Sunday, August 8, 2010

My log 209 : Dipping into an eight-part series on the universe leaves me as much in the dark as before

For some months now they’ve been sending out notices from the channel Top Documentary Films of a show called Through the Wormhole, which purports to explain all the mysteries of the universe. I wondered why they kept sending out the same show, and took no notice of it, until the last week, when I discovered this is actually an eight-part series.

I have since watched three of these shows, chosen at random, and my first reaction is that, although they purport to have answers about many of the great questions posed by mankind since time immemorial, they haven’t even solved the problem of presenting their shows on TV in an orderly fashion.

In fact, from what I can tell, the shows are presented in ten-minute YouTube segments. When one segment is over you are presented with other numbered segments the numbering of which seems to be totally chaotic. For example, on one show, when I came to the end of segment One and whistled up segment Two, I found I had already been watching it, and similarly with segment Four. So what happened to Segment Three, and what should be the next segment?

Apart from the difficulty in getting a coherent story from this series, I found much of the argumentation and information totally over my head, so that, although I tried to follow closely, I finished up not a lot better informed than I began.

The first show is called Is There a Creator? whose purpose seemed to be to present scientists who were hoping their science would lead them to the conclusion that there must definitely be a God. Why a scientific programme should use that as its kick-off segment, I have no idea, especially since the argument did not seem to be in any way conclusive.

Their information started with the fact that in 1969 a 220 pound meteorite crashed in Australia, which, on examination, was found to contain amino acids and many other elements necessary for life, which led them to the conclusion that, out there, in the infinite vastness of the universe as we have recently discovered it, there must be other forms of life. That does seem a reasonable assumption, since, at another part of the documentary it is explained by Morgan Freeman, the narrator, that there are more planets than grains of sand on all of the beaches throughout the world. That is an amazing fact, if it is a fact: one wonders how they arrived at it, since the grains of sand have never been counted by anyone, to the best of my knowledge.

Somewhere along the way they produced what is my favorite fact about the universe, which is its immensity. The thing is so vast as to defy human understanding; and to my turn of mind its very size in itself seems enough to rule out the idea that it has all been created under the command of some God somewhere or other.

Here is some information I noted down: light travels at a speed of 180,000 kilometres a second. (This is important because it is only through our seeing the light emitted by various suns that we can know they exist.) It would take a piece of light 100,000 light years to cross our galaxy; and more than 13 billion light years to move right across the universe as we know it. These figures are so near to being infinite, that I find it hard to get my mind around them.

There was a lot of stuff about various theories of how the universe was created. For example, until recently the favorite theory was that it all started with a big bang, caused by various gases colliding and exploding, and creating matter. But that theory has come under question as scientists have asked, What Happened Before The Beginning? (a reasonable question, after all). So the documentaries have gone into other, extremely arcane theories, such as existence of a so-called “brane-world”--- for membrane) and other theories such as “string theory”. (I will not venture to explain these, but I did pick up the rather fanciful notion that, since the universe could contain 10 dimensions, plus another seven, compared with the three we acknowledge, one of these dimensions could be in existence merely centimeters away from ourselves. This theory takes us very close to religious, or pseudo-spiritual ideas of parallel worlds existing in which our ancestors are floating around eager to contact us through (phony) mediums.

On the question of whether there are other forms of intelligent life out there, the documentary on this subject says we have not been trying to communicate outwardly for long enough even to allow our first messages to reach anyone who may be (hypothetically) listening. We have been sending out signals for only 80 years, but it will take 900 years before our messages reach anybody. So the movie said.

Along the way I noted that one of the experts quoted came from Arizona State University. The thought did occur to me that the University might have been better employed spending its money, for example, on finding ways in which resident populations could receive and welcome newcomers, which might have had some influence on ensuring that their present fascistic laws against immigration would never have seen the light of day,

There was a good deal of information about a programme called SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), which has led to immense expenditures being made in construction of super radio telescopes that are listening every hour of every day in the hope of picking up at least some indication of something man-made being beamed in our direction. In North Carolina, 42 dishes have been built, each measuring twenty-feet across, to pick up any sounds. Eventually there will be 450 of these dishes.

The results so far: in 1977, a seventy-two second signal was received from the constellation Sagittarius, for which no explanation has ever been offered. In 1997 a sound was heard emanating from the Thetus constellation, which, the scientists contend, was clearly a manufactured signal. It was later established the signal came from a man-made space probe sent from Earth.

Apart from these, as one scientist confessed, “an eerie silence” is all we have to show for our search for intelligent life out there. Is it possible that intelligent life exists, but is not inclined to send out messages to us; or that they have sent probing messages, and we have not been intelligent enough to recognize them?

My questions are: why do we not have the human intelligence to ensure that food, once grown, is delivered to those who need food? Or to ensure that our foolish nations do not continue to make war on each other? Or why can we not carry on our lives without destroying the very air, water and soils on which we depend?

Prosaic though these questions might be, prosaic though I confess myself to be by asking them, I think they are more important than to discover what lies out there in the unimaginable distances of space.

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