Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cosmogenesis: The Universe Comes Into Being (1/5/14)

Cosmogenesis:  The Universe Comes Into Being
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 5, 2014
From the Big Bang to God

We begin with Edwin Hubble.   Edwin Hubble was an astrophysicist who is known popularly for the telescope named in his honor, the Hubble Telescope, that has taken photographs into the deepest space and deepest time, because as look we into deep space we are looking back in time as well.     For example, as we look at the sun we are seeing it as it was eight minutes ago.  The sun is so far from us that the light from it takes eight minutes to get to us.   That is actually close compared to light from the nearest star or the nearest galaxy or in the case of the Hubble Telescope, light from galaxies billions of light years from us and thus billions of years into the past.    It is mind-boggling actually. 

What made Hubble famous was the Hooker telescope built in 1919 in Mount Wilson California.    It had a 100 inch lens making it at that time the largest telescope in the world.   Hubble began work at Mount Wilson at about the time the telescope was completed.    He used the Hooker Telescope to make some incredible discoveries.

In Hubble’s Time, say 1918, the year my father was born, the universe was considered to be the Milky Way galaxy.    The cloudy light blobs looked like dusty nebulae within the Milky Way.    What Hubble discovered through the powerful lens of the Hooker Telescope was that those dusty nebulae were outside the Milky Way and were galaxies of stars.  He discovered the Andromeda Galaxy among many others.   

There was debate about the universe in regards to whether or not it started from some point or always was as it was.   Hubble provided evidence that the universe started from a point and expanded.   The evidence was because of the Doppler Effect. 

When you go to the Bristol speedway and the cars pass you, you hear a high pitch followed by a low pitch.   Sound travels in waves and as an object emitting sound comes toward you the waves compress or the frequency of the waves increases and the pitch is higher.  As the object passes the waves lengthen and frequency decreases and the pitch is lower.    With light that also has wavelike properties an object moving toward us will have shorter wavelengths or higher frequency and look blue and light from an object moving away will have longer wavelengths and lower frequency and look red.   

What Hubble discovered was that the galaxies that were further away had a greater red shift, in other words, they were moving away faster than those galaxies closer to us.  In fact, some galaxies had a blue shift, meaning that some in our cluster of galaxies are being pulled together by gravity.    The galaxies further from us are moving further away at a faster speed. 

Thus the universe is expanding.   If you can imagine that as a videotape and play it backwards you could find the galaxies coming together to a point.    These astrophysicists are clever folks and they have been able to calculate that point of the origin of the universe to about 13.75 billion years ago.   It is called the Big Bang theory. 

What was the Big Bang?  What happened before the Big Bang?

First of all we should talk about what the Big Bang wasn’t.  It wasn’t a bunch of stuff exploding into space.  Because there was no space.  There is nothing outside the universe, either now or when the universe was the size of a grapefruit or the size of a speck or whatever we can conceive intuitively as smaller.    Not only was there no space outside of it, there was no time before it.    Because when the universe happened, time and space came into being.   

They call the Big Bang a singularity.  It wasn’t and then it was.    There is no way to measure before this singularity.  

Everything the universe is now, all of it from church buildings, bibles, elephants, spiders, the planet Mars, gravity, nuclear fusion, Andromeda Galaxy everything that ever was and ever will be was a single point.    At some point 13.75 billion years ago it happened.     These clever physicists can speak meaningfully about what happened within that first second.       

One might say, “Well, see God is the cause of the singularity.”   God is outside of space and time.  If that is meaningful for some, I won’t quibble with it, but I think that I don’t know and I can’t fathom meaning outside of space and time is an honest answer as well.     

We can say that from that first fraction of a second there is no need of any miracle, guidance, intelligence, or agent to explain the evolution of the universe.   The universe operates by natural laws without the aid of as Lawrence Krauss puts it, “any supernatural shenanigans.”   

Scientists can say meaningful things about the universe with the first fraction of a second of its existence. At 10 to the minus 43 seconds, that is a ten millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, the first “freezing” took place.    The universe was a point hot compressed matter and energy indistinguishable from each other.    Imagine this hot compressed point expanding.  As it expands it cools and from the cooling things freeze out and take shape.   Four forces emerged within the first second.  

At ten to the minus 43 seconds the first freezing takes place.   Gravity comes into being and it will be the force that opposes this universal expansion.   Before that time, 10 to the minus 43 seconds, was what is called the inflationary period when the universe expanded from a point to perhaps the size of a grapefruit.    

At ten to the minus 35 seconds, the strong force freezes out.  The strong force is the nuclear force that holds protons and neutrons together.   From this force atoms will evolve. 

At ten to the minus ten seconds, when the universe is one ten billionth of a second old, the two remaining forces come into being.    The first is the weak force or radioactivity, which is the force that causes particles to fly away from a radioactive atom.   The second is the electromagnetic force that holds atoms together.     

At ten to the minus five seconds, ten millionths of a second all matter and energy existed as electrons, quarks and leptons.   At that point the quarks formed protons and neutrons.

So within the first second, the four forces come into being as well as the building blocks of all atoms:  protons, neutrons, and electrons. 

Within three minutes the first protons and neutrons fuse and form Deuterium, an atomic nucleus that contains one proton and one neutron.   These nuclei were surrounded by a sea of electrons.   The electrons and the protons and neutrons were separated by heat and stayed in this state for a half a million years.   Then this expanding universe cooled enough for the electrons and the nuclei to form atoms.  

90 percent of all atoms were Hydrogen plus a few Helium atoms and a trace of Lithium.   From these we get the first stars.   

When the universe was just a few hundred thousand years old Hydrogen, Helium, and Lithium are dancing around.  There are no other elements.  The universe is expanding, not just wild unchecked expansion because gravity is pushing it together.    As the universe expands it cools and as it cools things are able to take shape so to speak or freeze out.  

Hydrogen and Helium fuse to make stars and the stars in turn make all the rest of periodic table of elements.    

The stars start out as balls of Hydrogen.  Gravity is pushing them in on themselves and nuclear fusion pushes outward.     In this intense cauldron of heat and pressure, the first fusion reactions occur.   Hydrogen fusion goes for millions even billions of years.   Nuclear fusion creates energy, a lot of it. That is what our sun is doing now.    Then for about a tenth of its life the stars have helium fusion.    Then faster and faster from Helium to Carbon, Neon, Oxygen, Silicon and finally the last one is Iron.    Iron fuses with no man.    From Silicon up to Zinc then back to Iron all in one day.  

When the core of the star is Iron the fusion reactions stop immediately.  Within a few seconds. gravity collapses the star violently and it explodes back into a supernova sending out the atoms it has created into space.    The star could have burned for billions of years and in a few seconds it is destroyed.  That matter from that first generation of stars make up the next generation of stars that have a small fraction of these new heavier elements in addition to Hydrogen and Helium. 

The entire periodic table, including 2000 isotopes can come from supernovas.    All matter from Spruce trees to Presbyterian ministers to bungee cords are made up of elements that were made in stars. 

For nine billion years the universe continues this dance.  Forces act upon these first atoms in these fusion cauldrons.  Gravity wrestling with nuclear fusion and through a violent contest, explosions create the heavier elements that become a part of new stars.   Stars and then solar systems are formed with rocky and gaseous planets orbiting their suns.    All of this happens without any supernatural or divine intervention.    No agent guides it.  

Then the story gets local.   We will pick up our solar system next week.  The origin we date to about 4.5 billion years ago.   We will hear about a planet in our solar system that so wanted to be a star but just didn’t have it in him.   Not quite enough mass or heat.   But he has his own moons, his own miniature planetary system.    I am sure you can guess who that is.    We will also look at how our home, Earth, came to be.  

This series of sermons is based on a book and a series of lectures.   The book is by New Zealand Presbyterian minister and professor, Lloyd Geering, From the Big Bang to God:  Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution.    Each of my sermons is based on a chapter in that important book.   The second source is A Great Courses lecture called The Origin and Evolution of Earth:  From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence by Robert Hazen.    He is professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University. 

For me.  As you know I am not a trained scientist.  I took some science courses in college when I thought I would be an engineer.   Random events occurred and life went in a different direction.  I have forgotten what I learned.   Although it is fun when pieces come back to me as I revisit all this cool Chemistry stuff.  What you got today from me was from the Great Courses video.    I am in no way any kind of authority.  

So you might ask, “Why are you spending valuable sermon time on topics for which you are not an authority?” 
The answer to that good question is in two parts.  The first is that the incredible story of our origins and evolution is for everyone.   This is the story for everyone who inhabits Earth.    Science is not just for Ph. D’s.   Science is a gift to all of us.   This Great Story unites us as a species.   It is bigger than all of the other stories. We need to learn it and understand it and tell it in our own words and have what we say, of course, be informed and corrected by science.   This cannot be relegated to the science class.   We need to get used to this story and to let it live in us.    I trust that those who are knowledgeable in these fields will tell me when I err.    I expect and want you to do so.

Second, part of my role as minister is to encourage people to learn this story.  My job as I have come to understand it is to articulate a sense of meaning for life.    "To preach meaningful sermons" is the job description.   Who are we?  What are we doing here?  How do we live?  I find that to be a pretty tall order, actually.    My training for this has been in the Bible, Christian theology and Christian history.     I have been realizing for a long time that that training is not big enough to speak meaningfully about life.

I was trained in the viewpoint that the Bible and the concept of God to which it points contain the universe.   I was trained that the meaning of the universe is contained in the Bible and in the Christian understanding of God.   Creationists go even further and claim that the science of the universe is contained in the Bible. 

Now the reverse is true.  The Bible and the God to which it points are products of the evolutionary process, in particular, a product of western culture and human cultural evolution.    That is a monumental shift.   The universe contains the Bible and all other cultural products including concepts of God.  

It isn’t that the Bible and Christian religion do not have meaning.  They do.  The Christian cultural project is a part of the larger story, like those Russian nesting dolls.   The Christian story is a little nesting doll nesting inside a larger doll that is the story of evolution. 

I will quickly illustrate by telling how Genesis chapter 1 came into being.  It was written in the 6th century BCE during or shortly following the Babylonian captivity. The Jewish people were defeated in battle, their temple destroyed, and they were taken  by force to a foreign country.    In that setting they needed to discover their meaning.  Who are we?  What are we doing here?  How do we live?    We don’t know who the genius, and I mean genius, was, but he or she wrote Genesis 1.   It became the cornerstone of monotheism and the defining story of the creation of the cosmos.  All the gods were relegated to objects making one god creator of all. 

But that wasn’t even the point.  All of that was a byproduct of the point.  This author wanted to answer who we are and what do we do by saying we are created in the image of God and we reflect that image by resting on the seventh day.    The point of the story was Sabbath!  You keep your identity in a foreign land by keeping Sabbath.   

You know what?  Sabbath preaches.   Holy rest was not just for the people, but for slaves and animals too.  You didn’t even cook on the Sabbath. You prepared twice as much the day before.   Sabbath had to with social justice, with dignity, with honoring the sacredness and beauty and meaning of life.    We continue to honor Sabbath whether through a day or a period of rest or meditation.    We honor it by taking time and by creating conditions so that all humankind can take time to simply be.   That is a message that is worthy to keep.   Honor a holy rest.    That was the point of Genesis 1.

The point was not to tell the story of the origin of the cosmos, although it included that.   It did it so well that it has been the story of origins for two millennia and for many it fulfills that role still.   

Here is the problem.  It fails as a story for the cosmos.   The concept of the universe from which that story arose has long been eclipsed by a more magnificent story.    Genesis 1 is valuable.  It is a great story for Sabbath and for keeping rest.  

There is more we need to know as a human race.  We need to know how we came to be and who we are.    As we face global challenges we need a global story.   The story of evolution from the Big Bang to the present is one that unites us.  The story of evolution will challenge us.  It will cause us to ask a lot of questions and require us to do similar work that that author of Genesis 1 did in her time, to make meaning. 

That is my attempt with this series of sermons.  I look forward to the adventure with you.


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