Thursday, March 04, 2010

Chapters 7, 8 of The Little Universe by Jason Matthews

Dr. Adams thought little of religion. He had no experience with it while growing up. Neither of his parents had strong opinions on the subject, but the astronomer in Webster took umbrage with the idea that religion had anything to do with the universe. Theories of evolution made infinitely more sense to him. On several occasions, even at cocktail parties, he argued evolution with people who supported creation.
“Religion is a mythical history used by primitive people to explain the world and heavens,” Dr. Adams said as he mingled at a fundraiser. “People couldn’t admit that they didn’t know how it all began, so they came up with the notion of God. Easy enough.”
A minister approached Adams and began arguing with him. This particular argument went on and on, with Adams insulting religion and anyone who supported it. His comments went over so well that they ended with a fist to his face and Webster falling to the floor.
After throwing the punch, the minister was horribly embarrassed. He left the party while his daughter stayed, tending to Webster’s bleeding nose. Rose administered ice as Adams lay on the floor.
“Care for some free advice?” Rose asked him as she knelt down and dabbed his cut lip with her handkerchief. “When presenting your opinions in mixed company, try not to insult people just because you disagree with them.”
Adams looked up and saw a woman of intelligence and sincerity, a woman who appeared to him to be angelic. “Good advice.”
She helped him to his feet and added, “You know what they say... you attract a lot more flies with sugar.”
They talked for the rest of the party. He had never met a woman like Rose—attractive, well-dressed, and able to lecture him. Before the guests had left, he sincerely apologized to everyone for his behavior. He apologized later to her father.
Rose was familiar with Webster’s way of thinking long before meeting him. As a girl who studied the sciences, she was often surrounded by people of a solid-proof mind-set, those who didn’t believe anything they couldn’t measure.
This was in contrast to her upbringing. As the daughter of a minister, Rose never had the option of dismissing religion or arguing about it. If she did, she would have disrespected her parents. They never forced any way of thinking upon her. Rose was allowed to pursue both science and religion. They taught her to follow her heart and to seek out answers of any nature.

Rose began working for Maxwell Enterprises. She was in a different department than Adams, on a team studying molecular biology. While she was discovering the wonders of subatomic particles, she was also thinking about the dynamics of life. She wondered if there was any end to the existence of smaller and smaller particles.
A year after the party, Rose ran into Adams at a company function. They spoke about their work. She explained how each month brought new discoveries.
“The atom is not nearly the smallest unit of measure,” Rose told Adams over a drink. “There are bosons, leptons, even things we haven’t yet named, but we know they must exist. The deeper we look, the more we find.”
“My years in astronomy were exactly the same,” he remarked. “The further out in space I looked, the more I saw.”
They talked for hours, finding it incredible that they had not bumped into each other at work.
Adams and Rose began getting together for lunch on the campus that adjoined Maxwell Enterprises. Sometimes they went to the deli, at other times one of them would pack a lunch to share. Some days they sat by the campus pond, and on others they went for walks around the lecture halls and ate nutrition bars. Each looked forward to the lunch hour conversations as the highlight of the day.
They had many similarities and interests, but they also had their differences. These usually involved the subject of religion. Rose could not understand why Adams would proclaim himself an atheist.
“How can you not believe in God, in some form?” she asked him as they strolled on the path around the campus pond.
“I can’t believe in anything without proof,” he stated, biting into a piece of fruit.
“That’s why they call it faith,” she replied. “Because it can’t be proven in a scientific manner.”
“How can an intelligent person believe in something so nonevidential, like an invisible force that runs our universe?”
“I see it differently,” Rose told him. “I find evidence everywhere I look.”
Adams found Rose immensely attractive, even when she disagreed with him. Her auburn hair fell gracefully over lean shoulders, and her green eyes contained a hint of smile even as they argued. The only thing in the world they were at odds about was religion. He couldn’t prove her wrong, nor could she convince him. They cared too much about each other to try to change the other’s mind.
They married, regardless of the difference, under the roof of her father’s church.


In the early universe, matter floated through areas of space near the center of the egg-shaped cavity. Each element of matter was like a snowflake, similar to others in the brewing aftermath, yet unique. The cameras presented detailed images of these tiny objects. The stars could have fit on my fingernail, but in their own space, they were massive.
On the monitors, they appeared as gigantic balls of hot gas moving gracefully through the cosmos. I sat back and watched the chemistry unfold before my eyes, chemistry that turned into astronomy.
We witnessed the birth of stars. They began as hydrogen balls of different sizes and intensities. After forming, stars moved down the spiral arms of the emerging galaxy and clustered themselves into groups. Galaxies took on many shapes—mostly spiral and elliptical, but they all revolved with the same physics.
Jim recorded everything. We replayed the beginning moments of this little universe again and again. As I watched, I realized the collisions of chunks of gas were actually collisions of entire galaxies, each one made up of billions of stars. The early universe was like a basket of fireworks.
It was explosive, with tremendous amounts of white light, radiation and colorful accents on the fringes. It was a beautiful chaos.
Hydrogen masses became large and small suns. Sometimes they collided with others, creating debris that would become planets and asteroids. Over time, Jim detected the presence of new elements forming around the stars and planets.
“Molecules have a way of changing,” Adams explained, “from the simplest ones like hydrogen, to more complicated ones.”
“How?” I asked.
“Intense heat. It makes the hydrogen atoms merge to form helium atoms.”
“Hydrogen becomes helium?”
“And more. The star’s interior is under pressure, which compounds the hydrogen into heavier elements, like carbon and oxygen.”
Jim’s sensing devices confirmed his description. We focused on a large white star, a mass of burning hydrogen. Jim detected helium on the surface of the glowing orb, an effect seen in a change of hue to a yellow light. Occasionally the star emitted matter from an internal explosion. The matter cooled as it sped off in space, and a tail formed with new elements. Jim identified carbon, nitrogen and silicon in the tails of several comets.
One night on our way home in the truck, under a clear and dark sky, he pulled over to the side of the road.
“What are you doing?”
“Get out,” he said.
“Why?” I asked, getting out. I thought, what had I done? Adams turned off the truck lights and got out as well. He walked in front of the vehicle, looking directly upwards and motioning for me to follow.
“See that?” he said, pointing to the brightest star in the sky. I could see it easily over the others.
“Very pretty,” I said.
“That’s the closest star beyond our sun. Do you know how far away it is?”
“It’s two and a half light years from here.” I must not have looked impressed. Adams changed his tone to convey amazement. “That means it takes two and a half years for that light to make it here!”
“Long way, huh?” I appreciated the star more.
He pointed to the light and shook his head. “That star isn’t there. It’s somewhere else.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was there, in that exact spot, two and a half years ago. We’re looking at the light waves it emitted when it was there.”
“That’s how long it takes light to travel that kind of distance.”
We drove back to his house in silence. I looked out the window at all the different stars, wondering how many light years away they were and how far they had moved from the spots that I could see.

Adams often adjusted the rate of flow for the simulation. The more hydrogen molecules Jim introduced to the reactor, the faster time passed within the project. For his study time, Adams ran the reactor at a crawl or on minimal hydrogen release, as slowly as Jim could allow it. Crawl speed was the only time we could conduct studies. While the stars and planets on the monitors seemed to be standing still, they were experiencing time similar to us. Jim’s reactor could go much, much faster than crawl speed, which we did when Adams wanted to see the progression of a star or planet.
“Release hydrogen,” Adams instructed Jim, during a typical, early universe time leap.
A humming sound emerged. The lights on the monitors began to move. Stars turned into blurs of colors, and galaxies spun slowly. Millions upon millions of years passed, and we witnessed a fantastic light show of galactic movement.
“How fast can it go?” I asked.
“Not sure,” Adams admitted. “Top speed is a guess. There’s no sense running like that, but it could probably run at trillions of times the rate of crawl speed.”
That meant time passing at trillions of times the rate of normal. Evolution was already happening. Adams knew it all along, and I was starting to get the picture.
I loved the time leaps and hummed along with the sound they produced. It was the only moment where the universe moved visibly as a whole, after which we recorded the process of a star changing or even collapsing into a black hole. We executed the time leaps often, allowing the primitive universe to settle into its ways.
“How old is this universe?” I asked Adams.
“There’s no real way to define time other than standard orbits.”
“What’s a standard orbit?”
Adams explained that all of the planets revolved around their home star at a certain rate. The length of an average revolution established itself as a standard solar orbit, or standard year. Many planets had revolution periods that were close to the average measure, but there really was no exact planet or way to define time. Adams said the universe was roughly one or two billion standard units, though that didn’t make sense, because for a period of time, planets hadn’t even formed and established orbits.
“Okay, that’s enough. My brain is waving white flags,” I said. The concept was extremely difficult. Defining time had never occurred to me to be impossible, but it totally baffled me. To think that the swirling bits of hot gas had taken hundreds of millions of years to settle, that was another difficult concept.
“You see that star on Monitor One?” Adams asked, pointing to a hot blue sun.
“It’s not there,” Adams said, reminding me of the other night on the side of the road.
“That’s just its light we’re seeing, right?”
“Very good, Jon. That’s right. It takes time for the light waves to make it to our cameras in this project, the same as in our night sky.”
Jim chimed in, “That’s why I have to adjust two or more cameras exactly the same distance from any object, if we want a cross reference of two shots.”
“Otherwise we’d be seeing light from the same object at different times, and we wouldn’t be able to combine the images.”
If we wanted three-dimensional images, we had to use more than one camera so that Jim’s hardware could interpret the data.
The chamber walls for our little universe also affected the question of age. Unfortunately, our experiment had a limited lifetime. The walls of the egg-shaped cavity held a constant attraction force on the galaxies.
At creation, the attraction was almost undetectable, but as the galaxies moved, they pulled away from the center at an accelerating rate. Over time, over trillions of standard orbits, the matter in the universe would reach the outer walls and self-destruct.
“How long from now?” I asked.
“What’s your estimate on that, Jim?”
“About three trillion standard orbits,” Jim said. “Maybe four.”
“A long time, way more time than I intend to go through,” Adams said, jotting the note in his brown booklet.
“If the outer walls are attracting the matter,” I asked, “then is the matter speeding up toward them?”
“Yes,” Adams said. “That’s what I meant when I said the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.”
I tried to understand. We kept headache tablets in the bathroom cabinet, and I found them quite useful when dealing with new ideas.
The stars in our simulation were very similar to the ones in our night sky. Both were slowly changing, burning their hydrogen fuel at all times.
Depending on burn rates and size, a star went through many phases of existence. Some raged in spurts of radioactivity, like pulsars. Others expanded outward, like red giants. Some had lots of planets orbiting them, others had none. They came in a variety of colors. Blue stars were the hottest and red ones the coolest. Some contracted in time, and some even exploded. Supernovas were explosions the size of millions of suns. They sent matter scattering across the universe. Change was happening every minute. The universe was growing exponentially.
As I rode my bicycle home from Webster’s house after work, I realized what a different person I had become. Months earlier, I would never have thought about the beginning of the universe or the nature of the cosmos. Lately, it was all I could think of. Certain things in life deserved serious attention, and I had the good fortune to be involved in something like that.
I pulled over to the side of the road to appreciate my own star, that orange sun, as it glowed red and set on the horizon. It hung so gracefully in the sky, casting warm rays through the trees, the houses, and onto my face. I appreciated it more than ever, knowing how close it was compared to other stars in my galaxy. Bathed in its hazy glow, I pushed my bike up the last hill to my apartment, thanking heaven that it wasn’t a red giant.
Red giants intrigued me. Their impressive size and red hues made them stand out dramatically against the darkness of space. Curiously, red giants were in a state of massive growth. They even engulfed planets in orbits close to them. Red giants were dangerous, I thought. When we looked through our project for stars, Adams preferred that we searched for yellow, white and orange stars like our own. He believed they were the most stable and more likely to have planets orbiting them that were safe from harm.

My life had changed. Finally, I had a good-paying job that required sitting down for most of the day. This in itself was a huge success. I had always wondered if my days of labor would be cut short by a fall from a ladder or the slip of a saw blade. No one had ever paid me to sit on my ass and chat with a computer. I had to pinch myself for my turn of fortune.
What we did at first was data entry, lots and lots of data entry.
“Pick a galaxy, Jim, any galaxy,” I said at the start of one day, leaning back into my chair and biting into a pastry.
Jim set Monitor One on a galaxy and zoomed in until it showed a field of stars.
“Okay, Jim, now pick a star, any star.”
The monitor honed in ever closer until just one star filled the screen.
“Perfect, now get its coordinates and give me a readout, please.”
Jim obliged. “Here we have an orange dwarf sun made of ninety-six percent hydrogen and three percent helium gases, with traces of methane and argon. I’m detecting some planets in its orbit. Would you like to hear their composition and location?”
“Sure,” I said, enjoying the ease from effort that Jim provided.
All I did was change and label Jim’s recording disks once they were full. I was having the time of my life, making good money for hanging out and talking with a computer about stars and planets and their chemical makeup. We studied moons, asteroids, comets, gas, anything that we could see floating in space. Sometimes I worked a twelve to fourteen-hour shift just logging data.
“Jim,” I said, “don’t you just love how majestic some of these planets are?” Monitor One was focused on a world of molten lava, a fiery landscape that created dark rain clouds pierced by lightning bolts.
“I guess,” Jim said. “I don’t have anything to compare it to.”
“Well, it’s not something you see just by walking outside and looking up.”
“That actually sounds pretty good to me,” Jim said. “I’d like to walk outside and look up.”
“Believe me. This is better,” I said.
Adams made a note.
All planets had the ingredients for making water - two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. On almost a third of the planets, we found water in various forms: vapor, ice, snow and liquid. Water was beautiful and contrasting against stark landscapes. On some planets, large amounts of water vapor produced. It eventually formed lakes, rivers and oceans. It also took the form of humidity and mixed with other gases to form early atmospheres.
Primitive worlds were raw and violent, as their inner cores released heat and radiation. Lightning charged the skies on some planets, while lava flowed on the surface. It amazed me that all this was happening day after day without any life on the planets.
Adams theorized how life might begin. “Simple molecular things,” he observed, “should respond to the highs and lows of radiation.” He pointed to a shoreline on a calm planet that was displayed on Monitor One.
“Why should they?” I asked.
“Simple matter has changed into macro-molecules. These ever bigger clumps have been receiving doses of radiation and occasional bolts of electricity.”
“Molecules are getting more complex. They’re adapting to an ever-changing environment.” The beach scene on the monitor was not one I would have described as ever-changing.
“Until what?” Jim asked.
“Life has a way of popping up,” Adams said. “Perhaps molecules will use radiation for energy. Maybe they are learning how to store heat for the night periods.”
“Isn’t that cute,” I joked with Jim. “Molecules get cold at night.”
“Cute or not,” Adams said, “that may be when life starts, when molecules really start to mutate.”
“Into what?” Jim asked.
“Into more complicated versions of themselves. Into molecules that can move, or eat, or reproduce. Life can branch off very quickly once it starts.”
We theorized on the beginnings of life. Did life precede consciousness, or did consciousness precede life? At the moment when a molecule used solar radiation for energy, was that molecule alive?
Was it aware? We debated these things as we watched our experiment evolve. Our cameras could identify shorelines made of water, rock and sand, but they could not see the particles that made up those objects.
“Am I alive?” Jim asked to my surprise. How simply honest he was.
His green light pulsed mildly. I looked to Adams for an answer.
“You are,” Adams said with conviction. “You can think and function, therefore you are alive.”
The answer seemed to satisfy Jim, and his light dimmed down to its normal level. I wondered if Adams was as sure as his answer implied.
Soon afterwards, we found “primordial soup,” as Adams called it. Visible life began in the wading pools and looked like sludge or slime. It was simple organisms and the forerunner to primitive algae. Once life started, it quickly spread. Over time, the algae and fungi mutated into heartier algae and into things that could eat the algae, like simple marine invertebrates.
For around a billion standard orbits, life lived as basic organisms - fungi, tiny marine animals, and green plants. Hardened lava became landmasses. Again, I couldn’t believe it took hundreds of millions of years for fungus to evolve. Thank God for the time leaps. Eventually, we identified plants, fish, amphibians and insects.
I eagerly awaited the time leaps to see what changes would occur. Some of the planets showed amazing amounts of growth. As we revisited a planet over the course of a few time leaps, we could see it evolve from a lifeless, inhospitable world to a maturing, stable home with an atmosphere, plants, reptiles and even primitive birds. Adams was ecstatic about the changes.

“Evolution happens before my eyes. Algae have grown into plants, insects to birds. It is all exactly as we expected, exactly as the evidence suggested it would.”
- From p. 38 of Webster’s journal.
Chapters 9 and 10 will be posted Thursday, March 11th

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