Tag Archives: Science

The production of carbon from lighter elements is fine-tuned to an amazing degree

Fine-tuning of the strong nuclear force and the fine structure constant
Fine-tuning of the strong nuclear force and the fine structure constant

If there is one thing that science fiction is good for, it’s for popularizing the phrase “carbon-based life”. Everyone has heard that carbon is essential for life. But do you know why carbon is so important? And did you know that the reaction that produced the carbon in our universe is actually fine-tuned, and therefore evidence for a Creator and Designer of the universe?

Hugh Ross has a new article up in Salvo magazine, which I found thanks to a post at Uncommon Descent.

Now he starts off with a discussion of how the mass density of the universe needed to be fine-tuned in order to produce elements heavier than hydrogen from the (only) hydrogen that was present at the creation event. I’ve talked about that reaction previously, but I won’t repeat that here. Nucleosynthesis is one of the most important chemical reactions in science, and something every Christian should know and understand well enough to explain it.

You can’t make complex embodied intelligent creatures such as ourselves out of only hydrogen and helium, but you can’t make a life permitting universe without some hydrogen and helium. For one thing, you can’t have liquid water without some hydrogen.

But the element carbon is the center hub of all of the molecules inside of us that allow for the storage and processing of information necessary for life.  And it turns out that the reaction that creates carbon from elements lighter than carbon is fine-tuned to an amazing degree.

Excerpt:

But cosmic mass density is not the only thing that must have been exquisitely fine-tuned for the universe to contain any carbon. The nuclear resonance (or energy) levels for helium, beryllium, carbon, and oxygen also had to be exquisitely fine-tuned for carbon to exist. Here’s how that happens.

Stars fuse carbon and oxygen from helium through a series of reactions known as the triple-alpha process, in which three helium nuclei are combined to make one carbon nucleus. In the first step in this process, two helium nuclei (with 2 protons each) fuse together to make beryllium (which has 4 protons). Next, a helium nucleus fuses with a beryllium nucleus to make carbon (which has 6 protons). Then, some carbon nuclei fuse with helium nuclei to make oxygen (which has 8 protons).

The only reason that the triple-alpha process produces any carbon or oxygen at all is because in the first step, the ground state energy level (i.e., the state of an atom when all of its electrons are at their lowest energy levels) of the beryllium-8 nucleus (containing 4 protons and 4 neutrons) almost exactly equals the ground state energy level of two helium-4 nuclei (2 protons and 2 neutrons each). In the second step, the ground state energy level of a beryllium-8 nucleus plus a helium-4 nucleus almost exactly equals the energy level of an excited state of a carbon-12 nucleus (6 protons and 6 neutrons). In the third step, the ground state energy level of a carbon-12 nucleus at 7.65 million electron volts is just slightly larger than the ground state energy level of an oxygen-16 nucleus (8 protons and 8 neutrons) at 7.12 million electron volts.1

If it were not for the near equivalences or resonances of the nuclear energy levels of two helium nuclei relative to a beryllium nucleus, and of a beryllium nucleus plus a helium nucleus relative to a carbon nucleus, the universe would contain very little or no carbon and very little or no elements heavier than carbon. Life would be impossible.

Furthermore, unless the difference in the nuclear energy levels between a carbon nucleus and an oxygen nucleus were precisely 0.53 million electron volts, the universe would contain either a lot of carbon and no oxygen or a lot of oxygen and no carbon. Either way, physical life would be impossible in the universe.

In the early 1950s, astronomer Fred Hoyle and physicist Willy Fowler were the first to understand how critical the relative nuclear energy levels of helium, beryllium, carbon, and oxygen were for making life possible in the universe. Commenting on the highly fine-tuned nature of these nuclear energy levels, Hoyle wrote in an article he published in Engineering & Science,

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion beyond question.2

The article continues to explain that there is an additional problem of carbon fine-tuning related to habitability.

The carbon formation problem is one of the best examples of fine-tuning, and as you can see, it’s even admitted by atheists. It’s not the easiest one to explain (because resonance levels are not familiar in every day life), but it’s worth knowing about all three of the fine-tuning topics in the post.

Keep in mind that the more science has made progress, the more fine-tuning problems we have discovered. The trend is very bad if you are a naturalist. But very good if you are a theist. Evidence matters, and scientific evidence is the best kind of evidence.

What’s the best naturalistic explanation for the origin of life proposed by atheists?

I just ordered the newest edition of “The Mystery of Life’s Origin“, which is a classic book on the origin of life by pro-design authors. The new edition has several new chapters. It reminded me of my interest in the origin of life when I was a younger man, just starting full-time work with a hot Internet start-up in the big city.

Back then, I liked to listen to debates about the origin of life (e.g. – Walter Bradley versus Robert Shapiro, etc.), as well as lectures and interviews. I ordered tons of academic lectures and debates, especially from Access Research Network. Two of my favorite interviews from ARN featured Dr. Charles Thaxton and Dr. Dean Kenyon.

Let’s start with Charles Thaxton’s interview.

And here are the questions:

1. How did you first get interested in the origin of life?
2. How did you come to write The Mystery of Life’s Origin with Walter Bradley and Roger Olsen?
3. Was there an advantage to having the three of you collaborate on the project?
4. What is the primary argument of your book, The Mystery of Life’s Origin?
5. Have scientists come close to developing a plausible naturalistic explanation to the origin of life or do you still consider the origin of life to be a mystery?
6. Do you see a particular irony in the timing of Stanley Miller’s experiments and the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick?
7. How does the emergence of modern genetics tie in with the Darwinian scenario of life going from simple to complex?
8. What are the major problems with origin of life simulation experiments?
9. Isn’t it rather impressive that amino acids were produced in the Miller experiments?
10. How close is the development of amino acids to the threshold of life?
11. What are the steps involved in producing proteins from amino acids?
12. Why are amino acids isolated during this process?
13. How can the investigator affect the outcome of a simulation experiment?
14. How did you evaluate the different chemical evolution experiments?
15. Are the initial conditions in the simulation experiments plausible?
16. What did the earth’s early atmosphere contain?
17. Will the simulation experiments work with this atmosphere?
18. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the origin of life resulted without any intelligent input whatsoever yet the simulation experiments appear to rely upon intelligent guidance. Could you comment on this irony?
19. Are there any natural processes that would have filtered out destructive ultraviolet light?
20. What additional steps beyond creating amino acids would be required to develop life?
21. What is so difficult about making proteins or nucleic acids?
22. In addition to the energy problem in protein synthesis isn’t there a sequencing problem?
23. Are DNA sequences analogous to a written language?
24. Has Hubert Yockey made similar claims?
25. In The Mystery of Life’s Origin you refer to order, randomness, and specified complexity. Could you give us an overview of these concepts?
26. What do you think the presence of specified complexity in a living system indicates about its origin?
27. In inferring the necessity of intelligence to produce life haven’t you ventured from the realm of science to religion?
28. Could you summarize the reasons why you believe intelligence was involved in the origin of life?
29. What are the major objections to your current point of view?
30. How was The Mystery of Life’s Origin received by the scientific community?
31. What was Dean Kenyon’s response to your critiques of his book, Biochemical Predestination?
32. What was Dean Kenyon’s response to The Mystery of Life’s Origin?
33. Were you a bit apprehensive about meeting Kenyon after writing a book which was quite critical of his views in Biochemical Predestination?
34. Are self-organizational theories plausible?
35. Would you comment on the work done by Prigogine and Eigen?
36. What is your assessment of RNA scenarios?
37. What other problems do you see with an RNA world?

You can learn more about Charles Thaxton here.

And here’s the interview with Dean Kenyon:

And here are the questions:

1. What first interested you in biology and the origin of life? What is your academic background in this area?
2. What was your viewpoint on the origin of life when you wrote Biochemical Predestination?
3. How have your views on the origin of life changed since you wrote Biochemical Predestination?
4. Do many of your colleagues support your new position? If not, why not?
5. What are the general presuppositions that scientists make who study the origin of life?
6. What is the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis, and what role does it play in current research and teaching on the origin of life?
7. What are the major underlying assumptions of the Oparin (chemical evolution) hypothesis?
8. Are there any other important assumptions in origin of life theories?
9. How well are these assumptions supported by currently available scientific data?
10. What is your evaluation of the Miller type of simulation experiment? What do these experiments tell us about possible chemical events on the prebiotic Earth?
11. Is it possible that interfering cross-reactions might prevent life from arising naturalistically?
12. Stanley Miller’s pioneering work in the origin of life assumed a reducing atmosphere of methane, ammonia, water vapor, and carbon dioxide? Is there sufficient empirical support for this assumption?
15. How large a gap is there between the most complex “protocell” model and the simplest living cell?
16. What is the biologically relevant information content of the simplest living organism known to exist? What are estimates for a theoretical minimum information content of the first living cell?
17. How probable is it that such complexity could arise by undirected chemical processes?
19. What are the major unsolved problems in research on the origin of life?
20. What is the relevance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the origin of life?
21. Is it plausible that an “RNA world” was the precursor of the first living cells?
25. If life did not originate by chemical evolution on the primitive Earth, what other possible scientific explanations exist?
26. What do you mean by your statement that “perhaps scientism is more widespread than we like to think”?
27. Is it possible that natural processes are insufficient to account for the origin of all biological information?
28. Can science rule out the possibility that most biological information had an intelligent cause?
29. What alternatives are there to pursuing purely naturalistic explanations for the origin of life?
30. What do you mean by “intelligent design” as it relates to the origin of life?
31. Why is an intelligent design or creationist interpretation of scientific data bearing on origins not acceptable to many scientists?
32. What criteria could be used to determine if the information content of living organisms had an intelligent or natural cause?
34. Does academic freedom allow you to discuss the difficulties of scientific naturalism and origin of life theories? If not, why are they protected from criticism?
35. How should the origin of life be taught in light of the California Science Framework policy which states that “nothing in science or in any other field of knowledge shall be taught dogmatically”?
36. How is scientific progress impacted when critiques of current theories are suppressed?

You can learn more about Dean Kenyon here.

The challenge for naturalists posed by the origin of life makes it well worth your time to learn and understand. I used to explain this argument to my entire IT department on white boards when I was a young man. It’s fascinating, and more convincing than personal testimonies or abstract philosophical arguments. Although I read books on the origin of life, I learned how to present the information as an argument by watching the interviews above over and over.

People sometimes ask me how I was able to survive 22 years in IT with my theism intact. It turns out that there are no shortcuts to a theistic worldview. You have to support it with evidence. You have to be able to show your work about how you reached your conclusions. I’m a theist today because I never found a single atheist in any software development job who could even begin to challenge the evidence that I collected from listening to all those lectures and debates that I started from in my early 20s. It was as easy to defeat them as taking candy from a baby.

If only Christian parents and Christian leaders understood the importance of scientific facts when they talk to young people about Christianity. We need to be less worried about hurting the feelings of young people by making them “feel dumb”. Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s not a bad thing to ask people to work hard at learning how to rationally ground your beliefs with evidence. If we want to stop our young people from being lazy, ignorant and cowardly, then the right way to do it is to make them work. Make them learn. Make them fight.

Is the vastness of the universe evidence against God’s existence?

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

Physicist Hugh Ross writes about it in Salvo Magazine.

First a quick blurb about Hugh Ross:

Hugh Ross launched his career at age seven when he went to the library to find out why stars are hot. Physics and astronomy captured his curiosity and never let go. At age seventeen he became the youngest person ever to serve as director of observations for Vancouver’s Royal Astronomical Society. With the help of a provincial scholarship and a National Research Council (NRC) of Canada fellowship, he completed his undergraduate degree in physics (University of British Columbia) and graduate degrees in astronomy (University of Toronto). The NRC also sent him to the United States for postdoctoral studies. At Caltech he researched quasi-stellar objects, or “quasars,” some of the most distant and ancient objects in the universe.

Now back to the topic “Is the vastness of the universe incompatible with God’s existence?”

Here’s Ross’ introduction:

Scientists seem more difficult to please than the golden-haired girl of fairy-tale fame. While Goldilocks troubled herself over the just-right porridge, chair, and bed, astronomers appear preoccupied with the size of the universe.

In the days before telescopes, when an observer could count a few thousand stars in the night sky, many considered the universe too small and unimpressive to be the work of an almighty, all-knowing Creator. Only an infinite cosmos, they said, would befit an infinite deity. But then, others argued, an infinite cosmos might eliminate the need for a Creator.

Thanks to the Hubble space telescope, scientists now see that the universe contains roughly 200 billion large- and medium-sized galaxies and about a hundred times as many dwarf galaxies. The stars in those galaxies add up to about fifty billion trillion, and they comprise a mere one percent of the mass of the observable universe.

Because of the travel time of light, the universe humans can observe is really the universe of the past. What researchers know about the expansion and geometry of the universe informs us that the universe of today is at least several hundred times more enormous than the universe we can see. The universe is trillions of trillions of times larger and more spectacular than what the earliest astronomers presumed!

And yet, this new knowledge of the vastness of the universe has led to new complaints. In his book, God: The Failed Hypothesis, Victor Stenger says, “If God created the universe as a special place for humanity, he seems to have wasted an awfully large amount of space.” Stephen Hawking, in the best-selling science book of all time, A Brief History of Time, shares Stenger’s view: “Our solar system certainly is a prerequisite for our existence. . . . But there does not seem to be any need for all these other galaxies.” So now the universe is too big to befit the all-wise, all-powerful God of the Bible.

I like how he quotes an atheist physicist to get the challenge right. No sense in caricaturing the claim of your opponent.

I formalized Stenger’s argument like this:

  1. If all things in the universe are not done the way that Victor Stenger likes them, then there is no God.
  2. All things in the universe were not done the way Victor Stenger likes them.
  3. Therefore, there is no God.

I would deny premise 1, there, since there is no reason to believe that’s it’s true.

Anyway, let’s see what Hugh Ross says:

The hot big bang model (now firmly established by observations) tells us that at the moment of cosmic creation, the universe was infinitely or near-infinitely hot and compressed, and all the ordinary matter existed in the form of hydrogen. As the universe expanded, it cooled. The rate at which the universe expanded and cooled depended in large part on its mass—the greater the mass, the slower the expansion and cooling rate. The slower the expansion and cooling rate, the more time the universe would spend in the temperature range (13–150 million degrees Centigrade) at which nuclear fusion can occur.

Because of its mass, the universe spent about twenty seconds in the nuclear fusion temperature range when it was between three and four minutes old. As a result, 24.77 percent of the universe’s hydrogen (by mass) fused into helium. Thus, when stars began to form—about 380,000 years later—they started off composed of about 75 percent hydrogen, 25 percent helium, and trace amounts of deuterium, lithium, and beryllium.

In the nuclear furnaces of the stars themselves, more hydrogen fused into helium, and, in addition to the extra helium, all the rest of the elements that appear in the periodic table were synthesized (created). The capacity of stellar nuclear furnaces to produce an abundance of elements heavier than helium (all but two of the elements) depended critically on how much of the universe’s initial hydrogen was fused into helium and heavier elements during the first several minutes after the cosmic creation event. How much fusion of the universe’s primordial hydrogen actually occurred at this time depended, in turn, on the universe’s mass or mass density.

If the universe’s mass (or cosmic mass density) had been even the slightest bit less than a hundred times the fifty billion trillion stars occupying the observable universe, nuclear fusion during the first several minutes of its existence would have proceeded less efficiently. Thus, the cosmos would have been forever incapable of generating elements heavier than helium—elements such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium—all of which are essential for any conceivable kind of physical life.

On the other hand, if the universe’s mass had been even the slightest bit greater, nuclear fusion during the first several minutes after its beginning would have been too productive, and all the hydrogen in the universe eventually would have been fused (after just two generations of stars) into elements as heavy as iron or heavier. Again, all the most life-essential elements, including hydrogen itself, would have ceased to exist.

Basically, your body is made up of heavier elements, and if the universe was not as massive as it is (and as old as it is), then there would not be enough heavy elements to make you, or to make massive stars like our Sun which burn steady for long periods of time. We need the heavy elements and we need the steady source of heat.

Dr. Ross has another reason why God would use vast space and long periods of time, and if you want to read that, you can click here. I think that it’s important for us all to get used to the idea that we all need to understand science apologetics. God put these evidences into the universe for us to discover and use.