I just had a religious experience. Or, at least as close as I’m going to get to one.
It was over a TV program called “The Sun” — a show so minor, The Science Channel doesn’t even have a web page for it. In it, Dr. Paul Scowen of Arizona State University described the simple process by which our universe went from a soup of positively-charged quanta of energy, each orbited by its own negatively-charged, smaller unit of energy, to you at this very moment reading these words. Stopping to consider that, I was reminded of just how elegant and beautiful the universe is. And it all started with a cloud of atoms.
It will sit there for thousands, and in some cases, millions of years… What you need to do to get the star formation process going is you need to kick it with something. That can be an impact on the cloud from one side by a supernova blast wave — a massive star has gone boom at the end of its life, and that sends out in all directions, very energetic compression waves that hit the gas and compresses it.
The first stars formed out of dense clouds of hydrogen. Then, when they died, their supernovas sent out shockwaves to jumpstart the creation of another generation of stars. It’s a perfectly simple method for increasing complexity in the universe, and it all runs automatically!
And through this process, every atom of every element of everything everywhere on earth was forged in the core of one of these stars. And not even our own star from our own solar system — a star that lived and died before the solar system had even begun to form. One star, perhaps even billions of stars, lived and died in order to give us life.
When you put it all together, you realize how amazing and sublime the universe is.
Stars are atom-making machines. They take the simplest building block of matter, hydrogen, and forge it into a variety of new atoms in the construction of the universe. From helium, stars create the heavier elements: carbon, oxygen, silicon, iron, which are then scattered to the solar winds (ha) when the star goes supernova. Through chance and over enough repitions, these elements come together to form rocky planets around the new generation of stars these supernovas helped to create. Then these atoms combine to form molecules, the molecules to form chemicals, the chemicals to form life… and we’re the result!
And just as surely as stars create the universe, they are swallowing it up again as black holes. There’s only speculation of how the universe will end — will it coalesce in a big crunch, will it disappear like dust in the wind? But seeing the clockwork regularity with which the stars have seeded the universe, it seems only fitting as part of some grand design that they also be the custodians, at the end of the day cleaning everything up, gathering together all they’ve created to start the process all over again. What a beautiful, simple system it all is, and what an omniscient creator it took to set it all into place — this is a God I can love.
Not the god that turns his people against each other; the one that gives his people free will, then imposes rules on them. Not the god who tells his followers to drive his enemies into the sea, not the god who requires circumcisions to win his favor, not the god who filled our planet with a wonderous menagerie of plants and animals then haphazerdly declared some of them offensive, unclean, and sinful.
Between worshipping that god or the sun, I take the sun.
It was there in the beginning, separating us from the darkness and is the reason we have carbon in the mountains and dihydrogen monoxide in the rivers and the lakes. It is quite literally the light of the world. Without the sun, we would never have come into being. I can’t say, however, that the people who worshipped the sun were any more peaceful.