Musing on Beginning of Stars and Ending of Intelligence

a lecture by Ken Wear, prepared 1995

No matter what theory is adopted about the beginning of our solar system or our galaxy or the totality of it all, the question returns to the source or origin of the conditions necessary to the starting point of that theory.1(To view footnote, click here) How did the matter involved in the Big Bang come into being? What was the origin of God? Might as well suppose that in the beginning there was nothing at all, nothingness -- utter emptiness -- extending in all dimensions without end and without beginning. If we also suppose that nothingness is inherently unstable, which has been observed in the laboratory, we have a starting point. So bye and bye, by whatever mechanism, there were universes and the stuff of universes in all directions extending so far that our imaginations are overwhelmed by its enormity.

Now I collected a sample of sand from a beach on Florida's Gulf Coast and counted the grains of sand to 1000 and divided the rest into little clumps of about the same size and learned there were some 20,000 grains of sand in one gram -- over half a million in one ounce. According to Einstein's theory (e=mc2), if we could convert one grain of sand entirely into its energy equivalent -- we can't, but if we could -- we could light up 1000 watts for about an hour and a half. One grain of sand! Light up this room an entire evening.

It seems reasonable to assume that the energy content of that grain of sand is equal to the energy required to form it initially. When I reflect on the energy content of that one grain of sand and then look at the beach with its thousands of tons of sand -- about a million grains in a modest hand full -- and then compare that beach with the whole U.S.A. or the whole world, I have to recognize that the energy equivalent of our Earth is beyond my ability to contemplate. But our sun contains 99% of the matter in our solar system and of what is left our Earth contains less than 1%; at that our sun is only a medium-size star among an estimated two billion stars in our galaxy alone; and our galaxy is only one of an estimated two billion galaxies in our observable universe and we can't begin to speculate what lies beyond. Total energy content of our Universe: My imagination fails to cope.

It is fascinating to read of all the things astronomers and space scientists are learning about what lies beyond our reach: the scorching acid surface of Venus (which some insist was at one time inhabited by intelligent beings); the little moon of Jupiter which is so torn by gravitational forces that its innards move and the frictional heating keeps it molten, ready for volcanic eruptions; the invisible objects in space that reveal their presence by radio broadcast; stars so big that they collapse into near nothingness and stars so big that they explode. All manner of celestial fireworks can be seen through the powerful telescopes and other devices, each star or galaxy or dust cloud performing its feats in keeping with the same physical laws as all the rest: stars that glow red and stars that glow blue-white and stars that do not glow at all; X-ray sources without visible light; pairs of stars orbiting each other so that from time to time one eclipses the other; stellar explosions and their remnants, . . .

I wonder sometimes if there are other intelligences in other places who witness and marvel at these same things. Theory has it that gases and particles scattered all over this part of our galaxy began to swirl and be pulled together by their mutual gravitational attraction. In time the stuff got close enough together that it began to be compressed to extreme pressure and temperature and the nuclear fusion reaction of our sun ignited. The planets are blobs of matter flung off the igniting sun or they are bits and rings that somehow escaped being pulled to the central body and condensed, and then coalesced into small cold bodies. And this scenario is likely common to the origin of most other star systems. With our instruments we cannot see the smaller dark and cold bodies surrounding the various stars; yet if the formation of our solar system was typical it must be commonplace to have planets orbiting suns, even with the larger planets having their own captive orbiting bodies. In fact, very recent observations of wobble of several stars suggest large planets orbiting rapidly and closely around their suns -- very different from our sun with its small planets at great distances and orbiting slowly.

With such a multitude of stars there must surely be others with planets very much like our Earth with its moderate temperature and water-and-carbon chemistry. Whether these planets number thousands or millions in our galaxy, it seems inescapable that life forms have developed on countless other planets; intelligences of various levels must have evolved, some lower, some higher, perhaps vastly earlier than on our Earth. And it is possible their curiosity has prompted sending UFOs (likely with robotic controls) to learn what other civilizations have done. While we can't journey there because of our limited technology, I cannot imagine any practical benefit of conquest because of the limitations of distance and transit time: the economics necessary to subjugation and exploitation at such distances that we measure travel time in human life spans does not show opportunity for profit beyond satisfaction of curiosity. Yet we dare not reveal our presence or stage of development for fear someone out there may be as aggressive as we are and, fearing the outcome of our continued advancement, wish to preempt our becoming a rival.

Now I doubt that we have observers among us who owe their allegiance to others in distant planetary systems. It should not surprise us that more advanced and intelligent civilizations may have discovered our Earth with its evolving science, nor even that they have, despite the necessary intergenerational commitment, dispatched research crews to record and report the state of our electromagnetic emanations or our spacecraft or other scientific interests. I am prepared to accept that there is substance to at least some of the reports of Unidentified Flying Objects; in fact, I wonder what government or scientific logic hinders efforts at open revelation and discussion; perhaps we ought undertake development of scientific instruments and volunteers to operate them so we can make scientific observations of sightings and perhaps learn from them. Nevertheless, should there be among us persons of alien origin I would think they would find it in their best interest to place their allegiance here because of the time and difficulties of return. But we have neither evidence of the superior science that aliens would surround themselves with, nor of alien residents establishing historical niches for themselves by sharing their superior science with us. What a tremendous boon to our science and the civilization it supports such revelations would be!!

But I wonder if in fact civilization is a self-limiting process. With the invention and pursuit of science, knowledge must in time permit the creation of super-weapons capable of destroying their civilization or returning it to a primitive state where its knowledge is lost or useless. Is it possible -- rather, isn't it probable -- that high intelligence and advanced science have come into being thousands and thousands of times in our galaxy, each time to be destroyed through the unleashing of its own weaponry, or, through the pressure of its own numbers, poisoned its atmosphere or polluted its environment to the extent that life was cancelled. It seems likely that it is the nature of civilization that it may rise, flourish for a time, and then twinkle out as a result of its own accomplishments, i.e., that there are cycles of civilization.

We may have witnessed the fiery death of a civilization elsewhere, observing it as we would just one more meteor burning in Earth's atmosphere -- entirely oblivious to its meaning or ominous portent for our own civilization.

Now I have spent the greater portion of my life committed to the proposition that there is an omnipotent supreme being, that He has a personality and can be described in terms of His characteristics, that we are creatures of choice and not merely actors of some preordained plot, that He may choose not to intervene to hinder our ill- advised purposes or deeds, that He or His surrogates may on occasion respond to my petition even though I am utterly ignorant of the political structure of His domain and must petition from ignorance. This is my reality. But I consent that my reality, no matter how earnestly believed and practiced, is merely my own personal interpretation and may or may not reflect the truth -- what IS and what is NOT.

But no matter what concept each of us holds of things religious or the spirit world or things eternal, it is still our reality that we are the makers of our own environment. It is through our wisdom or through our folly that we select and nurture the best or embrace the whirlwind. No one of us can single-handedly correct the world's ills; yet it will take only one madman to plunge the world toward disaster or suicide. Despite our personal limitations, each of us can make his own contribution.

In our generation we had such a madman in the Middle East. He launched a war and, when defeat appeared inevitable, ordered dumping vast quantities of petroleum into the Gulf and setting afire oil wells that could not be so emptied. One man, apparently operating under the theory 'If I can't, no one can.' Destroyed uncalculated quantities of oil, possibly enough to fuel our civilization for years, and in the destruction of oil produced an ecological disaster of immense proportions. Had he possessed bacteriological or nuclear weapons, who can doubt he would have unleashed these in striking out at the forces arrayed against him. One man, surely a madman, in a position to create such devastation.

And in our generation we have seen the unconcern of economic interests in refusing to use double-walled oil tankers until the unthinkable happened and the Exxon-Valdez ran aground because of a drunken skipper. An entire ecological system, not simply despoiled, but forever altered in bird and animal populations with effects we can only imagine. Two billion dollars thrown at clean-up, when no one had any idea what to do, couldn't right a wrong that environmentalists had been fearing and fighting for years. And still we have no means of preventing oil spills or containing them or undoing the damage. It is their world, too, and their progeny will suffer the consequences just as the rest. Some say "Follow the money;" and I add "to the grave of our civilization." Where is the sense of environmental stewardship? (Several other areas of concern will be cataloged at the end of this discourse.)

While no one can by himself correct all of the world's ills, each of us can make his own contribution toward selecting and nurturing the best. Each of us can refrain from being or assisting that madman while at the same time helping one another recognize the necessity for each of us taking part in forestalling disaster. It falls the lot of each of us to apply what intelligence he has to seek ways in which we can all live and develop peaceably with our forebears and our offspring and our neighbors, to clean and protect our own immediate surroundings without harming others or their surroundings, to seek and master knowledge of our ecology, and to help others in their quest to do the same. In working together we might even avert the ultimate folly of waging war over resources that will be depleted through conduct of the war. Or put off day by day the ultimate catastrophe by either weaponry or population pressure.

Someone has said that our civilization may go out with a bang as by nuclear explosion, or it may go out with a whimper as nature becomes overloaded with man's offal. The possibilities seem endless: Today it is unbreathable air or undrinkable water; tomorrow it may be ozone depletion or nuclear wastes; then it may be poisoning or loss of oxygen generators or loss of too much ground cover or loss of too much top soil; or fouling the oceans so they no longer can support aquatic life; or in our ignorance eradicating a species that is crucial to our ecology: The possibilities seem endless.

The laws of probability tell us that, if it is at all possible, it will eventually happen. As our numbers increase and our technology expands, it becomes increasingly possible that one of us will make that fatal mistake and our civilization will be no more. So the laws of probability forecast our doom. Should our species survive, it will surely be by accident rather than deliberate attention to the needs of the Nature we depend on for sustenance.

I would like to think that man will be able to expand his knowledge and improve his restraint so as to postpone his doom from day to day and from generation to generation for eons. Even though, sooner or later, it will be the same here as with so many civilizations in other parts of our galaxy.

And no one will know; no one will learn; no one will care.

I solicit your thoughts on preparation for a civilization-ending catastrophe, whether man-made or natural. Considering the various needs of mankind, how should we rank preparation for, hopefully, survival of some vestige of our civilization? In my view we are perilously close to a war that will exhaust resources such as copper. I want to add comment by citizens who have reflected on responses to the tenuousness of our civilization.

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As an arm chair exercise, reflect on the hundreds of millions of years for intelligence to arise on Earth. And then, with agriculture and the rise of leisure and then science, comes the perennial struggle for power -- for the dominion of one person over others -- which seems an unavoidable consequence of intelligence. There results weapons of war and destruction and their proliferation and the possibility that one heedless maniac can destroy the entirety of civilization. The window of time, for the rise of science that can either destroy this world or undertake communication with other worlds, is minute -- vanishingly small -- compared to the time required for the rise of intelligence from the dust of creation. That window of time will likely forever bar communication and cooperation between worlds.

Or we may reflect on the resurgence of Earth's civilization after a massive catastrophe obliterates most of mankind and his efforts. I suggest a survival community (Mountain Meadows) as a safeguard; to view suggestions click here.

1FOOTNOTE: The most fundamental tenet of science is that for each cause there is an effect, or, conversely, for each effect there is a cause. Yet our Big Bang theory ignores the tenet (unless the initial condition is taken to be the end point of an earlier oscillation by pre-existing matter, in which case the origin of that matter becomes the object of speculation). Proponents of the idea "God created . . ." overcome the problem of ultimate origin of matter but substitute the problem of the origin of God Himself. Moreover, the more accurate translation of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, "When God began to create . . ." could just as easily imply limitation to our Sun and its planets without addressing the larger question of the beginnings of our galaxy or the universe beyond.
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Comment added 10-31-04 Apart from unrestrained population growth and heedless disposal of offal, the greatest current threat to our civilization arises from the activities of religious zealots, notably Christian and Muslim. Christians have a long history of charitably extending life spans while ignoring the economic development and infrastructure necessary to support the increased population. Muslims have attempted to intertwine state and religion so that personal aspirations to political or ecclesiastical power have produced perennial conflict and retarded investment. While Christian fundamentalism creates miseries of want (and habitat destruction) due to population pressure, Muslim fundamentalism has produced extreme repression of women, failure to provide for education of the young, lack of economic development, and ferocious efforts to blame and punish the more successful states (including the activities that led to the 'war on terror').

For further comment on the end of civilization, see "end of civilization" in the essay "Social Contract".

In no Arab lands (except, in recent years, Turkey and perhaps Egypt) is there a history of democratic tradition; there is no understanding of democratic practices and no reason to desire democratic institutions over other political forms. In personal decision-making it seems the norm in Arab lands to examine options from the standpoint of who will be the likely victor in a conflict, and then align oneself with the victor (since alignment with the victor holds the greater hope for reducing the miseries of life).

Other examples of natural causes or heedless and thoughtless development that may prove catastrophic are:
(from Lifeboat Foundation) viruses (natural or bred) self-replicating nano devices
volcanoes, tsunami, earthquakes meteorite collision supernova
ice age or run-away warming nuclear mishap or war bioterrorism
abused nanotechnology alien aggression poisoning atmosphere or ocean
accumulated waste To visit Lifeboat, click here

12-04-07: A nightmare informs me that an experimental virus, accidentally escaping from a laboratory, is the most likely immediate cause of massive loss of life and perhaps the greater part of Earth's population.

Taken from an essay, now abandoned The Law of Unintended Consequences does not relax. We cannot guess the ultimate outcome of such as massive clearing of land and inundating it with water behind a dam; anaerobic decay of stumps generates methane where once forests absorbed carbon dioxide. Or heedless dumping and other abuses of the ocean have led to fish farms to furnish food once harvested from the open seas. Or pesticides to improve agricultural yield have decimated the bees necessary to pollination. Or intensive agriculture has leached from the soil needed nutritional ingredients. Our efforts at development do indeed affect the environment.

We should heed the lesson of Venus. I think it likely the planet Venus hosted intelligence hundreds of millions of years before intelligence arose on Earth. Heat hastens chemical reactions and Venus, being closer to our Sun, enjoyed higher incident energy on its upper atmosphere than Earth. With an appropriate mixture of atmospheric water vapor producing a shielding cloud cover, thermal conditions at the surface likely accelerated (when compared with Earth) chance chemical combinations that must have been in play in the origination of life. But the advent of intelligence brought with it unbridled selfishness and heedless development that in time cancelled life and the results of application of intelligence, and the succeeding millions of years have erased all traces of that intelligence. Spacecraft study of Venus has shown the tortured surface and atmosphere that are inimical to life. It is questionable if mankind will survive long enough for a combination of technology and curiosity to make possible search for fossils on Venus, so we have little hope of confirming this speculation. But we should take to heart the lesson this possibility suggests.

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