The Universe that Understands Itself?

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Image Credit: NASA/The Doc

Once upon a time, about 200 million human lifetimes ago, a universe began. This was not just any universe. It was a universe with some very remarkable properties. Were there an infinite number of physical laws that could have been used to build a universe, or were the laws that could produce a viable universe rather restricted? How were the laws decided?

The universe that began so long ago was one in which matter and energy were interchangeable, linked by the speed of light squared; in other words, a universe in which E = mc2. It would have been a very different universe had E = mc; the universe would then be a cold, dismal place.

Stars no Stars

Had the laws of science not been exactly as they are, space would most likely look like the left side of this image, not the right.

In this remarkable universe, the speed of light was so high that a tiny amount of matter could be converted into an enormous amount of energy, an amount given by E = mc2; it would have been a very different universe if the speed of light had been the cruising speed of a snail; again, cold and dismal describes the result.

This was a universe in which tiny particles of matter were formed when an initial big-bang of expanding energy cooled; we call these particles atoms. In this universe, atoms had a property called mass, giving them a mutual attraction, which could pull them together with sufficient force to form stars, in which they would be squeezed into larger, more complicated atoms. Had this mutual attraction (we call it gravity) been half as strong as it is, the universe would not be what it is now. There would be no stars and – you guessed it – the universe would be a cold, dismal place.

The universe is, however, not cold and dismal, because stars formed. Stars have two vital roles in the universe: they assemble matter into a variety of different building blocks – the chemical elements – and produce the energy that enables these chemical elements to do interesting things.

Many stars have already died in supernova explosions, liberating the elements they have synthesized into cooler space. At more moderate temperatures than the interiors of stars, most elements don’t stand aloof from other elements. They combine with one another to produce compounds. Molecules based on carbon have a particular talent for complexity, and have acquired the ability to make copies of themselves.

The Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula is what we can see today of a supernova in the year 1054 that ripped a star apart. Chemical elements the star had synthesized were sprayed into space, possibly to form new solar systems and even life.

One of the highly interesting things the carbon-based molecules eventually did was to assemble themselves into Albert Einstein, who discovered that E = mc2. Albert Einstein tried to understand the laws that made our universe viable. He was a small part of this universe. You, dear reader, are another.

This is a universe, therefore, whose components eventually assembled themselves in such a way that they would turn around, look at themselves, and try to understand how they and their universe had been created; a universe whose building blocks would become intelligent.

Our universe is a remarkable phenomenon.

Carl Sagan once wrote:

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Of course, he wasn’t alone in forming a hypothesis of this sort. Others had got there first. George Wald said:

“A physicist is an atom’s way of knowing about atoms.”

And before that, Niels Bohr had said:

“A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.”

Is there a reason an atom or a cosmos would want to look at itself?


How Far Can Birds Fly Without Needing to Land?

Advances in technology are allowing us to learn more and more about how birds can travel huge distances under their own power. Not long ago, tracking equipment was so heavy that it would weigh birds down. Now, very light GPS tracking equipment – less than 1.5 grams – can be used to track birds without hampering their flights.

Biologist who fitted GPS trackers to the aptly named wandering albatross have found that these large birds can travel at least 15,000 km (just under 10,000 miles) over the sea before returning to land. That’s like flying non-stop from Houston, Texas to Perth, Australia. Many commercial jets cannot do that!

Houston to Perth
Houston to Perth

Even more amazingly, the wandering albatross seems to be able to stay in the skies above its Southern Ocean habitat for as long as it wants to, only needing to flap its wings every few hours. And what amazing wings they are – at a span of 3.5 meters, (11.5 feet) – the wandering albatross’s wings are the longest of any bird currently on Earth. The albatross flies so efficiently that it uses less energy in flight than when it’s sitting on dry land!

Albatrosses soar with amazing prowess over the Southern Ocean using a flying technique called dynamic soaring. Dynamic soaring allows albatrosses to tap into the energy of the wind, and can be used when the wind speed is higher than 30 km per hour, or 18 mph – which it usually is.

In 1873, the French write Jules Verne wrote his famous novel in which Phileas Fogg of London, attempts, against all odds, to get Around the World in Eighty Days. With the opening of a new railway in India, a newspaper makes the claim that it should be possible to make a complete circuit of Earth in eighty days. Fogg accepts the challenge, and after many adventures, succeeds by the skin of his teeth. Of course, the challenge would not have been a problem for an albatross. In fact, a gray-headed albatross was recorded making a complete circuit of our planet in just 46 days.

Wandering Albatross
A wandering albatross above the ocean. Image by Charlie Westerinen.

We now know that the wandering albatross only comes to dry land when it’s time to breed. Once a chick leaves the nest, it may stay at sea for as long as five years.

Albatrosses are long-lived birds, and can live to more than 60 years of age. Sadly, their numbers are declining because of long-line fishing boats. Baited lines up to 130 km (80 miles) in length are pulled behind boats. The albatrosses are attracted to the bait, then get caught on the lines and drowned.

The wandering albatross was first recorded by the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus in 1758. Linnaeus also gave the bird its Latin name, Diomedea exulans.