This story was #2 in 2022 at Mind Matters News in terms of reader numbers. As we approach the New Year, we are rerunning the top ten stories of 2022, based on reader interest. In “Has a superintellect monkeyed with our universe’s physics?” (August 14, 2022), our News division looked at the remarkable way that the physics of our universe enables life: Groundbreaking astronomer Fred Hoyle was a staunch atheist but then he tried showing that carbon, essential to life, could form easily… It got worse: To form carbon at all, gravitational forces must be balanced just right with the electromagnetic forces. That’s just the start…
Stephen C. Meyer: Now, some of the most important fine tuning parameters were first discovered by Sir Fred Hoyle, a British Australian astronomer and astrophysicist. Hoyle was in his early career a staunch atheist. And in fact he was quoted as saying that, “Religion is but a desperate attempt to find an escape from the truly dreadful situation in which we find ourselves.” [Harper’s Magazine, 1951] He went on to say that people didn’t like him because he took away hope by saying things like that.
In any case, Hoyle was working on theories of how carbon formed. And he was struck by a big mystery, which is, why is there so much carbon in the universe? He realized that carbon was super important, because carbon forms, long chain-like molecules that are necessary for any form of life to exist. Without carbon there is no possibility of life.
He began to think about different ways that carbon might be formed. He was working on stellar nucleosynthesis, how the elements larger than helium and hydrogen could have been formed in stars as they were burning. And he encountered a mystery. Physicists had thought that the way to build up the heavier elements was to add what they call nucleons — neutrons or protons — one nucleon at a time.
So if there’s a helium atom you’ve got two neutrons and two protons. To get to carbon, which has six neutrons and six protons, the idea [was] you would add one neutron an one proton at a time, and gradually build up to a heavier chemical element. The problem is, there is something called the 5-nucleon crevasse, which is just a way of saying that when you add one nucleon to a helium atom — whether it’s a proton or a neutron — the atom is unstable. It has a vanishingly small half life.
You could think of it as kind of a ladder where you’ve got missing rungs. You can get to helium from hydrogen. But getting beyond helium to anything heavier is impossible because when you add one nucleon, that chemical state is unstable and vanishes immediately.
Another theory was that maybe three helium molecules collided all at once to form a carbon [molecule]. Helium has a atomic weight of four. And if you have three of them, you get 12; that would be six neutrons, six protons — you’d be good to go. But the odds of getting three helium atoms to collide all at once were, again, vanishingly small.
So Hoyle and other scientists were scratching their heads: “How can we get carbon to form at all? And how can we explain the amazing abundance of carbon in the universe that makes life possible?”
Could beryllium be the answer?
Now, what he ended up proposing was that helium would combine with a heavier element known as beryllium, which has an atomic weight of eight. And this was possible because you could get two heliums to form a beryllium, and then the beryllium and one helium could form and then you get to carbon.
But there was a problem with that as well. When beryllium 8 and helium 4 combine, that produces a molecule of carbon that has an energy level that’s above standard carbon, the carbon that we see around us. In fact, it had a very precise resonance level of 7.65 MEV (mega electron volts). It was just that much more energetic than normal carbon. So Hoyle commissioned a friend at Caltech, a physicist named Willie Fowler, and asked him if he would do some experiments to see if there was a [natural] form of carbon that had this higher resonance level.
He found that there was. But then, as Hoyle began to think about this, he realized that a whole lot of things had to be precisely right inside stars to produce carbon at that resonance. In particular, for beryllium and helium to combine they must attain sufficiently high velocities to overcome their repulsive electromagnetic forces. But stars have to be hot enough to generate those critical velocities. But that would only happen if the strength of gravity as it pulls atoms together — overcoming those electromagnetic forces — was just right during the process of stellar nuclear synthesis. If gravitational attraction were too weak inside the stars, the temperature wouldn’t get hot enough for the atoms to combine to get that high energy level. But if the gravitational attraction was too strong, nuclear synthesis will happen too fast, and the stars would burn up too quickly. And we would never get stable planetary systems where you could have life.
But the carbon puzzle was only the beginning
So it was a puzzle. It looked like, in order to form carbon, the gravitational forces must be extremely finely tuned and they must be balanced just right with the electromagnetic forces. And this turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.
There was a whole suite of these so-called cosmic coincidences, where everything had to be just right to explain what was necessary to life. Just to produce carbon, here are five of these cosmic coincidences:
1. The gravitational force (what physicists [call] the force constant) that determines the exact strength of gravitation had to be just right. If it were larger, stars would be too hot and they would burn up too quickly and too unevenly. If the gravitational force constant and the force of gravity were smaller, stars would remain so cool that nuclear fusion would never ignite. And hence there’d never be any heavy element production.
2. The electromagnetic force constant also had to be delicately balanced. If it was larger, the chemical bonding wouldn’t occur, and elements more massive than boron1 would be too unstable for fission. If smaller, it would be insufficient to produce chemical bonding. And so it went.
3. and 4. The other fundamental forces of physics, the so-called strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force also had to be delicately balanced. If either of these forces were too large or too small by very small fractions, there would be no possibility forming stable elements. The basic chemistry of life would be impossible and we would not have a life permitting universe.
5. On top of all of that, it turns out that the fundamental units of matter, quarks, which make up the protons and neutrons, had to have very precise masses in order for the right nuclear reactions to occur that would produce the right elements, such as carbon and oxygen that are necessary for a life-permitting universe. And in the case of the mass of the quarks, there are up quarks and down quarks. Nine separate sets of criteria must be met simultaneously to make the basic chemistry of life possible.
As Hoyle began to reflect on all this, it occurred to him that we lived in a kind of Goldilocks universe, where everything was just right. The forces were not too strong, not too weak. The masses were not too large, not too small. And he started to rethink his staunch materialist atheist worldview…
Next: How fine-tuned was our universe’s debut? The mind boggles.
Here’s the first portion: If DNA is a language, who is the speaker? Philosopher Steve Meyer talks about the significance of Francis Crick’s sequence hypothesis that showed that DNA is a language of life. What sort of speaker can utter a language that produces living beings? Is it a fluctuation of a multiverse or an intelligence that underlies nature?
The third: How fine tuned was our universe’s debut? The mind boggles. All the details that were there at the beginning and all work together… The math is amazing. The fact of fine-tuning — both of forces and their relationships — is generally accepted, irrespective of physicists’ religious views or lack thereof.
You may also wish to read: Theoretical physicist: Can’t avoid a beginning for our universe. Recent shakeups from the James Webb Space Telescope images invite fundamental questions like, Does the universe even have a beginning? The big Telescope made new data available, some of it “amazing.” And if it had only confirmed what we know, how would we know it had ever left the launch pad?