 1039 times weaker than electromagnetism. If gravity was1033 times weaker than electromagnetism, stars would be a billion times less massive and burn a million times faster. The universe has an abundance of Goldilocks suns; not too hot, not too cool, but just right, because the gravitational constant is just right. Coincidence?

Wait, I'm just getting started.

Physics is full of fundamental constants, whose values determine the nature of the physical universe. If any of these constants was much different, the universe would be unfit to live in. For example:

The examples go on and on, but I won't.

Fred Hoyle said, "All that we see in the universe of observation and fact, as opposed to the mental state of scenario and supposition, remains unexplained. And even in its supposedly first second the universe itself in acausal. That is to say, the universe has to know in advance what it is going to be before it knows how to start itself.

"An explosion in a junk yard does not lead to sundry bits of metal being assembled into a useful working machine." The more physicists learn about the universe, the more it looks like a put-up job.

To sum it up so far, the universe is exactly the way it is because of scientific laws, unbreakable and unchanging throughout the whole universe and for all time. If any of these laws or fundamental constants was much different, the universe would be unfit for life, and we would not exist.

I, for one, am really glad the universe works as it does. How did it get this way? To conservative Christians, the answer is easy; God did it. Many scientists believe in god, and many do not. What are the alternative explanations?

String Theory is a hot topic in theoretical physics these days. The idea is that the elementary particles composing all matter are tiny vibrating "strings". The vibration determines the properties of the particle. That's pretty weird, but it gets weirder. The strings vibrate not in just 3 dimensions as a normal shoestring would do. String theory requires 10 dimensions. Don't worry; we are not likely to get lost in these extra dimensions, as they are wrapped up in a tight little wad much smaller than an atom. If your tardy teenager says "Sorry, Mom, I took a wrong turn on my way home and got stuck in the seventh spatial dimension" you can be sure he was really partying in normal 4-dimensional space-time.

Some physicists believe that when (or if) string theory is fully understood, all of the physical laws and constants will be mathematically explained. We will look at the complete theory and say "of course, this is obviously the only way it could be". The whole universe will be explained by pure logic, just as Socrates would have liked.

I am a little skeptical, but I am not much of a physicist.

You all know about black holes, right? There is a big one at the center of our galaxy. Matter is scrunched so tight in a black hole that gravity prevents everything that goes into it from getting out; even light. That's why they're black.

String theory suggests that stuff falling into a black hole may pop out in another universe. If you could squeeze a watermelon down to the size of a proton, you could make a little black hole, and possibly, a baby universe would pop out of it. Unfortunately, you wouldn't know for sure if it did, because one universe is inaccessible and undetectable from another. Don't try this at home. It might be a great way to dispose of leftovers, but one little black hole can make a mess of your kitchen. And don't even think about driving your spaceship into a black hole to get a peek at the universe on the other side. The gravitational forces in a black hole would tear you apart before you get to the bottom.

Perhaps there is an infinity of baby universes popping in and out of existence all the time. Most would be too small and short lived to produce life, but occasionally you might get a big universe like ours. Where did the enormous amount of matter and energy in our universe come from? One theory is that just like the national debt, it's borrowed. Matter and energy are interchangeable, the exchange rate being E=Mc2 , as you all know, thanks to Mister Einstein. Energy can be positive or negative. Matter is always positive. Gravitational energy is negative. I remember putting minus signs in front of the gravity equations in college physics class because the professor told me to, though I thought it seemed contrary to common sense. In physics, mathematics trumps common sense. Even Einstein had to accept mathematical conclusions that violated his common sense. The theory is that during the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, during the so- called "inflationary period" the universe increased in size by a factor of at least a million million million million million times. That's 1030 for you math nerds. The energy to create all the matter in this growing big baby universe was borrowed from the gravitational energy. As Stephen Hawking explained, "The universe has an enormous debt of gravitational energy, which exactly balances the positive energy of the matter. During the inflationary period the universe borrowed heavily from its gravitational energy to finance the creation of more matter. The result was a triumph for Keynesian economics: a vigorous and expanding universe, filled with material objects. The debt of gravitational energy will not have to be paid until the end of the universe." (2)

Or, to be more succinct, the universe may be a free lunch.

Perhaps there are an infinity of bankrupt universes, all running on borrowed energy. If so, what are they like? Do they all follow the same scientific laws as ours, or are they all different? Perhaps only one in a googolplex of universes accidentally turns out like ours, with the right mass, the right physical laws and constants; the best of all possible universes. Are we lucky, or what?

If there are an infinity of universes, we could account for an accidental goldilocks universe like ours, with no plan, no creator, no God. Just the basic laws of physics. But this still does not explain where the physical laws came from that allow for these baby universes, and how or why this creation business got started. We still get stuck in an endless series of whys. Every answer begets more questions. I feel like a 6 year-old constantly asking "why, Daddy, why?"

There is a story about a symposium where an esteemed cosmologist was lecturing about the origin of the universe. An old woman in the audience stood up and declared "You've got it all wrong. It's really very simple. The entire universe is supported on the back of a giant turtle."

"What supports the turtle?" the cosmologist asked.

"He's standing on the back of another turtle." she replied.

"And what holds up the second turtle?" he asked.

"He's standing on another turtle, of course." she replied.

Eager to bring this dialog to a conclusion, the cosmologist asked "What about the last turtle on the very bottom? What holds up the bottom turtle?"

Clearly frustrated with this over-educated dimwit, she exclaimed "You just don't get it, do you? There is no bottom turtle. It's turtles all the way down!"

Though I don't hold with the turtle hypothesis, this story expresses the problem with all creation theories. We know our elegant universe works in accordance with scientific laws, but we don't know where the laws come from. Was the universe made for a reason, or is our bountiful universe a fortunate accident amongst an infinity of dead universes? Why do any of these universes bother to exist at all? Why is there anything? Did God do it? Where did God come from? There is always one more unanswered question. We never find the Superturtle at the bottom. It's turtles all the way down.

You may have heard about the Catholic priest and the Atheist Unitarian physics professor who were strolling along the beach one fine day. They happened to find a gold Swiss pocket-watch lying in the sand, still ticking and keeping perfect time. The priest picked it up and marveled at it, praising the skill of the watchmaker who precisely crafted all the intricate parts and assembled them to create this elegant device of beauty and function.

The professor replied"Balderdash! Where is this watchmaker? There is no one here but you and me. How can you assume this watchmaker exists? You have no proof of a watchmaker."

The priest countered "Then how did this watch come to be, if not made by a watchmaker?"

The professor explained "All that is necessary for this watch is right here on the beach. The sand consists of silicon and oxygen, and other mineral elements, to make the jewel bearings. Sea water contains dissolved gold for the case, copper and zinc for the brass gears, and iron to make the spring. It is within the laws of physics that over the course of time, the necessary atoms could collide in the fortuitous arrangement to form this watch or any other material object."

"That is impossible!" the priest replied

"It is not impossible. It is merely improbable" said the professor

Though the professor's argument is scientifically correct, I will go out on a limb and side with the priest this time.

Our universe is far more intricate, elegant, beautiful, and amazing than a Swiss watch. It suggests to me that there must be some plan. As to what the plan is or as to the identity and nature of the planner, I am not qualified to say. We are Unitarians with more questions than answers. We may never find the answer , but we can cherish the questions. I marvel at the immensity, elegance, and improbability of our universe, never knowing how or why it came to be. If it was explained to me by an all-knowing spirit, perhaps my Newtonian mind, formed by biological evolution, could never understand the explanation. If I could understand that, perhaps I could understand God.

Closing Words, by Albert Einstein

I see a pattern, but my imagination cannot picture the maker of that pattern. I see a clock, but I cannot envision the clockmaker. The human mind is unable to conceive of the four dimensions, so how can it conceive of a God, before whom a thousand years and a thousand dimensions are as one?
(The Expanded Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 2000 p. 208)

©2011 Paul Miller


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul 2011. Our Improbable Universe, /talks/20110123.shtml (accessed July 7, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.