Thursday, May 22, 2008

Coincidences that appear to be amazing

In Eugene Ionesco's crazy play entitled The Bald Soprano, an English lady and gentleman discover, in the course of their casual conversation, an amazing series of coincidences. They both happened to take the same train down from Manchester and they live in the same street, in the same apartment. Furthermore, it would appear that they sleep together in the same bed. After each new revelation, there's a constant refrain, along the following lines: "How curious! How bizarre! And what a coincidence! "

In the domain of absurd exclamations, I've always been amused by the amazing coincidence concerning the indisputable fact that the Seine happens to flow right through the middle of Paris. After all, it might have flowed to the north or to the south of the city, or even far away from Paris, out in the country. Surely, the fact that the great river flows through the center of the French capital can only be explained by an intervention of the Egyptian deity Isis, namesake of the City of Light.

Last night, on TV, splendid documentaries showed us great Mediterranean ports such as Marseille and Tangiers. There was a lengthy presentation of the ancient Ionian port of Ephesus [now in Turkey]. Long ago, the temple at Ephesus dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Today, all that remains of the temple at Ephesus is a field strewn with stone fragments.

At the epoch of its splendor, many pilgrims were so amazed by the vision of the temple of Artemis that they refused to accept the idea that it had been built by humans. To construct such an edifice, divine power was surely necessary. In the same way that Isis may have guided the Seine through the heart of Paris, Artemis had once dropped down from the heavens into Ephesus to build this place in which she would henceforth be worshiped. Why not? Gods are gods, and goddesses, goddesses. Elvis Presley once built Graceland. Why wouldn't Artemis have devoted her immense resources to building a Wonder of the World? Admittedly, divine operations of this kind have never been everyday events, but there's no other way of explaining the amazing coincidence that such an edifice should come into existence at the very place whether it was intended that Artemis should be honored.

I've just been reading a fantastic little book, entitled Just Six Numbers, by Britain's Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. As the title suggests, this well-written and inspired text by 65-year-old Baron Rees of Ludlow presents half-a-dozen numbers whose precise values have determined the kind of cosmos in which we exist. The strange thing about the precise values of these six numbers is that, if any one of them were slightly different, we would simply not be here today as human beings in the Cosmos, for the "familiar" Cosmos, and we along with it, could never have existed if the six numbers had been different.

The small book by Rees is perfectly readable and fascinating. Here's a comment from the New York Times: "Manages to be both a deep and an accessible book, and it answers a lot of the questions produced by natural wonderment. A marvelous little book." [I love the expression "natural wonderment".] So, you might like to buy it and find out for yourself what each number represents.

Rees designates his six fundamental numbers by exotic symbols. I was particularly struck by the case of the second crucial number, epsilon, whose value happens to be 0.007. Physicists say that this value of epsilon represents the force of the strong interaction that holds together the protons and neutrons in an atomic nucleus. When the fusion reactions in the Sun convert hydrogen into helium (like an endless series of explosions of hydrogen bombs), Einstein's equation E = mc2 indicates that 0.007 of the mass of the hydrogen disappears, transformed into the heat that enables us to exist. Now, we might wonder what would have happened if the epsilon value were slightly different to 0.007, say 0.005 or 0.009. Well, without going into details, we can say that the complex chemistry that has given rise to life on Earth could have never become a reality if epsilon were not in the range of 0.006 to 0.008.

Rees demonstrates that there are similar constraints in the case of the other five all-important numbers. To put it bluntly, we are faced with an amazing set of six values that appear to have been chosen precisely (by Whom?) in such a way that we humans have been able to appear here on Earth. "How curious! How bizarre! And what a coincidence! "

How might we explain such an amazing set of coincidences? Well, one possible answer that springs into the mind is that things might have unfolded in much the same way that the goddess Isis directed the Seine to flow through the middle of Paris, while the goddess Artemis dropped into Ephesus to build herself a temple. That's to say, God would have sat down in front of His personal computer and twiddled the values of the six crucial numbers until He got them right: exactly what would be necessary to insert us humans into the Big Picture.

But there's an infinitely simpler explanation. Today, Professor Rees and the rest of us privileged mortals are able to marvel at the amazing coincidences behind the six values for the obvious reason that, if these particular values didn't hold, then we wouldn't be here to talk about anything at all!

In general, this line of reasoning is referred to as the anthropic principle, and it's the only sane approach to posing and answering the fundamental question: "Why is there Life in the Cosmos? " When I wake up of a morning, I never ask myself: "Isn't it amazing that I'm still alive? " On the contrary, I declare: "Apparently I'm still alive. That's profoundly wonderful! "

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