By James A. Haught
If you follow science, you perhaps have gotten an eerie sense that daily reality — people, houses, cars, trees, air, earth and all the rest — is just a shred amid a hugely greater array of existence.
The European Southern Observatory — a 15-nation consortium that operates telescopes in Chile — released a photo of two galaxies colliding. Here’s the stunner: It happened 7 billion years ago. It took that much time for fast-traveling light to reach Planet Earth just now. To look at the image today is looking backward in time through incredible eons.
Philosopher-engineer R. Buckminster Fuller has put it this way: “Up to the 20th century, ‘reality’ was everything humans could touch, smell, see and hear. Since the initial publication of the chart of the electromagnetic spectrum, humans have learned that what they can touch, smell, see and hear is less than one-millionth of reality.”
Here are some random examples:
Each cell of your body (except red blood cells) has about 6 feet of DNA tightly coiled into 46 chromosomes in its nucleus. Since the human body has an estimated 37 trillion cells, each person contains perhaps 30 billion miles of DNA.
When you sit perfectly “still,” you’re traveling vastly faster than a bullet — 1,000 miles per hour with Earth’s rotation (at the equator), 67,000 mph with the planet’s orbit around the sun, 486,000 mph with the solar system’s whirl around the Milky Way galaxy, and an estimated 1.3 million mph with the galaxy’s travel through the universe. (A bullet goes about 3,000 mph.)
Einstein’s theory of relativity is fully accepted today. But ask yourself: Can time really slow down and dimensions shorten as speed increases? Einstein’s famed E=MC2 equation showed that matter and energy are interchangeable. Less matter than a dime turned into energy at Hiroshima in 1945.
And nobody really knows what subatomic particles are. Sometimes they’re objects; sometimes they’re waves. They seemingly exist in several places at once. They’re “the dreams that stuff is made of,” one physicist said. Some “virtual particles” appear and vanish in pure vacuum.
Here’s a grabber: Nearly all the weight, or mass, of matter comes from protons and neutrons, which are composed of three quarks each. Yet the masses of three quarks add up to just 1 percent of the mass of a proton or neutron. New Scientist magazine says theorists think that actions of the strong nuclear force, which binds quarks together, creates 99 percent of the mass.
Atoms are as empty as the night sky. Yet these voids form solid-seeming matter, because their negative outer electrons repel each other. When emptiness is squeezed from atoms — when intense gravity compresses a collapsing star into a pulsar, a solid mass of neutrons — the substance weighs 10 million tons per thimbleful. Astounding.
To demonstrate the mysteries of existence, California Unitarian minister Ted Webb has cited statistics like these: “Your body and mine make 300 million new cells every minute.” And “the information in the DNA molecule in every cell would fill a thousand 600-page books.”
What conclusion can be drawn from all this? Here’s mine: Science shows that reality is amazing, baffling, incredible, bizarre, seemingly miraculous. I can’t imagine why anyone would need supernatural gods, devils, heavens and hells of religion — purely fictitious, as far as any honest observer can tell — when science reveals greater enigmas.
This piece is adapted from the December-January 2014-15 issue of Free Inquiry.