Posts Tagged ‘choices’

Billions of stars in each galaxy. Billions of galaxies. Therefore, many billions of planets. There must be millions of civilizations scattered through the universe. This was widely accepted as a reasonable conclusion throughout the 1900s by science and laypersons alike. Later in that period astronomers and astrophysicists began getting data showing that, for the most part, the universe is a violent, unfriendly place. Yet there seemed to be “safe zones” …

The hot big bang model says that the entire physical universe — all the matter and energy, and even the four dimensions of space and time — burst forth from a state of infinite, or near infinite, density, temperature, and pressure. The universe expanded from a volume very much smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, and it continues to expand[1]. But how did the galaxies form? According to the physical laws galaxies should not have happened. Indeed galaxies, stars, planets, life, would not exist – at least as we know them – if there had been any variation in the primordial values of an estimated 50 constants and quantities, 26 of which are shown in Appendix A (click here). For example, renown physicist and mathematician Dr Stephen Hawking calculated that if just one of these constants, the universe’s expansion rate, one second after the big bang had been smaller than one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have collapsed into a fireball[2]. If the expansion rate had been any larger, matter would have dispersed so efficiently that none of it would clump enough to form galaxies, and therefore no stars, no planets, and no life[3].

The COBE satellite (Cosmic Background Explorer) provided the data that established that there is, throughout the universe, very small amounts of residual heat/radiation from the big bang. Not only so, but in later refinements it was shown that its distribution is splotchy – precisely what must happen for galaxies to form. The COBE findings were extolled across the science community with superlatives. Stephen Hawking, usually a master of understatement, said “it is the discovery of the century, if not of all time”[4].

Initially, the big bang consisted of nothing but energy; extreme temperatures. In the first four minutes there was enough cooling for the universe’s first matter to form: hydrogen (in the form of deuterium) and helium. Practically all that exists today of these elements formed then.

What does all this have to do with sensible faith and “safe zones for life?” First of all, the extraordinary, extraordinary odds against the occurrence of these events by natural processes would hopefully lead the atheistic or skeptical reader to wonder if his faith in chance happenings is sensible. Maybe the existence of a transcendent intelligence designing and guiding these incredible events is more likely and more sensible (in all fairness impossible odds, by themselves, is technically not conclusive. More about this in a couple of articles hence).

Secondly, safe zones for earth-like planets depend upon the foregoing galaxy-building events. For example, the heavier elements essential to form rocks, planets, and life have to come from stars which “burn” that hydrogen (fuse hydrogen atoms into heavier atoms), and eventually explode (supernovae) scattering their heavy material through space where gravity can draw it together into new stars and their orbiting planets. While this cycle can happen almost anywhere, earth-like planets can exist only if:

There has been enough supernovae cycles to provide a rich environment of the life-essential elements. For example, a very young galactic region cannot have had enough star cycles to provide sufficient planet-building material.

The occurrence of supernovae, new star births, collisions with other galaxies, black holes, white dwarf binaries, gamma bursts, and other violence has quieted enough so as to not disrupt/destroy planets and life.

The density of neighborhood stars, other bodies, and even other planets is sparse enough to provide low enough gravity fields to permit stable, near circular orbits of potential earth-like planets around their parent star.

The luminosity (brightness) of the parent star has to be sufficient to provide hospitable levels of stable heating.

Candidate earth-like planets have to orbit their parent star at the right distance and have a gas-giant type of planet in orbit close enough to attract planet-killing asteroids and comets, but far enough away to allow the earth-like planet to have a stable orbit with manageable tides.

These are just a few of the “neighborhood factors” narrowing the galactic zones safe for life-sustaining planets to exist. Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame) and Iosef Shklovskii were the first astronomers to provide evidence of these intricacies[5]. In 1966 they had determined it takes a certain kind of star [size, brightness, stability] with a planet located just the right distance from that star to provide the minimal conditions for life[6]. Working with just these two [of many] parameters, they estimated that only 0.001% of all stars could have a planet capable of supporting advanced life[7].

With the foregoing as background let’s look at the universe where the stars are — in either globular clusters or in the three basic types of galaxies — together with a few of their life-sustaining characteristics, or absence thereof.

Globular clusters are one of the worst places to expect life because of, first, the low abundance of life sustaining heavy elements due to the young age of its stars. Secondly, globular clusters are so densely packed with stars that stable, circular orbits of planets would be impossible – assuming planets could even form. Zero “safe zones” here.

Galaxies are of three basic types: elliptical, irregular, and spiral.

Most galaxies are elliptical and less massive having mostly young stars in random orbits, like bees swarming a beehive. Consequently, the stars visit every region of the galaxy including the denser, inner regions where a black hole is likely[8]. Under these conditions, star formation ceases before the interstellar medium becomes enriched enough with heavy elements. Without these heavy elements earth-like planets cannot form nor, if formed, could they support life[9]. Again, zero safe zones.

Irregular galaxies exhibit worse conditions for life than elliptical galaxies. They’re distorted and ripped apart with supernovae going off throughout their volume. There are no safe places where there are fewer supernovae exploding, such as Earth enjoys resting as it does between two of the arms in our  spiral galaxy[10].

Spiral galaxies are the least common in the universe comprising only 5% of all the galaxies[11]. Spiral galaxies also tend to be the most massive and luminous – the Milky Way being in the top one or two percent of all massive galaxies. This makes for an abundance of the heavy elements needed for life. Galaxies have varying degrees of star formation where gases coalesce to form stars, which then super novae at a fairly high rate[12]. In a spiral galaxy these “star nurseries” are primarily in the spiral arms – well away from our planet which is situated safely on an edge between two arms. The inner regions of the spiral disc are also inhospitable to life with high levels of radiation, supernovae and almost certainly a black hole.

So where are the “safe zones for life in the universe”? In the narrow regions on the edge of the arms of spiral galaxies, not too far out toward the perimeter of the galaxy disk where the heavy elements are thin, and not to far toward the center of the disk where violence is more common. How common are these safe zones in the universe? Very rare. The vast majority of galaxies are eliminated from contention, and the vast majority of the stars in the few remaining galaxies are also eliminated[13].

What do you suppose is a sensible estimate of the number of “safe zones” occurring by accident in the universe?

More next time . . .

Appendix A, A Universe Fine Tuned For Life


[1] Hugh Ross, PhD, (1995), The Creator and the Cosmos, Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress

[2] Stephen W. Hawking, (1988), A Brief History of Time, New York, NY, Bantam Books

[3] ibid, Ross, (114)

[4] ibid, (19)

[5] ibid, (131)

[6] Iosef S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan, (1966), Intelligent Life In The Universe, (343-350), San Francisco, CA, Holden-Day.

[7] Ibid, (413)

[8] Guillermo Gonzalez, PhD, summa cum laude astronomy and physics, University of Arizona; masters and doctorate, University of Washington, interview, Lee Strobel , (2004), The Case For A Creator, (170), Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan,

[9] ibid, Ross, (132)

[10] ibid, Gonzalez, Strobel, (171)

[11] ibid, Ross, (132)

[12] ibid, Gonzalez, Strobel,, (166-172)

[13] ibid, Ross, (133)

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Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines “faith” as:

1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1) : fidelity to one’s promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>

None of these is satisfactory for how I will use “faith” in the postings here, although I can find elements of some of my thoughts in some of the definitions.

I think our society tends to use the word faith only in the religious sense. We can see that influence in these dictionary definitions. Unfortunately this tends to relegate the term away from the things we focus on in the main stream of our daily living. This leads to serious misunderstandings about life, living, and choices.

“Faith,” as I will use it in these writings permeates every thing we do. Illustrations:

Our exposure to aircraft (TV, movies, books, school) convinces us that these big, heavy machines do fly, and reliably so. Commercial airliner crashes are so few that it doesn’t diminish our faith in flight safety sufficiently to relegate our travel only to ground transportation. We even have faith that the pilots (whom we have never met, nor do we know their qualifications, nor even their state of health) will operate the plane safely, even in stormy weather which we also know little or nothing about when we make reservations for our next trip. Yet we have enough faith in air travel to walk on that airplane and have a seat.

Every time we drive to work or the grocery store, we have faith that each one of the multitude of drivers we will meet on the road will stay in his lane and will stop at stop lights/signs, that is, will drive according to the rules. Highway accident statistics are terrible yet our faith in auto travel is unshakable. Why is that?

We also have faith in institutions, like banks, hospitals, nursing homes and schools. We have faith that they will keep our checking accounts with honesty, heal us, care for our loved ones, and teach our children truthfully.

Perhaps it is in individuals where we place our deepest faith, for example, doctors, pastors, friends, family, parents, and spouses.

Instances of faith in the daily stuff of our lives is almost endless. This is the sense in which I will use the term “faith” in these articles. In only a moment of reflection each of us will realize that “faith” saturates our lives, whether intentional or not. How does it happen that we have faith in something or someone? We’ll discuss that.

Notice how easily we can substitute the word trust for faith without changing meaning. Even the dictionary definitions do this. Indeed, trust is a true synonym for faith, certainly so in the contexts of this blog. However, we must be more careful how we use the word belief. We can, and often do, believe some information about something or a person without trusting them or having faith in them. It is important that we make these distinctions carefully.

So now we’re close to being able to think correctly about the question “is faith sensible?” First we need a few minutes with the question of how we come to place our faith in something or trust someone. But that’s a good place to start the next posting.

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“Faith is a choice” many will say. “I don’t need a lot of information.” Many others will say, “I won’t trust something I don’t understand.” People are different. Before we will trust something or someone, each of us needs to come to our own level of prerequisite factual information, whether through study, knowledge, first-hand experiences, or simply listening to a loved parent or respected clergy. The spectrum is wide. The consequences of our choices?  Maybe trivial. ‘Depends on what the choice is about. Maybe life or death.

My guess is that the choice to fly or drive a 1,000 mile cross country trip is, for most of us, based on how much time we have and the cost. Beyond time and cost, consequences aren’t really thought about. The chances of being killed in an auto accident are about 1 in 5,000; in a commercial airliner, 1 in 11 million, or 2,200 times safer, based on US Department of Transportation data (1999-2000). Yet which do we usually choose? In which do we have greater trust/faith?

It has long seemed odd to me how little our society thinks about risk. Especially when the consequences of a choice are great, why don’t the overwhelming majority of us ask ourselves the obvious question, “what am I risking in making this choice? Is the risk very much different if I do this rather than that?” Generally, I think we just don’t know much about risk.

Perhaps too many of us are inclined to replace a thoughtful reflection on facts and risk with what our friends or colleagues think, or what ‘everybody else is doing’ when making similar choices. Peer pressure from friends or work as well as the news media and activist groups strongly influence our sense of risk, choice, and trust in many cases. For example, did you know that each year, 10,000 to 50,000 Americans die from respiratory diseases due to coal fired electric generation plants, and 300 more are killed in mining and transportation accidents? In contrast, no Americans have died or been seriously injured because of a reactor accident or radiation exposure from American nuclear power plants. But what perception do you think most of us have?

So is faith sensible? I have a hunch our choices to trust someone or something could stand a lot of improvement. For example, how do we choose to trust a person? By their place in society (doctors, scientists, pastors)? Are they a part of our social group (neighborhood, Rotary Club, school team)? Surely skin color (ethnicity) has nothing to do with trusting them or not! And let’s not even get into how we choose a mate.

Maybe a lot of our faith choices are just based on what “feels right” or what we really want to do. I think our advertising industry capitalizes on this. For example, do we choose to buy a specific car because it looks cool or because it is the most reliable and safe? Yet we’ll drive that car in snowstorms through remote, potentially hazardous, areas and spend more money for it than anything else except our house. Is our faith in those choices sensible?

You probably won’t be surprised then when I tell you that I’m not at all impressed by the arguments that fill so many books and often get so heated on talk shows about the so-called “war” between faith in religion and faith in science. Remember, I’m talking about “faith” as being an accepted truth based upon factual evidence. No, no – wait – check those immediate reactions our minds have become conditioned to have about claims of  “factual evidence” on both sides of this “war.” If we are so defensive of our past choices that we can’t look fairly at the other guy’s factual evidence, there’s no point in going on to the next posting(s). But before you turn away, think a bit about the consequences and whether your faith is sensible.

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