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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Stuff of Stars

(Originally posted at The Nauvoo Times.)

An LDS acquaintance of mine has recently discovered science, it seems, and no longer accepts the scriptural account of Creation. Among his online writings, I was disappointed to read a sarcastic dismissal of Earth and its wondrous balance of elements and materials as the fruit of divine Intervention. Instead, he said, the elements of the earth were merely the products of matter from stars. No divine tinkering needed.

Now that he has found science, I am sure he feels that his viewpoint is highly scientific. Sadly, it’s novice science at best.

I am not saying that science forces us to recognize God. God will not take away our need for faith. Yet, while there may be room for atheism among thoughtful scientists, I feel that science properly understood should lead us to wonder and marvel at the nature of the matter we are made of.

Yes, we are in part the stuff of stars. Our tangible stuff, flesh and bone, nails and hair, blood and sweat, is made of a handful of elements. Science tells us that the hydrogen present in water, proteins, sugars, and nearly every compound throughout our bodies, was created in the first few moments of the Big Bang. The rest of the elements that make up this earth were largely formed much later in the core of stars, where powerful processes gradually convert hydrogen into helium.

Later, some of this helium can become converted into carbon, and carbon and other light elements can become converted into still heavier elements, either in stars or supernovas.

It is from this stellar genealogy that we inherit the elements we depend on for life and for the majesty of planet Earth, with its rich crust, mineral-laden waters, life-giving atmosphere, and its magnetic core. That core, by the way, is another of the life-preserving wonders we have inherited from the stuff of stars.

(Ironically, while that mass of metal is located as deeply as possible beneath our feet, its magnetic field shields us far above our heads from the solar wind, deflecting charged particles that would strip away the upper atmosphere and leave us more vulnerable to harmful radiation. A clever design/coincidence indeed.)

Our physical bodies and the earth itself come from elements that were forged in cycles of the birth and death of stars, one of the great engines of Creation. So yes, you can say that we owe our physical existence to stars. But I would suggest a little more thinking and a little more curiosity are needed to understand what that actually means, and to appreciate why our gratitude and wonder should not stop there.

The stellar process that gives rise to carbon is called the triple-alpha process. It’s beautiful and improbable, so much so that I would call it brilliant, if not miraculous. There are two steps in this process where an interesting coincidence is found.

In the first step, two alpha particles (the nucleus of helium-4) combine to form beryllium-8, and in the second step, beryllium-8 combines with another alpha particle to form carbon-12. The coincidence is that the energy levels of these particles seem perfectly tuned to allow this reaction to occur in abundance, when otherwise it would be rare. Wikipedia’s article on the triple-alpha process explains:

Ordinarily, the probability of the triple alpha process would be extremely small. However, the beryllium-8 ground state has almost exactly the energy of two alpha particles. In the second step, 8Be + 4He has almost exactly the energy of an excited state of 12C. These resonances greatly increase the probability that an incoming alpha particle will combine with beryllium-8 to form carbon.

The existence of this resonance was predicted by Fred Hoyle before its actual observation, based on the physical necessity for it to exist, in order for carbon to be formed in stars. In turn, prediction and then discovery of this energy resonance and process gave very significant support to Hoyle's hypothesis of stellar nucleosynthesis, which posited that all chemical elements had originally been formed from hydrogen, the true primordial substance

As a side effect of the process, some carbon nuclei can fuse with additional helium to produce a stable isotope of oxygen and release energy....

This creates a situation in which stellar nucleosynthesis produces large amounts of carbon and oxygen but only a small fraction of these elements is converted into neon and heavier elements. Both oxygen and carbon make up the 'ash' of helium-4 burning. The anthropic principle has been controversially cited to explain the fact that nuclear resonances are sensitively arranged to create large amounts of carbon and oxygen in the Universe.



Schematic of the triple-alpha process from Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple-alpha_process.


Wikipedia’s article on Fred Hoyle, the leading British astronomer who first realized that stars were the engines for creating the elements, discusses how this atheist realized that chance alone seemed inadequate to describe the universe we lived in.

In trying to work out the routes of stellar nucleosynthesis, he observed that one particular nuclear reaction, the triple-alpha process, which generates carbon, would require the carbon nucleus to have a very specific resonance energy for it to work. The large amount of carbon in the universe, which makes it possible for carbon-based life-forms of any kind to exist, demonstrated that this nuclear reaction must work.

Based on this notion, he made a prediction of the energy levels in the carbon nucleus that was later borne out by experiment.

These energy levels, while needed to produce carbon in large quantities, were statistically very unlikely. Hoyle later wrote:

Would you not say to yourself, "Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question."
It is not just the supremely tweaked energy levels of certain particles in the triple-alpha process that commands our wonder at the improbability of carbon-based life. For one of many other factors, the very existence of stars themselves should make us profoundly suspicious of chance alone as an explanation for the universe.

The fission and fusion occurring within the core of a star are processes releasing such massive amounts of energy, like billions of atomic bombs erupting simultaneously (100 billion hydrogen bombs per second is an estimate on one physics website). This massive release of energy would cause a star to explode violently outward if it were not for the massive gravitational forces holding it together, forces that could cause the star to collapse into a black hole or dead neutron star where it not balanced by the energy release.

Gravity is needed to pull matter together so intensely that fusion starts and the star comes to life in the first place, yet it’s a remarkably delicate balance between the strength of gravity and the strength of electromagnetic and other forces that are required for a star to exist at all.

Physicists have marveled at the delicate balance of fundamental properties that is required for stars to operate and make life possible.

The properties of matter and energy that make life possible arise from a handful of fundamental constants, like the strength of gravity and the strength of the weak and strong nuclear forces, that influence numerous aspects of the cosmos. The properties that allow stars to exist and carbon to be formed are also linked to the ability of DNA to function, of proteins to operate, and of liquid water to transport nutrients in cells while also giving vapor and ice to govern the climate of the planet.

When I contemplate the challenge of fine-tuning fundamental properties of matter to allow stars and planets to form, to allow clouds and rivers, ears and eyes, chlorophyll and sugar, bacteria and great whales, and brains that can create and appreciate music, I am overwhelmed with wonder and surprise that it was even possible, no matter how intelligent a Being was who wished to create.

I am dumbfounded that a solution, such a brilliant optimum in the balance of forces could be found among the countless possibilities, almost all of which would lead to lifeless universes populated with scattered, lonely wisps of sterile particles or little but raging black holes or other dreary possibilities devoid of the brilliant and diverse engines of creation we see in the stars that fill our skies and gives us the stuff from which we are so delicately crafted.

We are the stuff of stars, but don’t stop there. Stars are the handiwork of a brilliant and loving God, or the result of unbelievably fortunate accidents. This is where a touch of faith comes in. Knowing through many personal experiences that a loving God exists, I lean toward stars as yet another brilliant product of His work rather than a crazy byproduct of randomness.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's interesting, but I don't buy it.

Joseph Smith taught that matter is eternal and coexistent with God, not created by God. For example, God has a material body of flesh and bone - where did he get it if matter didn't exist until he created it?

Much of what you wrote in this post derives from the theory that the red shift of light from distant stars is the result of an expanding universe. But what if the red shift is due to some phenomenon other than motion (such as ether drag)? Then the Big Bang and all the associated theories are wrong. Oops.

I saw an interesting presentation on how Einstein got it wrong, having to do with solving tensor equations for a single mass in a universe with multiple masses - oops - and deciding that division by zero is okay and the result black holes - oops again.

Science famously gets stuff wrong. I feel sorry for anyone who would abandon the sure word of revelation for science. That's usually an indication that they really don't understand science (in addition to not understanding religion) - truly a sorry state to be in.

Johann said...

Anonymous points out one of the difficulties in Mormon theology: God as author of nature's laws vs. God the advanced engineer. Mormon teachings provides bases for both beliefs, but they really aren't compatible with each other.

The most thoughtful atheists don't claim that natural phenomena are the result of accident. Rather, they are the result of natural processes governed by laws. The point of departure from theism is whether or not natural laws imply the existence of a lawgiver. What's special about Mormonism is that many of its adherents believe the lawgiver came after at least some of the laws, as illustrated in Anonymous's point above about the eternal nature of matter.

Anonymous said...

Following up, I wonder what the source is for the idea (within Mormonism) that God is the author of the laws of physics and thermodynamics, and whether it's based on scripture or revelation.

You see, one of the strengths of Mormon theology is that it posits a God who exists within nature, rather than one who exists outside of nature. The problems of a god who exists outside of nature are many, particularly if it includes creation ex nihilo because that would violate the law of identity (A = A) and pretty much undercut logic and reason as we know them.

I'm not much of a fan of the idea that God authored the laws of physics, but I understand there are paths of thought that might enable such a concept, such as, for example, the notion of different states of physical matter (celestial vs. terrestrial vs. telestial), and that the laws of physics as we know them apply specifically to telestial matter and could have been, in fact, authored by God.

[In other words, I'm not willing to cast Mormon theology into the dustbin simply because I'm not very thoughtful or creative. I'm convinced by other experiences that it's right.]

Jeff Lindsay said...

Christ, like the Father, has a glorious, immortal body of flesh and bone. But it wasn't always that way for Christ. Was it always that way for the Father? I don't think LDS doctrine requires that. But I have no idea about the origins of things and yes, there are puzzles and questions, and questions that we are asking in completely the wrong way and others we are not asking at all because we miss the most basic points of reality that aren't yet clear to us.

What is matter, or matter-energy, and what aspects of it are eternal? What is the universe, and is it the only one? What is its relationship to God? Is this one of many universes He created? Or one of many He selected? Or....

The banana in your fruit salad is not eternal, but what of its carbon? If the carbon was made from hydrogen, I have no trouble with that. Is the hydrogen eternal? If that hydrogen was itself made another form of matter or energy, I have no trouble with that. If that matter-energy was transformed and revealed or given order through the Big Bang, I'm not sure that there is a problem. Could something eternal and intelligent have existed prior to the Big Bang? Not sure how, but not sure how not. What was before the Big Bang? Fascinating question. Here's one perspective based on some of the latest findings, all of which may be reversed next Tuesday afternoon. Or later, or never. See http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2012/10/15/what-happened-before-the-big-bang/.

Whoa, I don't know what I'm talking about, so I guess I need to write another book. And none of us do when it comes to these imponderable topics, so y'all can be coauthors with me.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Yes, I recognize that the Big Bang with God somehow controlling it to guide the properties of matter doesn't literally fit the natural way we interpret statements from Joseph Smith about matter. Inflationary theories of the universe have this problem even moreso. These problems, though, involve many hidden assumptions that may be wrong. Since there are so many possibilities for us to be hopelessly immature in our understanding of matter, the universe(s), the laws of physics and their origin, the meaning of "eternal", etc., etc., I think this disconnect shouldn't bother us. Let's keep learning before we make sweeping conclusions based on the bits and pieces of things we think we know.

Perhaps our challenge in this area is sort of like living on an island without birds or flying insects, and without knowledge of air as a fluid, and concluding that stories about heavier-than-air creatures that fly must be wrong because the law of gravity makes sustained flight impossible. That objection could sound very reasonable in a society without knowledge of flight, Bernoulli's equation, and aerodynamics, but all the reasons against the possibility of flight would fade once it is thoroughly demonstrated and explained.

Johann said...

@Anonymous 10:07AM

D&C 88 (a masterpiece of Mormon scripture, showing Joseph Smith's uncanny talent for combining the glorious with the banal), verses 42-43 says that God is lawgiver. This represents a traditional theistic view of God. On the other hand, only a year later, the revelation that is now D&C 93 was recorded saying, "Intelligence or the light of truth is not created or made, neither indeed can be," and "Man was also in the beginning with God." Can intelligence exist without a law? Doesn't that imply the existence of some laws that don't need a lawgiver? In Mormonism, is God an explanation for natural phenomena, or is His existence superfluous, a matter of faith, not necessity? I say without intention to criticize that Mormonism as believed by many of its members is unintentionally the most atheistic of theistic religions.

Jeff, I look forward to your book.

Pops said...

@Johann,

I would have phrased that last sentence a bit differently - perhaps that Mormonism is the least reliant on magic of all theistic religions.

Most religions get carried away with the "omnipotent" label. It doesn't mean that God has any and all powers than anybody can think of and then some; what it means is that God has all power that is possible to have. It's clear He's constrained by pre-existent law, otherwise there would be no need for an Atonement - he could simply wave His magic wand and save everybody.

I believe the "lawgiver" title is about the Plan of Salvation. That is, God established parameters whereby His spirit offspring could grow and develop to maturity to become as He is. Once again, if He were not bound by law (in other words, if he were magically powerful), he could just wave His magic wand...

You might also note that "lawgiver" is not necessarily the same as "lawmaker"...

I believe that God is a real being who inhabits a real universe. I believe He has all power that is possible to have, but I do not believe that he is magic. I do not believe he can create something from nothing, for example, because that simply isn't possible. It's illogical and irrational, and God is above all a rational being.

Pops said...

Furthermore, I'm not sold on the Big Bang. The Big Bang theory comes about by observing red shift of light from distant stars, by assuming the red shift is due to the velocity of the stars away from us, and then by running the clock backwards until all matter in the universe disappears into a singularity.

It could be correct, but to be correct I personally would require that the matter in our universe had traversed some kind of wormhole and emerged from a singularity, having existed previously in some other "dimension" (whatever that means).

My suspicion is that the red shift is another phenomenon entirely, such as ether drag. (Yes, I know, we don't "need" an ether according to Occam's Razor - so let's invent dark matter and dark energy instead; bit of irony there.)

Another problem with the current theory is that light particles in the vacuum of space don't clump together due to gravitational attraction. Gravity is far too weak. You might have noticed, for example, when the spacewalking astronaut left her untethered toolbag floating next to her and the space station for a bit too long. The toolbag drifted away, it didn't go "clunk" up against the space station. How in tarnation are hydrogen atoms supposed to clump together in space if large metal objects don't clump together? It seems a bit farfetched to me.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot that I don't understand. I love science and the current theories because it allows us to advance in medicine, technology, etc. However, I am not willing to toss out my religious experience wherein I felt the hand of Heavenly Father in my life.

I would like to add my 2 cents to some of the comments (the 2 cents is worth every penny so spend it wisely)

- While Jeff did mention "create" in the context of the Big Bang, it could probably be better stated a conversion from energy to matter.

- We don't know what resurrected bodies are. With our current and very limited understanding (a couple of sentences worth from the scriptures), resurrected bodies defy entropy. This suggests to me that resurrected bodies possibly are not entirely of this physical universe (pure speculation and this opinion is not even worth the 2 cents I am depositing here). Am I concerned about glorified, resurrected bodies and their physical laws defying abilities? Not the least.

- I see no problem that God can have both experienced a mortal life and is the creator of physical laws / universe. I am still waiting for more understanding about this.

- Gravity is a very week force. Gravity is a property of matter and light does not have matter so light will not clump together. The Cavendish experiment did demonstrate that matter, eventually, will clump together. So, yes, after a long time, hydrogen will clump together to form gas clouds, then proto-stars, then stars, etc. Nothing about our theology goes contrary to the theory of gravity.

Nice article, I really enjoyed it.

Steve

Anonymous said...

"Sadly, it´s novice science at best."

Simple math and the doctrine of your church show that your acquaintance is correct.

The weakest weak anthropic principle tells us that an extremely large universe would not only create but replicate the number of probabilities you mentioned.

You admit in your post that the factors (elements, arrangements, etc) are limited, therefore in an extremely large test case - the universe - one would expect the "special" conditions to happen.

But, Mormon teaching tell us there are "worlds without end." Therefore, there is an infinite universe - worlds without end are impossible without that. With a limited number of elements and their arrangements, in an infinite universe it is impossible to not have an earth. Simple math. So the strong version of the weak anthropic principle defeats all you said.

We could talk about the strong anthropic principle, but given Mormon scripture, that is not necessary.

Pops said...

The Cavendish Experiment showed there is gravitational attraction between any two bodies with mass. Experience shows that unattended tool bags and other objects left adrift in space next to other massive objects do not attach themselves, but drift away. Light particles (e.g. hydrogen atoms) are much less likely to clump than tool bags, astronauts, and space stations.

Pops said...

Anon@2:02 PM

I believe you've abused the anthropic principle, which speaks not of the probability of physical events in some corner of this universe resulting in life, but rather of the probability of a universe having physical constants that are consistent with life out of many universes.

To say that the existence of life is proof that life can evolve without intelligent intervention is rather circular, don't you think? Perhaps you could explain whence arises consciousness...

Anonymous said...

Pops,

The sun's mass is more than 98% hydrogen and helium. What's keeping all that hydrogen and helium from drifting away from the sun?

Pops said...

That's a different question. The right question is how it all got together in the first place, given that gravity is too weak to attract even a spacewalking astronaut and her tools to the space station.

Anonymous said...

So how did it get together then? Magic?

Pops said...

Magic? That's apparently what today's cosmologists believe. Here's another thought experiment illustrating the absurdity of the whole thing: take a hydrogen-filled balloon and send it up into space in a capsule that maintains 1 atmosphere of pressurization (so as to keep the balloon from expanding during the ascent). Put it into orbit, or, if you prefer, take it into deep space. Then release the balloon and observe what happens. Even though the hydrogen is originally constrained by its latex container, it doesn't clump together and begin the formation of a star. Instead, it expands violently, shredding the balloon and scattering the hydrogen molecules in all directions.

Here's an alternative. Perhaps God formed the stars and the planets. After all, He said He did it. I'm pretty sure He knows how to do it and has the power to do it. That works for me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pops,

I'm not sure why you are down on gravity (pun intended). The Cavendish experiment is a controlled environment where a lot of the variables are known. A tool bag floating in out space is not a controlled environment. This thought experiment tells me that the tool bag had significant momentum to overcome the natural gravitational attraction that two masses have. Significant is relative since the gravitational force is a weak force.

We don't need to resort to a hydrogen balloon thought experiment, we only need to point our telescopes heavenward to see gas clouds, proto-stars, stars, etc.

Lastly, I don't want to dictate how Heavenly Father created the universe and everything therein. If we recognize and understand a portion of how this process came about, all the better for us.

Steve

Anonymous said...

Pops, your arrogance is breathtaking. You accuse other religionists (not to mention cosmologists) of relying more than yourself on a belief in "magic," but when explanations are proffered for natural phenomena, you reject them in favor of a gap that you can fill with the old explanation that God did it. That's good enough for you.

Here's another thought experiment. Fill the balloon with the amount of hydrogen that occurs in nebulae where stars form so that significant gravitational attraction could occur. The amount of hydrogen matters. Gravitational force depends on mass. Your arguments are tantamount to making a 1 kg model of the earth and concluding that the real earth can't attract anything because your small model doesn't pull anything into its orbit.

Pops said...

@Steve,

Compute the escape velocity of one hydrogen atom from another and perhaps you'll get what I'm trying to say. It's very, very small. Any kinetic energy at all and the atoms will be far beyond escape velocity, precisely as the tool bag had sufficient kinetic energy to overcome the gravitational attraction of the space station, even though its motion was initially imperceptible to the astronaut).

Perhaps we could get a few hydrogen atoms to hang together by dropping their temperature (kinetic energy) to near absolute zero. Of course, the Big Bang was supposedly very hot, so that doesn't work very well.

Pops said...

@Anonymous 9:05 AM

I think you've mixed two different concepts.

The theological magic of which I wrote consists of positing the existence of a God with impossible powers, along the lines of one that can "make a rock so big that he can't move it". Those kinds of powers are self-contradictory concepts that are easily dismissed as illogical and therefore not germane to any discussion of God. I classify the power of creating everything from nothing as the same kind of illogical power (yet most religions bravely accept it - go figure).

I'm not, however, invoking magic when I say God created the universe, nor am I simply attributing to God anything I don't understand. God says he commanded the elements and they obeyed. That's a rather curious concept to me, but because I've established trust in God and his word through other means, I'm willing to consider it. I point out the gravitational problem because it ought to be obvious to the casual observer, and should have been one of the first questions asked before the Big Bang became dogma.

I happen to like your thought experiment quite a bit ("Fill the balloon with the amount of hydrogen that occurs in nebulae where stars form so that significant gravitational attraction could occur") as it illustrates precisely the kind of intelligent action that I believe is necessary for the creation of stars and planets. When hydrogen atoms are left to bang around the universe on their own, they have too much kinetic energy to ever get together to do something big.

Those who abandon religion in favor of science should do so with eyes wide open, understanding the tremendous leaps of faith that are required to accept scientific dogma.

Chris said...

Pops,

I appreciate your effort to continue the discussion reasonably, so I'll continue as well, no longer anonymously.

I've had this discussion with a number of non-Mormon Christians, and their position isn't that far from yours with respect to the limits of omnipotence. Most of them with some background in theology will say that omnipotence means the ability to do anything that is logically possible. So God can't square a circle or engage in self-contradictory behavior. I think that this position presupposes that there are laws that transcend God, namely the laws of logic. They disagree with me, saying that the laws of logic follow from God's nature, but come from God nevertheless. That answer doesn't satisfy me. I don't think they can escape the assertion that there are pre-existent laws that are not determined by God. If the laws of logic fit that description, then why not the laws of physics? Where they often differ from you is whether matter was created from nothing. You might clarify for me how their belief is more dependent on magic than yours. I'm not seeing it.

With regard to gravity and hydrogen atoms, there are a few things that you're still missing. The toolbag isn't perceptibly drawn by gravity to the space station because neither has enough mass. Both station and toolbag continue to fall to Earth, which has enough mass to overcome any attraction that smaller objects might have for each other. (Orbit is falling.) In your thought experiments with hydrogen atoms, you're considering small numbers of atoms over small distances. That's not where gravity becomes important. It becomes important over large distances with large numbers of atoms. If all matter (which is more hydrogen than anything else) were homogeneously distributed throughout the universe, then no stars would form. But why should it be homogeneously distributed? Local inhomogeneities occurred early on, and gravity acted over large distances involving large numbers of atoms.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pops,

You nailed it. The temperature required is something really cold, something you find in outer space. At these cold temperatures, hydrogen starts clumping together, clouds form, then proto-stars, stars, etc. Stars were not immediately formed after the Big Bang (so the theory goes) but only after there were temperatures cool enough to allow such. You can't escape gravity.

Steve

Pops said...

@Chris,

One of the fundamental philosophical axioms is the law of identity. Creation ex nihilo violates the law of identity. As far as I'm concerned, it makes even less sense than a square circle because it undermines the entire concept of anything making sense.

@Steve,

The real question is whether the numbers work. Given that cosmologists have had to invent dark matter and dark energy to make our current universe work, I remain skeptical. There is a very real possibility they have gotten it terribly wrong. But thanks for indulging me.

Anonymous said...

Pops,

"I believe you've abused the anthropic principle, which speaks...."

No.

But I know you have. No belief on that.

Chris said...

Pops,

Not very convincing. Pure logic doesn't tell us much about the external world. That requires experimentation. One could refute a well validated equation, E=mc^2, by misusing the law of identity. It has been demonstrated that in fact particles and antiparticles form from empty space. Read Lawrence Krauss's book "A Universe from Nothing." You may disagree with it, but just because you disagree doesn't make it "magic." Some ancient Greeks thought they could know everything about the cosmos merely by reasoning within themselves. Real scientific progress occurred when people grew beyond that mistaken notion and started experimenting.

Anonymous said...

The dark matter business is a red herring. The equations for star formation work independently of the questions surrounding dark matter. Just because you don't like scientists' conclusions about one subject, that's not a relevant reason to reject a different group of scientists' conclusions on a different subject.