A second example, the electromagnetic force, operates at the micro-quantum scale and makes the existence of atoms possible by keeping electrons attached to the atomic nucleus (conceptually like little worlds circling a star, though this is factually wrong). This electromagnetic force is in fact the combination of all electrical and magnetic forces and energy particles that constitute atoms, and it governs the interactions among those particles. If this force were slightly stronger or weaker, the bonds that hold atoms together, and enable them to form complex molecules by attaching themselves with other atoms, would not exist. If no atoms existed, not much else would exist. The stuff we call “matter” certainly could not exist without the electromagnetic force—in which case there would be nothing.
Nothing except energy.
Also at the micro-quantum scale, the “strong nuclear force” binds together the proton(s) and neutron(s) which together constitute the nucleus of each and every atom in the universe. If this stout little force were slightly stouter, there could be no hydrogen, the element most abundant in the universe, and essential for life. If it were slightly weaker, hydrogen would have been the only element that could form, and thus no structures such as stars or human bodies could exist in the universe. Nothing. Except energy.
The fourth of these fundamental forces is the so-called “weak force.” Though indeed very weak, it is still quite much stronger than gravity—at short distances. It is responsible for “nuclear beta decay” which means that instead of holding things together, as the strong and electromagnetic forces do, it makes things fall apart or “decay.” This decaying process is what we measure with Geiger counters and call “radiation.”
If the weak force were just slightly different than it is, there would be either 1) not enough helium to enable stars to cook up the heavier elements, or 2) too much helium and stars would burn out too quickly to make the heavy elements that are essential for life and many other things. In both cases there would be no heavy elements for supernovas to scatter across the universe when they explode, casting heavy elements out across the universe to be shepherded by gravity into planets and living bodies like yours and mine. No weak force, no humans—or cats or dogs or marigolds. In the nature of things, what could be worse than that?
Seriously, doesn’t all this seem just too amazing? How “lucky” we are that the constants of nature just happen to be so finely tuned that they enable the existence of the universe as we know it. Experts in these matters in fact sometimes speak of “the fine-tuned universe” with its finely adjusted constants of nature that make it possible for atoms, molecules, stars, planets and living bodies to evolve from the elements forged by the stars. This fine tuning idea, both scientific and metaphysical in its implications, acknowledges that the conditions which allow life to occur in the universe depend on the universal constants of nature having values that lie within quite narrow ranges, respectively. If any one of the four fundamental forces had values only slightly higher or lower than they are, the other three wouldn’t matter—the universe, from its quarkish foundations to its mightiest gigantic galaxy super-clusters, would not—could not—develop matter, structures of any size, diversity of anything, or life as we know it.
These four are but a few among the many other constants of nature—basic natural phenomena with values that “must” fit within a narrow just-right range in order for things to have turned out as they have. An excellent body of scientific literature has built up on this subject and I recommend exploration of it. Among those who have done so, two points of view have emerged over time and, as it happens, the two are diametrically opposed to each other. Some would say hostile.
One view emerges from traditional religion, which attributes the constants of nature to “intelligent design”—meaning, of course, intelligently designed by God who, they believe, constantly tweaks the evolution of the universe so every little detail will go precisely as He wishes. Nothing random, no. ID advocates argue that since we observe the constants’ numbers to fall within specific narrow ranges, and since outside those ranges neither life could exist nor universal structures could form, “it follows”—they say, as if thinking themselves logical—that God must have tampered with these constants at some time during the universe’s evolution in order to make sure things would turn out hospitably for His little human creatures. You will perhaps have noticed how that “must have” reveals them to be operating by inference in pretty much the same way scientists infer the reality of unobservable unknowables such as the big bang. An irony that.
In the view of intelligent design believers the constants of nature “therefore” present proof of the existence of God. Arguably—they argue—if a god exists, then S/He would intentionally fine-tune a universe’s laws, constants, and conditions to permit, enable, pre-determine even, life—which includes us, and therefore obviously is very important. And that life would be like us, because this god—being morally perfect of course—would value life and would “therefore” ensure that the universe has physical laws, constants and initial conditions that allow for the existence of us. That’s obvious, isn’t it?
I presume the fallacy of self-motivated reasoning in this simplistic argument is sufficiently obvious to the reader that I need not elaborate. Intelligent Design as an argument of Christian fundamentalists is as unfounded as the courts have ruled it to be.
Leaving such matters momentarily to Old Turtle, I turn to the argument of science which produced our knowledge of the constants in the first place. Briefly stated, most scientists take the position that the constants, laws, and conditions we find in nature formed mindlessly and without reference to purpose—especially the “without purpose” part—and the existence of structures and life we see around us de facto, including our kind of life, is purely coincidental. It’s all one big random accident that just happened to turn out the way it did, lucky for us. We know that evolution has no direction or purpose, they say, “therefore” the constants of nature convey no meaning. The structures and life we see existing around us have no correlation of the constants of nature—they just are.
Here likewise, I presume the baseless claim is sufficiently obvious that elaboration is unnecessary beyond pointing out the obvious: Whereas the constants of nature in fact are theologically neutral, neither their existence nor their particular values convey any implications that would preclude the existence of a creator that might be called God, or whatever. Agnostic honesty is always a good posture—if you don’t know a thing, and obviously cannot know that thing, don’t go about claiming that you do. Maybe the Old Testament God did it all, maybe not—but nobody no-how can claim that they know. In pursuit of scientific truth, let’s be scientifically open minded and factual here.
Our evolving place in nature
It has taken science a full century to unravel various truths presented here concerning gravity, electromagnetism, strong force and weak force. They have not been easily teased out, they have engaged sustained effort by a great many learned minds using a century’s worth of increasingly refined complex technology in an invent-it-as-you-go mode. What they have accomplished during that century, and in the new century so far, deserves the rare level of respect we reserve for humanity’s greatest accomplishments over the millennia of human civilization. In severe abbreviation, let’s now briefly explore reasons why knowledge of these fundamental forces is, or should be, so significant to us today.
Setting the stage with a long view, I note that several poorly remembered names in ancient Greece thought the earth is round, encircles the sun, and is made of tiny bits of indivisible matter they named atoms. A majority of their contemporaries, disagreeing with these “opinions,” variously acted in ways that prevented their being the common opinions that got passed down through Rome. The result was that what eventually passed for “official” knowledge in medieval Europe was something of an intellectual pig sty. I cannot stop myself from mentioning the pig-sty quality of opinions one sees widely circulating in modern society and in spurious tweets repeated on the evening news.
The sun’s place at the center of our solar system was decisively restored by Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus who wisely arranged for his work to be published posthumously—thereby avoiding unpleasant attention from the Roman church which at that time dominated completely all Europe and all Europeans. Copernicus’ death in1543 decisively overturned old Greco-Roman Ptolemy’s complex earth-centered scheme of celestial wheels-within-wheels which had stood—wrong as dirt—misleading people, propagating error and ignorance, for one and a half millennia.
During the century following Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler all added major knowledgeable contributions which collectively cemented the fact of an earth-centered system for modern times.
Then in 1687 Ptolemy’s grave grew deeper when Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica—by all standards one of the most important works in human history. It introduced, among other important first-time ideas, his law of universal gravitation, i.e.: Every (particle, mass, planet, etc) in the universe attracts every other (particle, mass, planet, etc) in the universe, such that the gravitational force of attraction between the two bodies is 1) proportional to the product of their masses and 2) inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them (between their respective centers, actually).
In practical terms this means that any two big massive objects will gravitationally attract (“pull” toward) each other, but the farther they are apart the lower that attraction will be. Now build up that idea: Our sun has eight planets, and while all nine bodies are gravitationally tugging on each other they’re also trying to sling away, outward; the sun, which is far bigger than all of them together, maintains order in the nine-body system. Our Milky Way galaxy contains perhaps 250 billion stars, and they are all attracting (trying to pull toward) each other gravitationally—but the galaxy’s centrifugal force of rotation keeps them slung out there in that familiar spiral configuration. Similarly, earth’s big mass holds little-bitty you and me and that paper clip down to its surface. Without gravity, everything would sling out, up and away from everything else. Be grateful for gravity, thank Newton for figuring all this out and getting it right for the first time ever.
Except he didn’t. Regarding that “pulling toward each other” I just spoke of: It’s not really true, forget it. Bodies in space don’t somehow “reach out and tug” on each other. In fact, they “fall” toward each other—and this is truly the truth.
In 1915 Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity proposing that gravity is not really a “force” at all, it only seems to be a force, it appears to be a force—quite the same as energy appears to form itself into solid tables. In reality, what seems as if planets are gravitationally attracting each other is really cause and effect in disguise. A planet’s great mass causes “a curvature of spacetime,” and the resulting effect is that the planet “falls toward that curvature. The popular analogy is a bowling ball placed in the center of a mattress, depressing it, so that smaller objects roll downward into the depression.
And what is this “spacetime” that is getting curved by the planet‘s mass? Why, it’s the same immaterial stuff previously spoken of as the emptiness, the nothingness, that exists abundantly in the in-between spaces—between planets, between stars, between galaxies, inside atoms—where there is nothing, nothing at all. Nothing except energy—that colossal, unbelievable invisible energy, said to be infinite, atomic bombs of potential energy—which exists unseen in every thimbleful of so-called empty space.
Spacetime is riddled with such curves, because it is filled with planets and moons and stars and galaxies that all contain mass. Everything is falling, here and there, into the infinite morass of intersecting curves inflicted upon universal spacetime by the near-infinite number of celestial bodies that fill it as far out as our telescopes can see.
A graceful dancer does not achieve graceful flow by the way he or she steps. No, true gracefulness is achieved by staying on the balls of the feet so that the dancer is constantly falling forward, taking each step only to prevent actually falling, and steering the body’s falling motion into the exquisite beauty of dance well accomplished.
Einstein’s general relativity is the latest and best understanding of the motions of celestial bodies. Not counting those anonymous brilliant astronomers among the world’s indigenous peoples who early-on navigated by the stars across thousand of miles of uncharted oceans to seed themselves in Australia, New Zealand, Oceania and North America, recorded knowledge in this arena comes to us most poignantly from the ancient Greeks, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein. Of these, the knowledge Einstein handed us is by far the most important and the most perplexing. It also is unquestionably weird.