Quantum Hope

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Oh, no, not THAT word!

Put the word “quantum” in a title or sentence and people get nervous.  Perhaps their eyes glaze over and they hope that it will go away.  Some stop reading and skip to another article.  Others are so disconcerted by the mere appearance of the term they can’t read another word and turn on their TVs, frantically looking for reruns of The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or better yet, Oprah.  Comfort food delivered by cable. Having placed “quantum” in both the title and the first sentence, however, those folks won’t have gotten this far.

So if you are still reading, you are among a small minority who are surprisingly brave and tenacious.  For most of you, however, I still need to allay one other fear: math.  Take a deep breath.  No math.  Please, though, don’t turn off your brain.  I’m going to suggest something that is indeed within the realm of quantum theory, but from a perspective few quantum physicists would entertain.

Consider this a treat.

If you aren’t sure what the quantum in quantum physics entails, I can provide a basic definition by offering a simple word picture.  It’s a matter of scale to describe the universe.  On the very big end is cosmology.  That’s what the giant earth-based observatories,  optical, radio telescopes, and space telescopes (like the Hubble, and the Kepler and the soon to be launched James Webb), look deep into space to better understand.  Cosmologists are interested in our  Milky Way galaxy, the galaxies in our neighborhood (we have a really BIG neighborhood) and further out from there to the whole universe.  Astronomers and astrophysicists study the cosmos, the biggest stuff out there.

Quantum physics studies the small end of the universe, smaller than atoms: subatomic particles with great names like quarks, Fermions, leptons and bosons, down to the smallest of the small, called a “bit” (The bit is still theoretical and is also considered a function of entropy. Click here for an explanation [Warning: Contains math formulas]).  They also study how those subatomic particles fit together and work to make the matter we can see.  And that is what a particle accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN straddling the border of France and Switzerland is designed to do.  Remember in The DaVinci Code, where the story starts in this giant underground building?  That’s CERN.  Particle physicists and quantum physicists study the small stuff and the forces that make them work.

What does this have to do with hope?  Everything, actually, but you’ll have to read just a bit more.

Quantum physics and cosmology have one goal in common.  They both want to figure out how the very large relates to the very small.  They want to discover how the smallest quantum bit is the building block for the universe (and maybe a whole bunch of other universes, too, but we’re not going there in this post).  This great quest is called the search for the Theory of Everything, or for short, The Big TOE.  Seriously.  Yeah, you can laugh.

Everything, however, is not scientifically measurable.  Life is one of those things.  I know we can create machines that can detect life and perhaps how much life exists a one place, but life as a phenomenon in the Universe is not measurable.

The whole notion is confounding, and has been the topic of debate among we humans well before the beginning of the Scientific Revolution with the publication in 1543 of Copernicus‘ manuscript, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.”   For example, Aristarchus of Samos, who lived CA 310-230 BCE, published the first treatise on the heliocentric model of the solar system, On the Sizes and Distances of Sun and Moon, which was then suppressed by the Greek religious authorities of his time because it did not match their beliefs about their gods and life in the universe.  That has a familiar ring to it.

For Half a Millennium…

The past half a millennium, from Copernicus to the present, we have struggled to decide not just what the universe is made of, but what it is at all.  It is the driving force in cosmology and quantum physics.

For those of us who are people of faith, we have also struggled to decide not just what life is made of, but have equally struggled to assign meaning to a concept that seems pervasive to all humans that we label spirituality.  And the greater challenge has been to assign meaning to our religious beliefs and their long-held sacred foundations.   As our understanding of both the Universe and Life have changed (yes, I am deliberately capitalizing both words to communicate that in this context I am seeking to convey a sense of cosmic wholeness) our search for meaning has not gotten any easier.  Why after thousands of years of consciousness in this earthly setting, do we still not understand either?

Diarmuid O’Murcho, who has written extensively about defining a “quantum theology“, states,

The universe knows what it’s about.  That it does not make sense to us humans, that it often baffles us to extremes and undermines all our theories and expectations, is not a problem for the universe; it is a problem for us.  We, therefore, impetuously conclude that the universe does not care about us or about anything else…Instead of viewing it all as mindless, why not work with the idea that it is mindful? (Evolutionary Faith, p. 199).

Even as I write the words of O’Murcho’s quote, I admit they sound strange, foreign, even counter-intuitive to me.  My intellectual world has never regarded the universe as mindful.  Neither has my theological world.  Perhaps, though, that has been the problem, my problem: I have viewed these two worlds as separate, distinct, and although I may have been able to conceptualize them as meeting, like two pieces of plate glass. When pressed against each other they have a cohesiveness, but they are still to pieces of glass stuck together.  In the world of the quantum reality, there is no reason for that to always be so.  In fact, it may be that it is only rarely so, because in quantum theory, boundaries and internal existence are not bounded or exist in the way I perceive them.

Spirituality, Cosmology & the Quantum Conundrum…

I come, then, to my most difficult and confounding question.  If I can believe in a mindful God who created a quantum universe, why do I assume that this mindful Creator did not create a mindful Universe in the same way that humans (therefore, me) were created: In the image of God?

If I allow myself to just for a moment to adjust my reality to that perspective, I realize that I see, though in a glass darkly as St. Paul says when he talks about hope (not just love, 1 Co. 13:15), a reason for hope in a universe otherwise devoid and incapable of such mindfulness:

Life is the universe’s sole expression of hope, for without life the universe cannot contemplate its existence, and without hope the universe does not exist.

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The First Image of the Universe as We Never Can See It, Because Our Eyes Cannot See in Microwave Wavelengths. Image: COBE, Goddard Space Flight Center, http://mather.gsfc.nasa.gov/cobe/science.html

MEanderthal: Fun With the Past–Ice Ages Past–From the Smithsonian

Homo Neanderthalensis, Reconstructed by John Gurche, Smithsonian, Hall of Human Origins

It Has Always Been About More Information: Survival vs Extinction.

A few months ago I got a smart phone.  The name I soon learned was very appropriate for at least two reasons.  First, it can do things that even ten years ago only the most expensive PDAs (personal digital assistants) could do, and second, it really is smarter than I am.  The learning curve is pretty steep on this device, and not being of the Digital Generation; actually that’s not quite true.  The first computer I remember being introduced to was in my senior year of high school, which used computer punch cards to run formulas.  It was about the size of a large suit case, had no monitor and had to be rolled around on a heavy cart.  It was like being given the chance to examine a treasure chest full of jewels, a coup that my math teacher had pulled off to get it on loan for a few days.  It looked something like this, except without the cassette disk drive:

Early WANG 600 Computer. Credit: Computer Museum, Grongingen, NL.

I remember clearly the assignment was to decide on a formula to punch into the cards and then feed them through the machine to get an answer.  The formula I chose was E=mc².  It’s a good thing the Homeland Security hadn’t been thought of yet, or I might have gotten a late night visit from a bunch of guys driving a big black Suburban with darkened windows.  However, once they got a look at my math grades (always my nemesis), they would have undoubtedly left laughing hysterically at the very idea of my being any threat to national security whatsoever, which remains true to this very day.

Back to the Smart Phone.  I spent several months deciding which phone I would purchase.  My daughter, the brilliant young up and coming media  guru has opted for the Apple/Mac world of computing and of course, loves everything about her iPhone.  I, however, have never been responsive to Steve Job’s siren call, because throughout my career, the organizations I worked for always used PCs.  But in a moment of uncharacteristic daring, I decided to take the leap on my phone and bought a Motorala Droid™.  All right, I like it.  A lot.  Even if it is smarter than I am.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Now, on to the fun stuff.  The question, “What does it mean to be human?” has been asked in every generation since humans reached the point of being self-reflective sentient beings.  The question is no less important today, as the digital revolution continues to transform our lives in ways unimagined even a decade ago.

One of the most important contributions to this search for meaning has been in the area of genomics.  Unlike the racist roots of the Eugenics Movement a century ago, the development of genomics has been been a set of initiatives based on several different areas of research.  One has been researching the molecular structure of the genes that populate virtually every living cell either as DNA or RNA.  Another has been medical research to discover the causes of certain diseases and conditions (everything from diabetes to cystic fibrosis to birth defects) and attempt to develop new treatments for these debilitating and often life-shortening diseases  (Eugenics is a concern in this area, of manipulating zygote fertilization to create “desired” human offspring, or artificially designing species, among others).  What I am most interested in in this post is how the mapping of  the genome of a single species gives us an enormous storehouse of information of what happened prior to the modern form in its evolutionary development.  That leads to the tantalizing question:  What were our distant ancestors like, which hominid (or hominin, if you prefer) line did we descend from, and how far back can we read those genetic sign posts to better understand who and what humans are now?

The Human Nucleotide Molecules. Image: Public Doman

I am aware that this is an unsettling question to many people who are conservative Christians (and other faith groups, too), but I have stated in numerous posts as well as my blog on science and faith, DÎSCÎ, the Disciples Institute of Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry, that I accept the scientific evidence for cosmic, geological and biological evolution.

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, under the leadershop of Dr. Francis Collins, MD, who is currently serving as the head of the National Institutes of Health.  Earlier, just this year, however, the long-awaited Neanderthal Genome Project was completed.  Here from Wikipedia:

At roughly 3.2 billion base pairs,[3] the Neanderthal genome is about the size of the modern human genome. According to preliminary sequences, 99.7% of the base pairs of the modern human and Neanderthal genomes are identical, compared to humans sharing around 98.8% of base pairs with the chimpanzee.[4] The researchers recovered ancient DNA of Neanderthals by extracting the DNA from the femur bone of a 38,000-year-old male Neanderthal specimen from Vindija Cave, Croatia, and also other bones found in Spain, Russia, and Germany.[5] Only about half a gram of the bone samples was required for the sequencing, but the project faced many difficulties, including the contamination of the samples by the bacteria that had colonized the Neanderthal’s body and humans who handled the bones at the excavation site and at the laboratory.[3]

Additionally, in 2010, the announcement of the discovery and analysis of Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the Denisova hominin in Siberia revealed that this specimen differs from that of modern humans by 385 bases (nucleotides) in the mtDNA strand out of approximately 16,500, whereas the difference between modern humans and Neanderthals is around 202 bases. In contrast, the difference between chimpanzees and modern humans is approximately 1,462 mtDNA base pairs. Analysis of the specimen’s nuclear DNA is under way and is expected to clarify whether the find is a distinct species.[6][7] Even though the Denisova hominin’s mtDNA lineage predates the divergence of modern humans and Neanderthals, coalescent theory does not preclude a more recent divergence date for her nuclear DNA.

Although more work will be done to clarify the findings, the implications of this research will only lead to a better understanding of the lineage of the human race.

Anatomical Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal Skulls. Credit: Creative Commons License

With the publication of the Neanderthal Genome Project results, the Smithsonian Institution opened a new exhibit called “The Hall of Human Origins.”

Hall of Human Origins. Image: Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Reconstructions are: Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, & Homo neanderthalensis.

An exhibit with such revolutionary displays of explaining the history of the human race had to be more than set pieces with little placards explaining what this bone or other is what.  And the Smithsonian came through!  They developed an application for both Android and iPhones that would allow you to take a picture and using digital morphing, transform any face into one of several of our extinct ancestors.  Fun?  You bet!

Before you click on the links below to see me, enjoy this short YouTube video on how the app works:

Now, on with the show: David Devolving!

Looking Up–Seeing the Past and Pondering God

This week I inaugurated a new blog called “DÎSCÎ,” which is the Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry. (It is pronounced “dye-sigh”). The address is: http://www.disciforum.wordpress.com.  DÎSCÎ’s homebase is on The Intersection, which is a companion site for members and friends of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), sponsored by DisciplesWorld, an independently published print and online magazine for the Disciples.

I have, for some time, wanted to create a forum, an online institute in which people of faith could discuss the many issues regarding religion and science.  But my idea was to move beyond the creation-evolution debate and start a conversation of what it means to be a person of faith, particularly from the Judeo-Christian perspective in a universe that is very large, very old, and to give genuine credit to the advances in science over the past nearly 500 years.

I am grateful for the assistance of Rebecca Woods, who created The Intersection and serves on the DisciplesWorld staff, for her interest and encouragement in launching DÎSCÎ.  Here, then is the Inaugural Post of the Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry.

DĪSCĪ Space Theme

Looking Up–Seeing the Past and Pondering God

Day and night. The most important cycle that governs our lives. Our bodies are finely attuned to the light of day and the dark of night.  It is as natural as breathing.  We think of that 24 hour cycle as very simple.  The earth spins on its axis; part of its surface is always in light and part is always in dark.  It has been this way since the creation of the world.  Both of the creation stories in the Bible, in Genesis 1 and 2 use the word “day” to describe God’s creative activity.

There is, however, nothing simple about it at all.  The complex set of forces that keep us safely spinning around the life-giving warmth of the Sun are only now beginning to be understood.

Yet, because of its constancy, we take it for granted.

Let me ask you a question.  When was the last time, when you left your home after dark, that you actually looked up at the sky?  Not just a glance, but looked up with intention to see what, well, what you could see?

I’ll venture a guess: Probably only rarely.  If you live in an urban setting, the combination of light pollution and air pollution might make it nearly impossible to see much of anything.  If your home is in a rural part of the country, you may very well be able to see the starry arc of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon.  And if you are fortunate enough to live or visit well away from a population center, the night sky can be so bright you hardly need a flashlight to move around safely.

Whatever you can see, though, when you look up into the sky is not the present but the past.  The photons hitting the retina in your eyes are all different ages even though every one of those photons is traveling at exactly the same speed–the famous speed of light, which is about 186,000 miles per second, or 300,000 km per second.  Astronomers call this “look back time.”

The light reflected from the moon takes just a tick over one second to reach Earth.  The Sun, some 93 million miles away, takes around 8 minutes. The farther the object is from me, the older the light is when it reaches my eyes.  When Earth passes by Mars (which is the fourth rock from the sun), the light takes anywhere between three and about six minutes to reach us, because both orbits of Earth and Mars are elliptical, just slightly egg-shaped.

If I point my telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy (also called M31), which even in my suburban backyard I can easily see, I am looking at light that is over 2.5 million years old!  And Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way.  In fact, Andromeda and the Milky Way are moving toward each other and some billions of years into the future, they will collide and merge.  Astronomers call it, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Milkomeda.”

Milky Way with Annotations. Generated from Spitzer Space Telescope Images
Milky Way with Annotations. Generated from Spitzer Space Telescope Images.  Our Solar System lives in the Orion Arm.

You get the idea.  The farther away the object is, the older the light is when it reaches Earth.

The other key concept is that everything in the universe is moving, and not just moving haphazardly, but expanding away from each other (the trajectories of some galaxies, like the Milky Way and Andromeda, will cause them to collide).  That’s what Edwin Hubble proved in 1925, using the Hooker 100 inch Telescope on Mt Wilson just up the hill from Pasadena, California, that was threatened by the huge “Station Fire” just last week.  This discovery led to the realization that the universe was expanding from a beginning point in space and time, which we now call the Big Bang.  And just a few years ago, astronomers discovered that the universe is not just expanding, it is accelerating.

What we’re interested in, though, is the Beginning, not the End.  Astrophysicists have wound the cosmic clock backward and come up with an age that the Universe is about 13.7 billion years old.  That’s old. Really old.  Can we see anything that old in the sky?  No, we can’t.  But modern telescopes have gotten so powerful that we can see a long way away and therefore back in time.  On September 2, 2009,  Prof. Tomatsugu Goto of the University of Hawaii released this photo of the most distant galaxy with a central black hole, and therefore oldest object ever observed.  It is 12.8  billion light years from us and the mass of the black hole is estimated to be  a billion times that of our sun.

QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) The Largest and Most Distant Black Hole Galaxy Ever Imaged
QSO (Quasi-Stellar Object) The Largest and Most Distant Black Hole Galaxy Ever Imaged. 12.8 Bn LY Distant.  Photo: T. Goto, University of Hawaii.

Ponder this image for a few moments, as pixelated as it is.  This is the image of a real galaxy with a real black hole at its center (just like our galaxy has, by the way) that existed  billion years ago.

Here on Earth, which by comparison is only 4.5 billion years old, we humans–in particular we humans of the Judeo-Christian heritage–have viewed our universe as being, well, kind of cozy.  As the old saying goes, “God’s in his (sic) heaven and all’s right with the world.”  And although about 500 years ago that coziness began to be challenged and started unraveling when Copernicus published his “On the Revolutions” in 1543, we have been mostly content to think and talk about God in the way we always have.

Enter the dawn of the 21st Century. We are struck by the enormity of what  astrophysics has revealed to us; new discoveries make the news every week.  The universe is not cozy.  It is huge, old, complex, colder than we can imagine and hotter than we can imagine.  The very molecules that make up our bodies were born out of forces we can barely describe when stars blew themselves apart.

How do we talk about God in this kind of reality?  And life? Life on one planet in a universe that stretches 46.5 billion lights years in every direction?  How do you talk about God in this reality?

This is where we will start.  The Disciples’ Institute for Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry is officially open for discussion.

Before you answer, if you can, go outside and look up into the sky for a while, and ponder what is out there, as ancient photons hit your retina, and your brain translates them into the points of light we call stars.