WASHINGTON--The Department of Transportation deals with the movement of things, which is important. The Department of Agriculture deals with food, which is vital. However, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deals with the origin, nature and meaning, if any, of the universe. Attention should be paid.
Space lost its hold on America's imagination after the last lunar expedition in 1972. But the really exciting research had just begun, with the 1965 discovery that the universe is permeated with background radiation which confirmed that a Big Bang had indeed set what are now distant galaxies flying apart.
A famous aphorism holds that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. It is remarkably so because of advances in particle physics and mathematics. And because of magnificent telescopes, like the Hubble, which is now 11 years old and due to cease functioning in 2010. Operating above the filter of Earth's atmosphere, it ``sees'' the past by capturing for analysis light emitted from events perhaps--we cannot be sure how fast the universe is expanding--12 billion years ago.
Astronomy is history, and NASA's Next Generation Space Telescope, coming late in this decade, will see even nearer the Big Bang of 13 billion to 15 billion years ago. That was when, in a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, the Big Bang inflated from a microscopic speck to all that now can be seen by NASA's wondrous instruments.
Mankind is being put in its place, but where is that? Mankind felt demoted by Copernicus' news that this cooled cinder, Earth, is not the center of the universe. Now Martin Rees, Britain's Astronomer Royal, in his new book ``Our Cosmic Habitat,'' adds insult to injury: ``particle chauvinism'' must go. All the atoms that make us are, it is truly said, stardust. But Rees puts it more prosaically: they are nuclear waste from the fuel that makes stars shine.
So, is life a cosmic fluke or a cosmic imperative? Because (BEG ITAL)everything is a reverberation from the Big Bang, what is the difference between fluke and imperative?
Rees says our universe is ``biophilic''--friendly to life--in that molecules of water and atoms of carbon, which are necessary for life, would not have resulted from a Big Bang with even a slightly different recipe. That recipe was cooked in the universe's first one-hundredth of a second, when its temperature was a hundred thousand million degrees centigrade. A biophilic universe is like Goldilocks' porridge, not too hot and not too cold--just right.
Here cosmology is pressed into the service of natural theology, which rests on probability--actually, on the stupendous improbability of the emergence from chaos of complexity and then consciousness. Natural theology says: A watch implies a watchmaker, and what has happened in the universe--the distillation of the post-Big Bang cosmic soup into particles, then atoms, then, about a billion years ago, the first multicellular organisms that led, on Earth, to an oxygen-rich atmosphere and eventually to us--implies a Creator with a design so precise.
Perhaps. But not necessarily, unless you stipulate that no consequential accident is an accident. ``Biological evolution,'' says Rees, ``is sensitive to accidents--climatic changes, asteroid impacts, epidemics and so forth--so that, if Earth's history were to be rerun, its biosphere would end up quite different.'' There is a lot of stuff in the universe--the estimated number of stars is 10 followed by 22 zeros. But as to whether there are other planets with life like Earth's, Rees says the chance of two similar ecologies is less than the chance of two randomly typing monkeys producing the same Shakespearean play.
``Eternity,'' says Woody Allen, ``is very long, especially toward the end.'' The end of our universe--long after our sun has died, 5 billion years from now--is certain to be disagreeable.
In his book on the universe's infancy (``The First Three Minutes''), Steven Weinberg concludes that ``there is not much of comfort'' in cosmology. It indicates that Earth, ``a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe,'' is headed for ``extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat,'' either an unending expansion or a fiery collapse backward--a Big Crunch.
Yet research like NASA's is its own consolation. ``The effort to understand the universe is,'' says Weinberg, ``one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.'' Not a negligible mission for NASA.