The answer to life, the universe and everything

Where science, philosophy and faith intersect.

 |  6-minute read |   01-10-2015
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The successful launch of space observatory Astrosat by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on September 28 places India in an elite league of nations. The space observatory can “listen” to signals from outer space, including those from intelligent life in other solar systems and galaxies.

Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s greatest living theoretical physicist, recently stated: “We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth. So in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life.”

Polls conducted in various countries show that more than 50 per cent of people in Britain, Germany and France believe that intelligent life exists in other parts of the universe. According to a recent report by Katrina Pascaul in Tech Times, “A new survey has found that more than one in two individuals in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany believe there is intelligent life out there in space. According to new YouGov research, the majority of the public in these three countries believe that living entities, which have the ability to communicate and do not hail from Earth, exist. Findings show that more than half of Germans (56 per cent) believe this, the most likely to do so among the survey participants. Fifty-four per cent of Americans and 52 per cent of British people share the opinion. The British people who believe alien life exists say the most likely reasons for the paradox are that intelligent life is too far away for us to be able to contact it, and that our technology is not advanced enough for communication.”

Also read: With launch of Astrosat, first space observatory, ISRO does India proud again

Other reports confirmed that Hawking is supporting “the biggest and most ambitious search plan yet (in which) astronomers plan to study more than ten times more space than ever before in and around the Milky Way and neighbouring galaxies in a bid to seek out potential radio emissions that could come from advanced civilisations. The project, known as Breakthrough Listen, comprises a $100 million, ten-year search, launched by the Breakthrough Initiatives group at the Royal Society in London. The research will survey one million stars in the Milky Way, as well as the stars in the 100 closest galaxies.”

As an undergraduate student of physics, the first paper I wrote was on the possibility of intelligent life in the universe. The answer seemed self-evident: the universe must surely teem with intelligent life. The problem is we are Earth-centric. Life in outer space need not be humanoid. The laws of physics are still evolving. Plasmoid life and indeed life beyond anything we can imagine today is possible. The law of probability underscores the reason for life in outer space being a virtual certainty. Here’s why:

1. There are at least one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe.

2. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has several hundred billion solar systems.

3. Our sun constitutes just one of these solar systems.

4. Several million, possibly billion, solar systems in the observable universe have planets with environmental, atmospheric and chemical conditions suitable to harbouring life.

Prior to “Time Zero”, the stage when the universe was created, there was – literally – nothing. A perfect vacuum. From that vacuum has emerged everything in the universe – atoms, stars, galaxies, black holes, quasars, dark matter, planets – and, on Earth, life.

At the point of “singularity” when there was nothing, in that fraction of a fraction of a second before the Big Bang that created the universe, lies the greatest mystery physicists and mathematicians like Hawking and Roger Penrose continue to wrestle with. What precisely was the event that created this universe from a perfect vacuum at the point of singularity?

Hawking calls these the most important questions facing humankind: How did the universe emerge at the point of singularity from a perfect vacuum at Time Zero? Are we alone in the universe? And finally, why does the universe exist at all?

This is where science, philosophy and faith intersect.

Within this absolute space-time vacuum (postulated by the Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems based on Einstein's general theory of relativity), an event occurred which no leading scientist has yet been able to fully explain. That event probably involved the mutual annihilation of a positron-electron twin pair carrying identical (positive and negative) charges and mass. The result of this vacuum fluctuation was the Big Bang, the widely accepted theory of how our universe began.

Before Time Zero, during the pre-universe "nothingness", it is hypothesised that constant and instantaneous mutual annihilation of positron-electron pairs occurred several trillion times every second. These multiple collisions cancelled each other out, leading to a perpetual state of zero mass, zero time and zero space – the perfect vacuum. The mutual annihilation of electrons and positrons, however, occurred in unimaginably small crevices of time – 10-100 seconds or less.

To the observer nothing was occurring: the event started and ended before it could be observed and therefore, as far as the observer was concerned, had not occurred at all. From this nothingness a freak, once-in-a-quadrillion positron-electron pair escaped mutual annihilation 13.70 billion years ago, causing the Big Bang and the creation of our universe as well as a "mirror" negative universe.

Are we alone?

Our nearest solar system is Alpha Centauri. To get there, travelling at the speed of light, would take 4.3 years. Travelling at the speed of the world's fastest experimental spacecraft, Helios II (1,57,000 mph), it would take over 12,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri. Other solar systems are even further off. Galaxies are, of course, trillions of miles away. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains around 350 billion solar systems – many, as NASA's Kepler space telescope confirmed, with orbiting planets like the Earth with surface water, moderate temperature and life-supporting oxygen. Andromeda, the galaxy closest to the Milky Way, is even more massive with over 1,000 billion solar systems. It is around 2.70 million light years away from us. So if electromagnetic radiation originating from a planet in Andromeda began transmitting 2.70 million years ago (the Plio-Pleistocene era on Earth) it would have barely reached us this year.

And in these distances lies the answer to the question: if it exists, why hasn't intelligent life from extraterrestrial planets, presumably with highly sophisticated communications and transportation technology, made contact with us? Humans, after millions of years of evolution from Australopethicus hominids to Neanderthals through to "modern" man, began sending out electromagnetic radiation (in its earliest form as radio transmissions) a mere 125 years ago. Those signals have today scarcely reached the edge of our solar system cluster. Time and distance, both unimaginably vast, explain why no contact has been established with us by other intelligent species.

So while we are certainly not alone in the universe, we may not make contact with other planetary life for centuries. But there is little doubt that one day contact will be made. What shape, form and mode that contact takes is uncertain. But when it does happen, it will mark one of the most important events in recorded history.

All of human intelligence and wisdom, from Aristotle and Aryabhata to the Vedas and Einstein, does not have an answer, however, to the most fundamental question that has divided sages and philosophers over the centuries: Why does the universe exist at all?

As even scientists today concede wryly, God alone knows.

Writer

Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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