Christmas has come and gone and so has New Year. The family arrived, hugged played games, talked, ate, unwrapped presents and gave some, talked, ate, hugged and left. Resolutions got made, though why exactly is a bit beyond me: just because the Earth has reached some arbitrarily defined point in it's annual journey around the Sun seems to me to be no good reason to take up jogging or leave off eating chocolate.
As usually happens after the festive season I am briefly on holiday, sitting around in the house with the best view in New Zealand, taking photos, wandering around, thinking about swimming, wandering around a bit more and, mostly, reading books. One of the books I am reading is one I gave to Clemency as a joke on account of it's title. Marcus Chown certainly has a way with catchy monikers for his books. The last one of his I read was called The Never Ending Days of Being Dead, which seemed less like the title of a book about quantum physics, which it was, and more like that for a book of poetry, which in some ways also, it was. Quantum physics is about the little bits and pieces which make up the universe: things which are so mind bogglingly tiny that nothing on earth, or even beyond it can see them, and which behave in such bizarre ways that nothing on earth or even beyond it can adequately describe them. In talking about this stuff, as it is when we talk about anything beyond our normal comprehension, we have to rely on metaphor to make any sense of it. And Marcus Chown is a master of metaphor. He has an uncommon ability to make the intricacies of quantum physics understandable, well almost.
So I have been sitting here in this beautiful place savoring We Need To Talk About Kelvin, stopping every so often to marvel that at long last, I am understanding this stuff, but even more, to marvel at the stuff itself.
Like today. I have been reading about how carbon and oxygen form in the middle of stars. I have known for some time that the middle of stars is where, ultimately, we all came from, but Marcus Chown has described for me the process by which it happens; and not only the process but the detective story by which some of the planet's most ferociously intelligent men and women slowly untangled it. It all took some time to be discovered because the formation of heavy atoms is such a complex business, and it is so dependent on the Universe throwing up just the right sequence of highly unlikely numbers that only a very clever and very imaginative mind could ever begin to guess at it. In fact the only reasonable explanation for the formation of carbon is so dependent on the coming together of several seemingly random variables that there are only two possible explanations for its happening at all. Either it is the product of rational intention or it is the product of chance. If it is the product of chance, then the mind bogglingly huge improbability of the process means there is an inescapable inference: in order for our universe to have come up with this particular roll of the dice, there must be other universes where the dice have fallen differently. In other words, there must be many millions, billions or trillions of universes, each of which has different combinations of the dice, and of which only one, ours, can support life as we know it.
Marcus Chown rejects out of hand the creative intent option as unscientific. He says that the supposition of an intelligent creator is a theory which introduces more complexity than it answers, and therefore, from a scientific point of view needs to be dismissed. I can see his point, but it does seem to me that the invention of an almost ( or maybe not almost) infinite number of parallel universes is a theory even more complex that the theory of a creator. And it is a theory which still doesn't satisfactorily explain the improbabilities of our existence. There is of course, not one shred of evidence, and it is impossible that there would ever be so, for the existence of parallel universes, but the existence of a creator is evidenced by the lived experience of a substantial majority of the human race.
I don't want to argue with Marcus Chown; I wouldn't dare, and anyway I am too grateful for the understanding that his clever and accessible and entertaining books have given me; but while I have no doubt that the universe is, as the best brains in history have figured out, some 13.7 billion years old; and while I have no doubt at all that the little bits and pieces out of which I am composed had their genesis in the heart of some anciently exploded star, this knowledge doesn't so much make me doubt the existence of God as fall at his feet in awe and wonder.
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