The Stuff of Stars
I had a little down time this week, and I enjoyed getting to some of the books I’ve had stacked up around the house, waiting to be read. In particular, I read several books by John Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne is a British theoretical physicist, theologian, writer, and Anglican priest, an unlikely combination of professions. He writes about the relationship between science and religion. Now, math and physics were not my best subjects in school, but I was really riveted by his explanation of what is called Anthropic Fine-tuning. Anthropic fine-tuning describes how our universe is uniquely set-up to make our life possible, down to the sub-atomic level. This is not just that the Earth is exact right distance from the sun to support human life; it goes much deeper than that. There are six numbers, six constants, which govern how atoms and sub-atomic particles interact with each other. For instance, the number described by physicists as N is the ratio of the strength of the electrical forces that hold atoms together to the strength of gravity. It is about 10 to the 36th power, that is one with 36 zeros after it. Lambda controls the acceleration of the long-range expansion of the universe. Its value is about 10 to the negative 120th power. Epsilon defines how firmly atomic nuclei bind together. It is about .007. It turns out, Polkinghorne writes, that if any of these numbers were appreciably different from their presently observed values, not only would there be no life on Earth, but there would, as far as anyone can tell, be no prospect of intelligent life anywhere in the universe. To give one example. If N, that 1 with 36 zeros after it, were even slightly higher, all stars in the universe would be blue giants, and if it were slightly lower, all stars would be red dwarfs. Because red dwarfs don’t explode to make supernovae, there would be no second-generation stars and no carbon, oxygen, and so on available to make life on planets. And blue giants have lifetimes of the order of tens or hundreds of millions years, which is much shorter than the four billion years or so that seem to be required for the evolution of intelligent life. To give an idea of just how fine-tuned these numbers are, Polkinghorne considers Omega, which measures the amount of material in our universe and gives the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy. At the beginning of the universe, say one second after the big bang, Omega would have had to be between .99 (sixteen 9‘s) and 1.0000 (fifteen zeros...1), that is within one part in 10 to the 15th power of 1. Well, imagine you are making a sponge cake and the recipe calls for equal quantities of flour and granulated sugar. A grain of sugar is about .5 mm across, so to get a quantity of granulated sugar right to within one part in 10 to the 15th power, you’d need 10 to the 15th power of such grains, which would be equivalent to about 180,000 tone of sugar. Or suppose you are putting a golf ball. A hole is 108 mm in diameter, and the ball is 42.67 mm in diameter, so let us say for simplicity that you have to get the ball within 100 mm of the center of the hole. The world record hole-in-one distance is apparently 448 yards or 410 meters. So the best hole-in-one has an accuracy of about one part in 4100. One part in 10 to the 15th power would be getting a hole-in-one from 10 to the 11th power km away - which is about thirteen times the maximum distance from Earth to Pluto. The universe appears to be extremely fine-tuned to make life possible.
So, how did this come about? There are, Polkinghorne writes, essentially four possibilities:
As I said, I’m just fascinated by all of this. I know that some of you have struggled a bit with how to square scientific theories like the big bang and evolution with your faith and with what the bible says. Polkinghorne’s work suggests that there is room within science for God, and that there is room in the bible for science. As I studied our gospel lesson this week, I was struck how John, who wrote almost two thousand years ago in a pre-scientific age, almost seems to be aware of modern scientific theories, and how he makes room for them. John begins his gospel with “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God.” He is, I think, almost certainly intentionally trying to echo the words from the very beginning of the bible, from Genesis: “ In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Both Genesis and John make the same point: before there was anything, there was God. And in both Genesis and John, God creates through the Word. In Genesis, God says, “Let there be light,” and there was light. John uses the Greek word logos, which is translated in our bibles “Word.” Logos is more than a part of speech, more than simple communication. Logos implies a will and intention, a mindfulness, even an action. Logos reflects what God is thinking, what God desires, what God wants, what God does, what God brings into being, what God creates. This finely tuned universe we inhabit can be understood as one magnificent expression of God’s logos, one way that God’s will and desire is revealed. And John says that Jesus is also the Logos, Jesus is the word of God. When John calls Jesus the Logos, what he is saying is that in Jesus, God speaks God’s mind. In Jesus, we see what it means to be fully and completely human. In Jesus, we see the potential that exists in each of us to be truly children of God. In Jesus, we see how God calls us to live this life. I think part of what God shows us in Jesus is someone who is more fully conscious and intentional in their interactions with others. Instead of automatically shying away from or avoiding people on the margins, or people who are sick and might have a contagious disease, or people who are from different walks of life, Jesus works to bring people into the center, works to bring healing to people who need it, works to bring people together. Instead of jumping to conclusions about why the lonely woman is at the well by herself in the middle of the day, Jesus tries to show her that she is a beloved child of God, despite what her culture says. Instead of assuming that Zaccheus is corrupt and evil because he is a tax collector, Jesus invites himself over for dinner. Even while he is dying on the cross and being taunted by the soldiers and crowds below, instead of lashing out at them, he tries to make sure that his mother and friends will be cared for after he is gone. In Jesus, God shows us what life can be like when we are not stuck in bad habits of relating to one another, not stuck in automatic routines that deny that we ourselves and the people we meet are beloved children of God, not stuck in knee jerk responses of lashing out when we feel attacked.
Within a few seconds of the big bang some fourteen billion years, all the matter and energy that would ever be created was brought into being. The ratio of hydrogen and helium was perfectly suited to combine into bigger atoms like oxygen and nitrogen and to one day result in life here on earth. The very fabric of the universe, the forces that hold atoms together, was finely tuned to make our lives possible. The same matter that makes up the stars in the heavens combined to make human beings: you and I are made of the same stuff that stars are made of. And if that isn’t miracle enough for you, God spoke again through the person of Jesus. Jesus was made of the same matter that we are; Jesus was made of the stuff of stars. In Jesus, we see how God would have us live, we see our God-given potential. We see what it means to be a child of God; what it means to be a child of the stars. That is the miracle, that is the good news, of this Christmas season. Amen.
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The Rev. Paul Frolick has been the priest at St. George's since August 2012.