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The Only Constant is Change

I used to cringe (sort of) when I heard people describe the universe as a “Universe of Order”. From the point of view of an astrophysicist, looking through telescopes at a universe constantly being redefined (in often violent and sanitizing ways), constantly in motion, filled with deadly radiation and explosive events, the universe could be anything but this.

Throughout Earth’s history, there have been many catastrophic impacts by asteroids. The Chicxulub impact crater in the Yucatan peninsula is just one example. In our solar system, one has only to look at the surfaces of Mars, Mercury, the Moon and Ganymede to see the telltale evidence… countless craters blasted onto surfaces, preserved through lack of erosion, shouting their own individual stories at us from a time ages past—Our own solar system was a shooting gallery in its early state. The same is true of others… in star systems across our galaxy, free roaming solid rock masses collide with planets and each other.

sky space dust telescope
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In 1987, a supernova was witnessed by those on planet Earth with the telescopes to see it. It had occurred over one hundred sixty-seven thousand years previous. It was beautiful. Unfortunately, it was also deadly. When it first began, it bathed neighboring star systems (less than forty light years away) in radiation, wreaking havoc with individual planet’s temperatures and atmospheres. Such is the devastating effect of a supernova… it can cleanse all life around it in a forty to fifty light year radius. A gamma ray burst (powered by a hypernova) is capable of much more than that, due to its increased power and range (perhaps 5,000 light years or more if you are unlucky enough to be situated along the two polar regions of the blast).

It is estimated that 99.9% of all life that has ever existed on planet Earth is now extinct. Would you really call this “order”?

Sometimes, every so often, planets are kicked out of their own star systems. These unfortunate orphans are victims of gravitational violence… the sort that ‘Super Jupiters’ or perhaps interloping stars are prone to. If a smaller, Earth-like planet happens to orbit at just the right (close) distance from a large Jupiter class gas giant, instead of being sucked in, the gravitational nudge could be just enough to knock it out of its orbit around its parent star and send it flying… straight out of its star system and into the cold interstellar gulf of space. This could also happen if another star happened to pass close enough to the system to gravitationally affect said planet. Imagine if such a planet had life (of whatever form, even primitive) on it before it was kicked out?

Across the universe, galaxies collide and merge. Sometimes, entire star systems are flung out of their host galaxies in the same manner as orphan planets… doomed to wander across the intergalactic void.

gray and black galaxy wallpaper
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To those who say the universe is fine-tuned, I ask… for what? To be honest, whether you consider the universe to be chaotic or well-ordered depends on your point of view. Of course, we must clearly define what we mean by “order”. In the past, before modern astronomy, many people imagined the universe was like an ancient Greek sculpture… beautiful, perfect, unchanging with time. In other words, they are going well beyond the precise physical and mathematical definition I may choose to give as a scientist… they are imagining a serene, never-changing universe which one only has to look at see how well structured and designed it is… much like an ornate statue of marble. This is how people of centuries past (before the twentieth century) believed the universe to be… a well-organized structure, free of chaos, existing in the same pristine state it was created in.

This was a highly privileged view, understandable in its naivety, a direct consequence of our pitifully short lives (in comparison to geologic and stellar timescales). It is also a view born from failure to look beneath the surface, taking only a shallow, cursory glance across spacetime. Unfortunately, many people in the past have issued forth these statements on the order of the universe thanks to a definite religious or political agenda, attempting to foster an anti-science foundation (such as young Earth creationism) that is neither concrete nor accurate.

Belief that the universe is fine tuned for life is highly controversial and deserves a much more detailed treatment than I have space for in this post. It has already been well treated in Victor Stenger’s book ‘The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning’.

There have already been numerous books written on cosmology, such as ‘The Grand Design’ by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, and ‘A Universe from Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss. This blog is primarily focused on issues of science and spirituality, not necessarily cosmological principals, and so I do not wish to rehash these issues here.

person holding a chalk in front of the chalk board
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It is true that the universe follows a precise set of mathematical laws (this is the study of physics), and if that is the only thing one means about having a “Universe of Order”, then I confess that one may indeed be correct… but it is there the order ends. On a macroscopic, general level, it seems as if the universe is a dangerous place. Everywhere you look, the universe is trying to extinguish the very life it spawned. From this view, it seems more accurate to describe the universe as a “Universe of Chaos”.

Chaos also has a more precise definition in science. For now, feel free to think of chaos as apparent randomness. This is the true definition of chaos from a scientific standpoint… things may appear completely random yet in truth they are still determined by physical laws… it is only your inability to calculate and predict the myriad of possible outcomes from a system that is highly sensitive to original conditions that gives rise to this illusion of pure chaos.

What are the consequences of these revelations? Change is inevitable. Prediction is difficult, and in some cases almost impossible. Future space colonists and explorers would do well to heed these revelations, lest they fall prey to complacency, suffering the belief that they have found a peaceful, tranquil, never-changing corner of the universe, as humans in the past believed Earth to be.

This was my first blog post in a while. My cat (Bobo) passed away during the summer and so I was still grieving. But more importantly, I was also finishing my thesis, to get my first Master’s degree (hopefully graduating here in December). So thanks for your patience. I hope you will subscribe to my blog (below) and I wish you all the best. Peace…

4 comments

  1. Have you heard the saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same?” Haha. I think the only constant in the universe is balance. There is overall balanced forces of change and forces of keeping things the same, returning, etc. Anyway I hope Bobo is in cat Heaven

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