In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Bible, Genesis.
For physics and science in general, 11th February 2016 is an important historical date, marking the confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves, predicted almost one century ago by Albert Einstein.
This breakthrough will allow us to understand not only how and why the universe is expanding, but why it is doing so at an ever increasing rate, as envisaged in the theory of the Big Bang. This theory is the prevailing model for explaining the origin of the universe, tracing its birth back to the explosion about 15 billion years ago of a single point of infinite temperature and density.
One of the first questions that will have crossed the minds of our distant ancestors must have been, whence and why has this world of ours sprung into being? Followed by, what is its purpose, its goals? Civilisations down the ages have all come up with various answers in their myths and legends, and in their religious and philosophical beliefs.
Ever since taking its first faltering steps, science, in its study of the behaviour of matter, has been in pursuit of an objective and incontrovertible answer, arriving at last at the pivotal question, how has life sprung out of matter? Or more precisely, how is it possible that the ability of the human mind to judge what is right has its origins in inanimate matter? Can it be everything occurring in the universe after the first instant of creation has its own rationale, or design, or has everything come about solely as a result of a sequence of fortuitous physical phenomena?
Astronomers, physicians, chemists, physicists, biologists, palaeontologists and so on have all laboured to contribute their mite to decipher the tracks of life in an ever changing universe. As the starting point of the universe, astrophysicists take the first billionths of a second after creation, at a time when the whole universe was unbelievably small, billions and billions of times smaller than the nucleus of a single atom even.
Subsequently, an infinite ocean of energy gave rise to billions of galaxies. Thus did our solar system explode into being about 4.5 billion years ago, whilst about 3.8 billion years ago, the oldest rocks took shape on earth, where eventually – about 3 billion years ago – life itself arose from a sort of ‘prebiotic soup’. Darwin ( 1809 – 1882 ) first conceived of life as originating in some ‘warm little pond’ replete with ammonia, sulphates and electrical charges. More recently the biologists, Alexander Oparin ( 1894 – 1980) and JBS Haldane ( 1892 – 1964), postulated that life came about as a result of chemical evolution, and that earth’s primordial sea served as a vast chemical laboratory powered by solar energy.
Matter started to replicate and differentiate itself – in other words, to live. Thereafter mutation and adaptation fuelled the potential of the first unicellular animals to acquire a variety of complexities. About 500 million years ago there appeared on earth the first multicellular animals endowed with hard parts within their bodies. High on the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the Burgess Shale, one of the earliest fossil beds containing the imprints of soft-bodied animals and algae, have been found several models of organisation of fauna, of which only one corresponds to our own species, Pykaia, a chordate organism endowed with a spine. It would appear that life had originally proposed a series of models, but natural selection had then favoured just one single species. About 225 million years ago a mass extinction of unknown origin eliminated 95% of all marine species. Again, around 65 million years ago, many species, including dinosaurs, were extinguished, most probably because of the impact of a gigantic meteorite hitting the Yucatán Peninsula, which altered the atmospheric conditions of the earth.
The differentiation of hominids from anthropomorphic apes took place about 4.5 million years ago.
The descent with modification ( Darwin’s preferred expression for evolution ) of this species subsequently gave rise, amongst others, to homo habilis, homo erectus and homo sapiens neanderthalensis. In much more recent times modern man or homo sapiens sapiens ( as anthropologists call him ) entered the arena. According to paleontological finds these last comers destroyed the Neanderthal civilization about 40.000 thousand years ago.
Then around 10,000 years ago the domestication of wild animals, as well as the cultivation of wild plants to make them edible, triggered the Neolithic Revolution and led to the first human urban settlements. Thus did a unique and uniquely modified sliver of matter exert ever-increasing dominion over a constantly widening environment. And mankind began transmitting the chronicle of its own history. In the end, are human beings the final outcome of a series of unforeseeable accidents or of some grand design? The ancient Greek version of the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel starts, at the beginning was the ‘logos’. Later, the word ‘logos’ was translated into Latin as ‘verbum,’ and finally in English and German as ‘word’.
In ancient Greek logos means word, and also reason. The German philosopher W.F. Hegel ( 1770 – 1831 ) declared that only reason is real and only reality is reasonable. Whatever appears as accidental or fortuitous, has in actual fact been wisely decreed and manoeuvred by the astuteness of reason. And throughout the course of history one can see the way the World Spirit, or reason, exploits itself.
The Noble Prize winner for Medicine, George Wald ( 1906 – 1997), talking about the dilemma of creation, said that given so much time the ‘impossible’ becomes possible, the possible becomes probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has to wait: time itself performs the miracles. Ennio Falabella London, 29th March 2016