Some Cosmic Thoughts to Ponder on a Weekend

Some Cosmic Thoughts to Ponder on a Weekend April 23, 2022


Looks like a rose. But it's a bit larger.
“A rose made of galaxies”
This image of a pair of interacting galaxies called Arp 273 was released to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the launch of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The distorted shape of the larger of the two galaxies shows signs of tidal interactions with the smaller of the two. It is thought that the smaller galaxy has actually passed through the larger one.
(NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA])



I like to think about such things as these from time to time, and I hope that you find it interesting and valuable, as well.  First, though, a lead-in passage that comes, perhaps rather unexpectedly, from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.  It nicely expresses the ancient belief, which flourished up through the time of Shakespeare, in the so-called “harmony of the spheres” — which was another way, in a sense, of referring to the mathematical harmony that pre-modern observers saw in the apparent movements of the stars and the planets:


How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

(Lorenzo, in Act V, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice)

In case that’s a bit too “Shakespearean” for full understanding, here’s one attempt that I found online at a modern English “translation” of the passage:


How sweet the moonlight shines on this bank! We will sit here and let the sounds of music slip into our ears.  This soft stillness and night are perfect for some sweet harmony.  Sit down, Jessica. Look how the sky, which is like the floor of heaven, is inlaid with bright gold stars.  All the little orbs that you see up in the sky are like angels singing to the young cherubs in a choir.  That same kind of harmony is in our immortal souls, but while our souls are enclosed in our mortal, decaying bodies, we can’t hear it.


And that meditation, from before what is generally reckoned as the founding of modern science, leads very neatly into this much more recent reflection and, indirectly, to the others that follow:


In the discoveries of science the harmony of the spheres is also now the harmony of life. And as the eerie illumination of science penetrates evermore deeply into the order of nature, the cosmos appears increasingly to be a vast system finely tuned to generate life and organisms of biology very similar, perhaps identical, to ourselves. All the evidence available in the biological sciences supports the core proposition of traditional natural theology — that the cosmos is a specially designed whole with life and mankind as a fundamental goal and purpose, a whole in which all facets of reality, from the size of galaxies to the thermal capacity of water, have their meaning and explanation in this central fact.

Four centuries after the scientific revolution apparently destroyed irretrievably man’s special place in the universe, banished Aristotle, and rendered teleological speculation obsolete, the relentless stream of discovery has turned dramatically in favor of teleology and design, and the doctrine of the microcosm is reborn. As I hope the evidence presented in this book has shown, science, which has been for centuries the great ally of atheism and skepticism, has become at last, in the final days of the second millennium, what Newton and many of its early advocates had so fervently wished — the “defender of the anthropocentric faith.”

(Michael Denton, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe)

To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability. . . .  [Y]ou have to see the hands of a creator who set the parameters to be just so because the creator was interested in something a little more complicated than random particles.

(Francis Collins)


Life cannot have had a random beginning. . . .  The trouble is that there are about 2000 enzymes, and the chance of obtaining them all in a random trial is only one part in 10^40,000, an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup.

(Sir Fred Hoyle [1915 – 2001], British astrophysicist)


Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth – the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient “coincidences” and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal. Fred Hoyle, the distinguished cosmologist, once said it was as if “a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics”.

To see the problem, imagine playing God with the cosmos. Before you is a designer machine that lets you tinker with the basics of physics. Twiddle this knob and you make all electrons a bit lighter, twiddle that one and you make gravity a bit stronger, and so on. It happens that you need to set thirtysomething knobs to fully describe the world about us. The crucial point is that some of those metaphorical knobs must be tuned very precisely, or the universe would be sterile.

Example: neutrons are just a tad heavier than protons. If it were the other way around, atoms couldn’t exist, because all the protons in the universe would have decayed into neutrons shortly after the big bang. No protons, then no atomic nucleuses and no atoms. No atoms, no chemistry, no life. Like Baby Bear’s porridge in the story of Goldilocks, the universe seems to be just right for life. 

(Paul Davies, English theoretical physicist)

The unsolved problems of the physical world now seem even more formidable than those solved in the twentieth century. 

Though in application it works splendidly, we do not even understand the physical meaning of quantum mechanics, much less how it might be united with general relativity.

We don’t know why the dimensionless constants (ratios of masses of elementary particles, ratios of strength of gravitational to electric forces, fine structure constant, etc.) have the values they do, unless we appeal to the implausible anthropic principle, which seems like a regression to Aristotelian teleology. 

(Gerald Holton, Physics, the Human Adventure: From Copernicus to Einstein and Beyond)

An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.

(Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953, co-winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, and outspoken atheist)


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