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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Universe Was Not Designed For Us

Was the Universe specifically designed for human beings?


[end of post]

"Wait!" you exclaim. "You haven't explained why yet!"

Must we really go into the details? I've been typing all morning and my neck hurts.

Alright alright, here are some reasons why...



1. The vastness of nothingness

The Universe is very, very big. By current estimates, the observable part of the Universe is bigger than 70 billion light years across.

Sure there are colourful planets, shiny stars and beautiful swirly galaxies.

But there are mind-bogglingly huge distances that you have to traverse in order to get there.

The nearest planet, Venus, is about 40 000 000 km away, at closest approach.

The nearest star (excluding the Sun) is Proxima Centauri - 39 921 200 000 000 km away.

And the nearest galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy is 23 650 000 000 000 000 000 km away.

It is also very, very empty.

Even the interplanetary space near our Earth is disturbingly empty. Only 5 particles per cubic centimetre of space.

"How empty is that?" you ask.

Imagine a small cup of water.

In order to catch enough particles to fill that cup, you'll need to scoop up a volume of space approximately 1000 km tall, 1000 km wide and 1000 km deep.

In that gigantic volume of space, you can drop more than 400 000 Mount Everests and still have room to spare.

It gets even thinner as you go further away from the Sun.

Needless to say, the vacuum of space isn't good for health. An unprotected human being will die in a matter of minutes in space.

(In contrast, bacteria can last for at least a few years in a vacuum.)

If it was created specifically for people, why is most of the Universe inaccessible and inhospitable to human life?

Maybe the stars and galaxies were made primarily as decorations to inspire mankind - like a pretty painting.

Then why put them so far away that you would need to wait for the invention of optical instruments (indeed even a space telescope) in order to see them?

Many years ago I was in an astronomy club, showing the wonders of the sky to fellow students and other curious members of the public. The Moon and the planets are always popular because they are near enough to reveal some details in a small instrument.

But almost everything else looks downright boring to the public.

For example, when I showed them a double star system, many would quip:

"Just dots only what."

If the visible Cosmos is an amazingly huge and beautiful painting specially designed to inspire mankind, why do most people not give a shit?

2. The long, long brewing process

The Universe is very, very old. Current estimates put the age of our Universe at 13.7 billion years old, give or take 200 million years.

Our own Sun wasn't formed until 9.1 billion years later, which was probably a good thing since the heavier elements that make up our bodies, such as carbon, must first be made in the fusion reactions of other stars, scattered throughout the galaxy when some of them exploded as supernovas at the end of their lives.

We are made of star-stuff.

But it took a long, friggin' time.

Although the Earth was formed shortly after the Sun was born (if 30 million years can be considered short), for over a billion years the Earth was unsuitable to any sort of life.

It was too hot.

It was constantly bombarded by other planetoids and fried by deadly solar radiation.

And it had no air and no water.

Then as it cooled, one thing led to another.

The consolidation of the Earth's core into a giant spinning ball of molten metal generated a magnetic field, shielding the planet from most solar radiation and preventing surface gases from boiling out into space.

Water arrived when icy asteroids from the outer region of the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt pelted down onto the early Earth.

Then something happened 3.5 billion years ago.

The first bacteria appeared.

Without these bacteria there wouldn't be any oxygen in our atmosphere.

But even after this incredibly long time, eukaryotic cells (containing a nucleus) would not appear for another 1.5 billion years.

And multicellular organisms would not appear for yet another 800 million years (1.2 billion years ago).

Then, life on Earth started to diversify and accelerate in complexity. About 500 million years ago the first plants and animals appeared. Insects and sea vertebrates came onto the scene about 400 million years ago. Next came the amphibians, reptiles, mammals and so on.

Finally finally finally, Homo sapiens appeared - just a scant 500 000 years ago.

We have been around for less than 0.004% of the age of the Universe.

If the Universe was specially made for people, why did it take so painfully long before human beings appeared?

And if human beings are the pinnacle of creation, then why did we nearly go extinct 75 000 years ago?

(Our susceptibility to large-scale infection pandemics highlights our limited genetic variation caused by the near extinct event.)

3. Not at the centre of anything

During the Dark Ages, people thought that the Earth was the centre of the Universe.

Then, with improved astronomical observations, they proposed that the Sun was the centre of the Universe.

Poor Earth was demoted to planet no. 3.

Even later the Sun was demoted to an average joe star, on an unremarkable whorl of the Milky Way galaxy.

Now, the current cosmological model tell us that the Universe doesn't even have a centre!

In addition, astronomers have also found planets circling more than 170 other stars.

In summary, we are living on planet no. 3, orbiting a middle-of-the-road G class star, located in a far flung part of the Milky Way, situated in the middle of nowhere in particular.

How's all that to make you feel real special!

If the Universe was purposely made for people, then our Earth should be absolutely unique.

We should have colourful sparkly-glowy things circling us, VIP-treatment befitting the regal status of the true centre of the Universe.

4. This dangerous Universe

When engineers design something for a particular purpose, they try to make it safe. It should fulfill its function effectively without becoming a health hazard.

You shouldn't put sharp metal bits in a baby teething toy!

However, the Universe can be a violent, dangerous place.

Galaxies collide.

Black holes suck the life out of neighbouring stars.

Supernovas send deadly blasts of radiation throughout the galaxy.

Luckily we aren't near any of those events (at least not yet).

But our own Solar System is not that safe neither.

The Sun produces bursts of dangerous radiation that can affect communications and harm people in aeroplanes or space vehicles.

Stuff can still fall out of the sky - sometimes they do it in a spectacular way.

Even the Earth itself can be a dangerous place to live in.

Natural disasters kill tens of thousands of people every year.

If the designed function of the whole Universe is to serve people, then why does it contain so many dangerous phenomena?

Winds can be dampened. Flood water can be channeled. Lightning can be conducted away safely.

A human team with sufficient knowledge and resources will be able to render many natural disasters harmless.

But why do we have to do this if the Universe was already designed for us?


1. Bacteria

Bacteria have been around ever since life first appeared on Earth. As biologist Stephen Jay Gould once observed:

We live now in the "Age of Bacteria." Our planet has always been in the "Age of Bacteria," ever since the first fossils—bacteria, of course—were entombed in rocks more than 3 billion years ago.

On any possible, reasonable or fair criterion, bacteria are—and always have been—the dominant forms of life on Earth. Our failure to grasp this most evident of biological facts arises in part from the blindness of our arrogance but also, in large measure, as an effect of scale.

Bacteria are hardy organisms.

High temperatures, high sulphur, high acidity, high pressures, high radiation and low water - they can survive and thrive under the most extreme conditions.

They live around us, on our bodies and even inside our bodies - an amazing 10% of the human dry mass is made up of bacteria!

Some strains of bacteria are essential for human life. Others, such as the bulbonic plague bacteria, are deadly.

And they are everywhere.

Despite their tiny size, the total biomass of bacteria exceeds the biomass of all other forms of life on Earth.

If the Universe was designed for us, why are bacteria so successful - sometimes at the expense of human lives?

2. Beetles

There are more species of beetles than any another type of animal. So far, 350 000 species of beetles (25% of all animals) have been described - out of an estimated total of over 5 million.

In contrast, there are less than 60 000 species of vertebrates, including all the fish in the sea.

Geneticist J. B. S. Haldane once said:

The Creator, if He exists, has a special preference for beetles.

Why are there so many species of beetles? We don't usually eat them and we can't really use them to make stuff.

And if beetles were created for us to enjoy their beauty, then why are so many species hidden in the middle of tropical jungles?

3. Animal Supersenses

People often think of their own senses as pretty acute.

Unfortunately, human senses pale in comparison to the senses of what many people consider as "lower" animals.

A dog has a sense of smell 40 times better than people.

An eagle eye has 5 times the visual resolution of a human eye.

There are many other examples.

On top of that, some animals can sense stimuli that we are completely blind to.

Insects can see in the ultraviolet spectrum. Migratory birds can detect the magnetic field of the Earth. Electric fish can probe their environment using pulses of electricity.

If human beings are the pinnacle of creation, then why do we have such second-rate senses?

More importantly, if the Universe was primarily intended for us, why equip "lower" animals with top-of-the-line sense organs?

4. This dangerous human body

Last, but definitely not least - the human body itself.

The human body is an amazingly sophisticated living system, employing principles of physical mechanics, chemistry and biology to function properly.

If the Universe was tailored-made for people, then their own physical bodies should function as well-integrated units.

Unfortunately - even without external dangers like natural disasters, pathogenic bacteria and wild animals - the human body can sometimes turn on itself!

Cancer cells are the body's own cells which are dividing uncontrollably at the expense of surrounding healthy cells.

Autoimmune disorders occur when the body's immune system attacks its own healthy cells.

Stroke occurs when the blood vessels in the brain are blocked or broken, leading the lack of blood flowing downstream. When neurons die due to lack of nutrients and oxygen, they rupture, releasing an excitatory neurotransmitter called glutamate into the surrounding area. This overactivates neighbouring cells, causing more and more cells to die in a cascading wave of injury, called excitotoxicity.

The fact that the human body can turn on itself is very disturbing.

Cancer kills millions of people a year. Autoimmune disorders kill tens of thousands, worldwide.

Stroke kills millions of people and leaves millions permanently disabled.

If the human body was specifically designed, how can it possibly turn on itself?

And what would be the purpose of using components that are basically ticking time-bombs to construct the human body?


Now you know why the Universe was not purpose-made for human beings.

Just like how the blogosphere was not specifically designed for Fresh Brainz.

The formatting will never be quite perfect, the layout looks different in IE and Firefox, and old photos keep disappearing from the blog.



angry doc said...

I prefer the "inordinate fondness for beetles" variant of the quote. :)

Blogter said...

Have you read this?

To me, it perfectly explains the mechanics behind why organisations are continually able to convince people that the universe was designed with them in mind.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Angry Doc:

Yes, that is a better version, but it feels truncated to me.

To Blogter:

I'll go take a look.

Teh Si said...

If you just will just look you will realize that the universe is desgized for us .... got MRT, flats, concrete towers, tables, chair, lamp...books, computer

in fact right, now there is nothing much around me that is not designed for humans


Aftersox said...

to teh si:

Ack, the anthropic environment! I like to think of humans sometimes as 6 billion Langton's Ants.

To the larger question, I always like to quote Douglas Adams:

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find my self in - an interesting hole I find my self in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears caches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Teh Si:


To Aftersox:

Thanks for coming by. I've always wondered who thought of that puddle analogy - so it was Douglas Adams himself!

Jay Cam said...

lol i bet that was just one long science lesson disguised as a reason why the universe isnt designed for us...

and if the universe isnt designed for us, should we design ourselves for the universe?

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Jay Cam:

Science factoids for science blog!


Should we design ourselves for the Universe? We are sort of doing that right now, making all sorts of contraptions to help us live long and prosper. But if you mean re-design ourselves genetically, then I think it's still too early.

Ethics aside, we need to learn more about genetics in order to make safe and reliable modifications to a genome.