The Thin Line
The Ohio paper, the Morrisonville Times, June 11, 1891, featured a small column describing a 'Gold Chain Found Inside Coal.' Mrs. S. W. Culp shoveled coal into her kitchen stove when a large lump broke and out fell a gold chain. The coal came from the Pennsylvania era, which suggested that it could have been over one hundred million years old.
Welcome to the thin line between what we know and what we don't.
A zinc silver-encrusted vase was extracted from a block of coal which dated to 500 million years, well-drilling came up with a copper coin at 114 feet complete with inscriptions (ca. 200,000 years old), and hundreds of metallic spheres with grooves along their equators were found by South African miners in Precambrian mineral deposits (2.8 billion years old).
There's something about objects that exist along that thin line of credulity that are just plain fun. The best ones seem impossible and threaten to turn history upside down. It's easy for us to dismiss such discoveries as fraud, in fact, we feel compelled to. But even as we do, there remains an awkward hope surging within us … what if they are real? What if just one was real? Did people exist before us? Were they alien?
We have just started our journey here on Earth. We have only begun to explore our neighborhood, both in space and under the sea. It would be pure hubris to think we know exactly what happened over the 4.5 billion years it took for the Earth to form. That's an awfully long time. Catastrophe theorists would have you believe that many ages of man have occurred during that time, leaving little or no evidence behind. Ancient alien theorists would have you believe that nearly all the engineering accomplishments of ancient man had an extraterrestrial assist. Ufologists would point to the ever-present influence of aliens. And the list goes on.
We are but babes in the woods. We're new. The universe has been around about 13.7 billion years. We've been here a mere 200,000 years. If you drew a chalk line 224 feet long and ended it with a dot … that dot would be us. So the next time you take a walk in those woods and something catches your eye that just doesn't make sense, be prepared. Like the song says:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
From Desiderata by Max Ehrmann
We’re pretty sure that some things just can’t happen.
Take the Big Bang Theory for an example. First of all, it's not a theory. Theories are hypotheses that can be tested. How are we going to test this? This idea suggests that our universe started out as a tiny, tiny, tiny blob of compacted space-time that showed up in what we can only describe as nothing. Boom. And in just seconds, voila, matter crystallized out and expanded to form what we see today.
Take matter itself. Of all the forms it could adopt, it chose atoms—highly organized bits—electrons orbiting nuclei containing a variety of teeny particles. Each has a number of properties that define how they will interact with other atoms. All this leads to the assembly of molecules into bigger and bigger piles, until we have the world we see today, filled with piles of molecules which interact with other piles. Some even contemplate themselves, and their destinies. The inanimate becomes not only animate, but self aware.
Einstein and the General Theory of Relativity demands that separate observers of the same event will see it differently. And they will both be correct in their observations. Therefore, there is no absolute observation or truth.
What about the EFFECT of the observer? You remember Schroedinger's Cat? The fate of something which depends on the probability of a subatomic event cannot be known until it is observed. Until you look, the cat is neither dead nor alive.
Perhaps you've heard of entangled particles? This is a subatomic scenario where twin particles are separated. In quantum mechanical theory, each particle can have one of two possible states. When one of these particles is observed, its undetermined state collapses to one of the two possible ones, and instantly, the other particle, no matter how far away, adopts the opposite state.
There's way more than meets the eye in this universe of ours. Everything I’ve mentioned as strange and spooky is not only possible but real. Either our Earth-based human logic is not complex enough to understand our surroundings, or someone is playing tricks.
Origin of Life
As a kid, I was convinced that life popped up from just about anything, especially things that were rotting. It wasn't long before a discarded apple core turned into a cloud of tiny flies.
Of course, we all know that's an illusion. Spontaneous generation was proved wrong ages ago. However, now it's an accepted theory. After all, life wasn't around when the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. So, it had to arise from inanimate matter.
We came to the belief that as the Earth cooled, a primordial soup or muck arose which contained the building blocks of life—small organic molecules led to more complex molecules over a span of about a billion years. At some point, these molecules started to replicate and before you knew it (a couple of billion years more) we showed up.
Stanley Miller and Harold Urey ran some experiments in the 1950s which did yield most of our amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Subsequent experiments also found nucleic acids. So we were quick to conclude that's probably what happened.
More recently, comets have become of interest because they are made of ice and dirt, and contain life’s organic molecules. The latest probe, Rosetta, which visited Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, found water vapor, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, along with smaller amounts of carbon-bearing organic compounds, including glycine, the simplest amino acid. Where did that comet pick up those molecules?
Maybe that apple core did create flies.
What is existence?
The single most important question we could ever ask is the one we will never get an answer to. It's a favorite topic in science fiction. Philosophers, theologians, and even scientists have sought the answer, but we all know deep down that isn't going to happen.
But we have some clues.
When a question is posed that cannot be answered, the reason is either it's not a legitimate question or we aren't capable of understanding the answer. An illegitimate question is one that sounds logical but is poisoned with a logical impossibility—for example, what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. You simply can't ask that question!
Does asking about the Universe and our place in it fall into such a trap? Theologians would point to scripture and belief systems that explain everything. However, even then, there are questions that can be posed that we must relegate to a higher authority… admitting we will never understand the answers as living human beings.
It seems the question of existence is like the endless series of "whys" a child might dish out, which usually result in parental exasperation. We may be faced with a limit shaped by the type of logic we use.
The way we think is entirely based on getting food, shelter, and staying out of deadly trouble. Evolutionary theory suggests that all this came about over a period of millions of years on a tiny dust mote called the Earth, stuck in an unassuming little corner of a galaxy containing 100 billion stars in a universe containing at least 10 billion galaxies. Our logic was developed by a life form obsessed with survival. Thus, it may not apply to the bigger picture. When we ask a question aimed at the entire universe, we’re assuming that the universe and all its moving parts follow our reasoning.
Aristotle once declared he was able to prove the existence of God. His approach is sometimes referred to as the First Cause. He claimed that all things have a cause. Applying this cause/effect relationship to anything will ultimately lead to the First Cause. For example, why is there wind? The air is moved by the heat from the sun. Why does the sun heat the air? Its thermonuclear reactions give off heat and we happen to be near enough to feel it. Follow this logic to coalescing matter and eventually to the ever popular Big Bang Theory. Now we're getting in trouble.
To Aristotle the Big Bang could easily be interpreted as God. To physicists, it's just one of those curiosities that maybe someday we'll understand. Interestingly, the logical problem with the First Cause is that there is no proof that all things in the universe need to have a cause. (Just like the Big Bang).
It’s likely that the question so dear to us all, is one that makes no sense. Just like a square circle, the question itself is simply not allowed.
Logic, like everything else, has its limits.
I mentioned other clues early in this essay. They are all around us. Matter is made of something, right? What exactly is that? We're great at taking things apart, giving them names, studying how they interact. But we will never ever know what matter is.
That, right there, may be a significant clue!
Did you know that all attempts to produce a perfect vacuum have failed. Put in another way, we cannot create a space with nothing in it, because something always shows up. Light and/or tiny particles of matter come into existence out of nothing!!!
How is it that after the Big Bang, matter chose to form into atoms? It's curious that atoms have anthropomorphic properties. They have likes and dislikes, which persist through higher levels of complexity, all the way through to us.
Existence resists eradication. Matter behaves as if it's all part of one thing. At this point, one could draw the conclusion that we may be immortal. It seems matter will last forever, either in the form of solids or energy, since it and energy have nowhere to go.
They simply cannot unexist.
The atom is composed of a nucleus containing protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons. It's our fundamental particle (discounting the smaller bits that make up those neutrons and protons). Atoms have the wonderful property of combining, recombining and splitting away from other atoms. In Nature's sandbox, atoms pile up to make molecules, which in turn, pile up to make all sorts of things, including us. Atoms are picky about which other atoms they'll associate with, as are molecules.
Let's get a little crazy and consider that in this context matter demonstrates a kind of awareness. It interacts, combines, recombines, falls apart. At some point matter becomes self-aware (like the pile that makes us up). What if self-awareness may begin at the atomic level or even sub-atomic level? ... basically matter may be aware of itself as a result of its nature, so it's no surprise that piles like us have that same property.
We are simply large bunches of matter exhibiting some awareness of the world around us. The more matter in the pile, especially organized, the more that pile seems conscious. But, what about the soul, you ask? There's room for the soul, if that's how you wish to perceive existence. However, there's no need to make things more complicated by introducing a belief system. Just look around you. We're all made of the same stuff, stuff that is aware of other stuff. We’re in a universe which appears to be aware of itself.
It's actually quite a beautiful thought.