Our universe


Our Universe | Dr Atta ur Rehman | 20th July 2016

As scientific knowledge increases exponentially with the passage of time, the intricate and complex design that has resulted in the living cell and finally in such a diversity of plant and animal life on our planet is truly mindboggling.

Indeed some of my recent work has been concerned with the functioning of the human brain, arguably the most complex object in our universe – a hundred billion neurons in our brain, each talking to some 7,000 other neurons through synaptic connections.

What is the molecular basis of thought? Thoughts are not abstract as many of us may think. They are made up of atoms and molecules but hardly anything is known as to what underlying chemical processes occur when we think. My work has been reviewed recently in leading US neuroscience journals:

According to modern science, it all began some 13.8 billion years ago from a state of singularity through a ‘big bang’. This proposal was first made by Georges Lemaître who was a Belgian priest, astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven. In fact the concept of us arising by a big bang from a single entity is mentioned in the Holy Quran, in which we are told that all creation was in the form a singularity, and it was torn apart to form our universe. “Have not those who disbelieved known that the heavens and the earth were one connected entity, then We separated them” (Surah Anbiaa, verse 30).

After the initial expansion, the universe then slowly cooled giving rise to a smoky material comprising subatomic particles, and finally simple atoms. Giant clouds of this primordial smoke then coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies. This process of creation of galaxies from a ‘smoke’-like material is described in the Quran (‘Dukhan’) “Then He turned to the heaven when it was smoke…” (Quran 41:11).

In an article by Robin Collins, ‘The Fine Tuning Design Argument’, he states: “Suppose we went on a mission to Mars, and found a domed structure in which everything was set up just right for life to exist. The temperature, for example, was set around 70 degrees F and the humidity was at 50%; moreover, there was an oxygen recycling system, an energy gathering system, and a whole system for the production of food. Put simply, the domed structure appeared to be a fully functioning biosphere. What conclusion would we draw from finding this structure? Would we draw the conclusion that it just happened to form by chance?

“Certainly not. Instead, we would unanimously conclude that it was designed by some intelligent being. Why would we draw this conclusion? Because an intelligent designer appears to be the only plausible explanation for the existence of the structure.”

He goes on to state: “The universe is analogous to such a ‘biosphere’, according to recent findings in physics. Almost everything about the basic structure of the universe – for example, the fundamental laws and parameters of physics and the initial distribution of matter and energy – is balanced on a razor’s edge for life to occur.”

The concept of a fine-tuned Universe is that the conditions that allow the galaxies to form, planets to arise and life in the Universe to exist can only occur if certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range. If any of these fundamental constants were only slightly different, the Universe could not have been formed and life would not have existed.

For example if the strength of the big bang had differed by an amount as small as 1 part in 10 to the power of 60 (1 divided by ten million billion billion billion billion billion billion) then the universe could not have been formed as it would have either collapsed back on to itself or expanded too rapidly for star formation to occur. This required accuracy of 1060 has been compared to “firing a bullet at a one-inch target on the other side of the observable universe, twenty billion light years away, and hitting the target!”

Similarly if gravity had been weaker or stronger by as little as 1 part in 10 to the power of 40 then life-sustaining stars like the sun could not exist, making life as we know it impossible. Similarly if the force that binds protons and neutron together in an atom (the strong nuclear force) had been even slightly different from its present value, life would not have been possible.

The same argument applies to a number of other physical constants (such as the electromagnetic force, the mass of the proton as compared to that of the neutron), all of which have been fine tuned with extreme precision to make the formation of galaxies and ultimately life on earth possible.

The precise razor edge balancing of all such factors, (such as the gravitational forces between the stars and planets pulling them together versus dark energy pushing them apart), is referred to in the Quran in Surah Rahman as “meezan” (balance) prevailing in all aspects of the heavens and earth.

Atheists argue that creation of the universe and of life is the result of a monstrous series of freak accidents. To address the issue of the fine tuning of universal physical constants, they even go far as to postulate that there may be an infinite number of such universes. These physical constants may be applicable only to our universe but not to the other universes that may exist.

We just happen to be in the right universe with the correctly fine-tuned physical constants, and also on the right planet which had water and other elements. These atoms then accidentally interacted so that the molecules of life (amino acids, nucleic acids etc) first arose. These dead molecules then recognised one another through another series of freak accidents and finally life came into being and evolved into us.

So are we the result of a higher intelligence or a series of fantastic accidents, each with an extremely small probability to lead to a carbon-based life? Let the readers decide.

The writer is chairman of UN ESCAP Committee on Science Technology & Innovation and former chairman of the HEC.