Implications of the Violent Universe

A popular theme on everything from the Discovery channel to Star Trek is the notion that space is full of life. The life may not look much like life on the earth, but the idea is that it is there in astonishing amounts and variety. There have been times in the past with man's limited knowledge that such a scenario seemed to be reasonable. In 1964 when Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii wrote Intelligent Life in the Universe, they stated confidently that there were thousands of inhabited worlds in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. In recent years, Shklovskii has pointed out that this effort was wrong because of a lack of knowledge and understanding about the cosmos.

One of the things that science is learning about the cosmos that was poorly understood until a few years ago is what a violent place the cosmos is. NASA has coined a term to describe this violence space weather. The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has shown us that much space weather comes from the sun. We now know that massive eruptions take place on the sun with energies in access of 100 million atomic bombs. A billion tons of solar gas can be blown out across space with devastating effect. On March 13, 1989, such an explosion caused a power outage in Quebec that affected six million people and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The frequency of these storms peaks every eleven years or so, and in 2000 or 2001 we should hit a high frequency of these storms.

The sun is only one source of space weather and, compared to many stars, is a mild one. Some stars explode in what is called a nova or supernova in a very large star. These explosions are so violent that temperatures in the hundreds of millions of degrees result. The energy released is millions of times greater than the sun's activity, and deadly radiation flows from the explosion and from the remnants of it for thousands of years. In 1987, science had a chance to see one of these explosions first hand and to measure its energy. Since then, the remains have continued to be studied. The remaining gut of the star that is left from the explosion is spinning several times a second, giving off a pinwheel of deadly nuclear particles that would destroy anything in its neighborhood.

It is not just dying stars that furnish incredible fireworks on a celestial scale, but also stars being born. Over the past several years, astronomers studying the Orion nebula have realized that they are looking at a part of space where stars are being produced. Massive clouds of gas and dust are contracting due to the pull of gravity until sufficient matter is accumulated to allow thermonuclear fusion to begin. The star that starts out by this process is incredibly hot and active. It is blue in color and has a temperature at least 10 times hotter than the sun. It also gives off huge amounts of microwaves, gamma rays, x-rays, and ultraviolet light--all lethal forms of radiation.

In addition to stars, there are galaxies which have their own violence. Seyfert galaxies just seem to explode periodically. Irregular galaxies have cataclysmic explosions in them that defy our imagination. Black holes suck in atoms, gases, and any other matter in their vicinity. As they do so, incredible releases of x-rays occur bathing a whole region of space with more deadly radiation. All of this sweeps across the earth and all other planets in the cosmos in a concentration not understood until recent times. Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester, said it well when he described the void of interstellar space like this:

Our growing familiarity with the space environment has pushed us to first recognize and now confront that this so-called void is far more like the sea than even poets might have dreamed.

The implications of all this violence are many and varied. Those looking for life in outer space have come to realize that, if life exists, it is no where near as abundant as our Trekie friends would like us to believe. Shklovskii and others are writing articles like "We Are Alone" because there are so many parameters that have to be controlled for life to exist. Put on a chance basis, life has become increasingly improbable. Astronomers like Carl Sandage have even admitted being forced to believe in God as they look at what is necessary for life to exist.

That brings us to another implication of the violence of outer space. When you study the earth and see the design that allows us to exist safely in all kinds of space weather, the protective system is impressive. The earth has a magnetic shield that repels and controls the dangers of space so we are not lethally irradiated by charged particles coming from all over the cosmos. Our atmosphere is just thick enough to allow the light and heat (infrared) that we need in, but thick enough to keep most of the things from reaching us that the magnetic field does not stop. There are belts of special chemical shields like the ozone layer that absorbs or stops specific kinds of radiation such as ultraviolet light. Concerns over the ozone hole and global warming are all linked to the recognized design of the protective nature of these systems.

To provide the heat and light we need to survive requires an incredible energy source, but the safety shield requirements are also critical. If there is life of any kind elsewhere in the cosmos, similar design features must be present in their world. If God has designed more than one place where life can be, it just increases the miracle of that design. Chance is not a valid mechanism to provide safeguards in the violent universe. (Reference: "Blowin' In the Solar Wind" by Adam Front, Astronomy, October, 1998, pages 60-65.)

--John N. Clayton

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