Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Our Roots in the Cosmos

There’s nothing mythical about this creation story.

For the first time in history we can tell the story of our existence beginning with the origin of the universe, and ending with you sitting there reading this article. And an amazing story it is!

Republished from my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.”


We are alive at a remarkable moment in the history of humankind.

Count yourself lucky! Not everyone can say they were present at the moment humankind’s conception of itself changed. But you can.

Since the dawn of history, humans have built whole civilizations around myths and fables linking our existence to a mystical celestial realm. And yet in the end it took less than a lifetime to overturn that whole framework and replace it with something radically different: real answers.

The last few decades have seen sweeping changes not only in astronomy, but in every scientific field from biology and geology to particle physics and information theory. Drawing on insights from all of those fields and more, we have traced our own cosmic journey back to the beginning of time. That story doesn’t hinge on appeal to authority or interpretation of revealed truth. There are things left to learn, but there are no glaring failures that have to be swept under the rug. Each chapter is grounded firmly in hard-won knowledge, wrested from the universe through the potent combination of human creativity and the unforgiving standards of scientific knowledge.

Cosmology is the envy of historians.

At this point, a historian might raise an eyebrow. “Sure, if you want to know about ancient Greece, you can visit ruins; you can study artifacts; you can read Homer. But history is always open to interpretation. It’s not like you can sit down with an engineer and go over a video of them building the Parthenon!”

Historians might have to put up with such annoying limitations, but astronomers and cosmologists do not. When you look at the center of the Milky Way, you see it as it was 27,000 years ago, during a time when our ancestors were Cro-Magnons living in caves in Europe. Turn a backyard telescope on the Virgo Galaxy Cluster, and you are looking back almost 66 million years to the time when an asteroid impact ended the 160-million-year reign of the dinosaurs.

So it goes, all the way back to the birth of the universe itself. When we look at the sky’s dim microwave glow, we see the universe as it was 13.8 billion years ago. There is no trick here, no twisted meanings. An image of the microwave sky is literally a baby picture of the cosmos.

Calculating the universe, from soup to nuts.

Last year saw one of the most extraordinary results in the history of science. That result came not from a powerful new telescope or high-energy particle accelerator. Instead, it emerged from 19 million CPU hours of supercomputer time spent doing physics calculations.

Beginning with the Big Bang, the Illustris Simulation uses physics to calculate the evolution of stars, galaxies and large-scale structure in a piece of our expanding universe.

The Illustris Simulation is no less than an effort to calculate the evolution of the universe. The calculations started with the conditions in the early universe (remember that baby picture?), along with well-understood rules like general relativity and the physics of star formation and evolution. Then computers turned the crank in cold, methodical fashion, following what happened over the next 14 billion years. When it was done, the computer showed large-scale structure much like what we see in today’s universe and galaxies so realistic that even experts have trouble telling them apart from images of the real thing.

Here is what we know. Start a universe like ours was in the beginning. Hydrogen and helium will form in an early hot bath of matter and energy. As things cool down in that expanding universe, clumps of matter will form and ultimately collapse under the force of gravity to form galaxies and large-scale structure. Clouds of gas will collapse to form stars, and within those stars nuclear forces will build new chemical elements. Stellar winds and explosions will blow that chemically enriched material back into interstellar space. As stars continue to form, flat rotating disks will form around those stars and give birth to planets laden with new elements. And on at least one such planet (and probably many, many more), chemistry and the inexorable algorithm of evolution will lead to the rise of the remarkable phenomenon we call life.

Why will all of this happen? All of this will happen because physics works!

Science goes where reality leads, but societies and cultures don’t turn on a dime.

Indeed, we live in an extraordinary moment in the history of our species. But it truly is a moment, a historical blink of the eye. Cultures change more slowly, and this is a big change! Once we thought ourselves the products of special creation sitting at the center of the universe. Where does science get off trying to demote us to insignificant specks adrift in a vastness beyond comprehension? I can understand how some might recoil from that thought.

I can understand that reaction, but I do not share it. You see, when I look at the individual human mind, I’m blown away. In the midst of all we have seen, a spark of consciousness arose, capable of pondering its own existence. Remarkable!

The heavens might be a place of grandeur, but they are not the home of meaning or purpose. That honor resides right here, in the thoughts and experiences and aspirations of each of us.

I’ll settle for that any day.

Our Roots in the Cosmos ^ There’s nothing mythical about this creation story.  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Comments (2)

  • Chris Mathews

    |

    FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION – Feb 2016

    Interesting article about intelligence in the February 2016 issue of Astronomy. When discussing such a high-level concept as ‘intelligence,’ I think it would be helpful to start with the definition. That way it makes it easier to assess if we are dealing with intelligence when we consider other earthly specie, such as the octopus. Intelligence is the facility to deal with a broad range of abstractions by subsuming perceptual data into concepts, then integrating concepts into generalizations. We store concepts in our brain’s filing system. For example, we store the concept ‘chair’ to represent every chair that has ever existed, currently exists, and will exist in the future. There would be no way to store information about every chair. This conceptual form of consciousness is what differentiates humans from all other species. If you can form concepts, you have intelligence. Every concept is denoted by a word, hence the vital importance of language. No language, your intelligence is severely limited.

    So let’s examine the octopus. All those things you listed that they do are not characteristics of intelligence. For example, living in dens is not a characteristic of intelligence. Rather, the octopus is performing at the perceptual level of consciousness, and has developed a wide range of skills to survive. To claim that an octopus takes things apart ‘to see how they work’ is a huge logical leap. How did you get from the observation of taking something apart to what is motivating the action to be ‘see how it works?’ The ‘see how it works’ concept itself is pretty high-level and subsumes many other concepts. You have made too big of a leap.

    Among other things, octopus feed on mollusks and crabs. Perhaps they have been taking these shelled creatures apart for millions of years, motivated by hunger. As for the cut off arm continuing to capture food and attempt to feed a missing mouth, this is proof that there is no intelligence in this creature. An intelligent (i.e. conceptual) creature would recognize that the mouth was missing and cease wasting time catching food. The octopus is performing an instinctive action with no thought involved.

    And what in the world is ‘social intelligence?’ Intelligence pertains to individual human beings. There is no such thing as a collective brain. We can have the same thoughts, but that is it. Or do you mean smarts about others of our own specie? Actually, the term social intelligence means nothing. It is a floating abstraction tied to nothing in reality.

    Anyway, when we head for the stars and seek out intelligence, we must look for those creatures possessing the conceptual facility. And they will help us do this. They will be the ones looking for us!

    Cheers!

  • Jeff Hester

    Jeff Hester

    |

    Hi Chris. It’s a shame this discussion will happen here! You saw the article on the Astronomy.com site. But since I wait for a couple of months before posting my column here, it will be a while before “The Octopus and E.T. – Is intelligence a forced move” appears here! Maybe when I post that article I will move our discussion there.

    My column is limited to about 800 words, which isn’t much when you are tackling a subject like the evolution of intelligence. As a result, there are always lots of interesting details (or even whole fields of study) that are glossed over. Had I had another few thousand words to play with, I think that most of your questions would have been answered. 😉

    The definitions that I was using came from the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, cited in the column, as well as longstanding thoughts of many scientists who work on this stuff. (Here is a nice Op-Ed from LiveScience.com: After 2,500 Studies, It’s Time to Declare Animal Sentience Proven.) When you say that “this conceptual form of consciousness is what differentiates humans from all other species,” the scientific consensus is that you are wrong.

    Language absolutely shapes the way we think about the world, but your assertions about language being necessary to constructing any generalized categories is incorrect. I might ask, for example, whether you consider a prelinguistic child, or a child raised absent exposure to language (a rare but not unheard of situation) to have intelligence.

    The line that you draw between perception and concept is also artificial. Cognitive scientists now view perception itself as a constructed framework based on a combination of sensory input and learned concepts. (Take a look at Brains, Perception and the Dress that Ate the Internet.)

    I also would have loved to have a few thousand words to devote solely to octopuses. You take issue with my choice of phrase, “take it apart to see how it works.” There are experiments where, for example, an octopus in one tank is presented with a problem while another octopus is looking on. Two interesting things then happen. One, the octopus that solved the problem is then able to apply what it has learned to novel situations. And two, the octopus that was watching from afar is able to duplicate the task that it saw the first octopus carry out. And so on and so forth. People who work with octopuses have been consistently amazed by just what they can do. You might take a look here to find out more.

    There are lots of other things to say… Consciousness resides in the brain, which for humans is a fairly localized thing. But what if our brain were distributed throughout our bodies? Such is the case with the octopus. The fact that an octopus arm, severed from the body, still carries out complex tasks in an interesting observation in that regard. (If you are a Spiderman fan, this is the notion that they are playing with when Dr. Octopus’s arms exert a will of their own.)

    As for social intelligence, you can get some background in the field from the Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions B, 29 April 2007, volume 362, issue 1480, “Social Intelligence: From Brain to Culture.” The Larger Pacific Striped Octopus is so fascinating because while most octopuses live solitary lives, breed once, and die, the LPSO has made huge steps in the direction of the sort of social existence that is a prerequisite to culture.

    With all of that said, yes, other intelligence in the universe will have concepts and ways of communicating. The point of the article is that humans and octopuses have not shared a common ancestor since long before any semblance of a complex brain had appeared. That means that animals like humans and animals like octopuses evolved large, complex, problem-solving brains completely independently of each other! Like eyes, intelligence may be something of an evolutionary forced move. The implication is that intelligence might not be all that uncommon in places where complex life takes hold.

    But while ET will certainly have concepts, communication and the like, there is no reason to imagine that they will experience and/or think about the world in ways that are at all similar to humans.

Comments are closed

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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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