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Salvo 46

Salvo 46

Feature — Topic: IDSalvo #46

The Miracle Element

Fine Tuning & the Carbonization of Worlds by Hugh Ross

A lot of people worry about the carbon footprints of nations, industries, technologies, and even individual human beings and animals. They worry that our activities are pumping too much carbon in the form of carbon dioxide and methane—both powerful greenhouse gases—into the atmosphere, and too much carbon in the form of tiny particles of soot onto glaciers and snowfields. They worry that these activities are warming our planet and raising our sea levels.

However valid these concerns may be, the fact that carbon exists at all is nothing short of a miracle. And for Earth to have been blessed with neither too much nor too little carbon, either of which would preclude the existence of advanced life, is another miracle. And the fact that Earth has its stores of carbon distributed into the just-right locations for the thriving of human civilization ranks as yet another miracle of divine design.

Let's explore these miracles in some detail.

Cosmic Mass Fine-Tuned for Carbon

One of the more frequent challenges I get from non-theists is the following: "If there is a God who wanted to create a home for human beings, why would he create hundreds of billions of useless galaxies?" The quick answer is that, given the laws of physics God chose for the universe, it is not possible to make a planet on which humans can live and thrive without the hundreds of billions of galaxies. In fact, it is not possible for any kind of physical life to exist without hundreds of billions of galaxies.

How does this work? Well, the universe's population of galaxies makes up much of the cosmic mass density. For physical life to be possible, this cosmic mass density must be fine-tuned—indeed, must have been fine-tuned from the beginning.

How so? Well, the universe began with only one element: hydrogen. This element has an atomic number of 1, meaning each hydrogen atom has one proton in its nucleus. The cosmic mass density of that primordial hydrogen determined how much of it would get fused into helium (atomic number 2) during the first few minutes of cosmic history.

As the universe expanded from the cosmic creation event, it cooled from a nearly infinitely high temperature down to its present mean temperature of about 2.725° Celsius above absolute zero (-273.15° Celsius). There was a brief episode when the universe passed through the temperature range at which hydrogen fusion occurs (150-15 million degrees Celsius).

Since massive bodies attract one another under the influence of the gravitational force, the greater the cosmic mass density, the slower the expansion rate of the universe. And the slower the expansion rate of the universe, the longer the episode during which the universe could pass through the hydrogen fusion temperature range and, therefore, the more of the universe's primordial hydrogen could be fused into helium.

Hence, everything hinged on what the cosmic mass density of that primordial hydrogen was. If it had been the slightest bit smaller, so little helium would have been fused from hydrogen during the first several minutes of cosmic history that the nuclear furnaces of future stars would not have been able to make any elements heavier than helium. In that event, the periodic table of elements would never have expanded beyond hydrogen and helium (see Figure 1).

But if the cosmic mass density had been the slightest bit larger, so much helium would have been fused from hydrogen during the first several minutes of cosmic history that the nuclear furnaces of future stars would have quickly converted all the baryonic matter (matter composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons) into elements heavier than iron. In that event, the periodic table of elements would contain no elements lighter than cobalt (atomic number 27; see Figure 1).

Thus, the periodic tables for both a slightly less massive universe and for a slightly more massive universe would be missing the most life-critical elements: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur, chlorine, potassium, calcium, vanadium, chromium, and manganese. Without carbon, no conceivable kind of physical life would be possible. Unless the universe possessed precisely the mass that it does, carbon would be missing—and so would life. It is a miracle of cosmic design that the universe contains any carbon at all.

Nuclear Resonance Levels Fine-Tuned for Carbon

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

Earth's Perfect Carbon Balance

Without carbon, life is impossible. However, fine-tuning the universe for the existence of carbon is not sufficient; unless the quantity of carbon in and on a planet is also fine-tuned, physical life—and certainly advanced physical life—will not be possible. A planet with too little carbon will not have a sufficient supply for life chemistry to function. A planet with too much carbon will possess a life-suffocating atmosphere (lung failure occurs at air pressures exceeding three times Earth's) filled with powerful greenhouse gases.

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. It is ubiquitous; there are no carbon-free bodies in the universe. There are, however, a great many carbon-rich bodies. In fact, carbon-rich bodies are the norm.

As I describe in my book Improbable Planet, extrasolar planets that are the most similar to Earth, and whose carbon amounts astronomers have been able to measure, or at least estimate, have been found to possess about 1,200 times as much carbon-based atmospheric gas as Earth does.3 This much carbon-based atmospheric gas would rule out photosynthetic life, all animals, and likely all physical life on those planets.

How did Earth become so extremely—and advantageously—carbon-poor? The answer is that it likely was born in a very different location in the Milky Way Galaxy from where it presently resides. Evidence shows that Earth's birth occurred in a dense cluster of more than 10,000 stars (see Figure 2 for an example) located much closer to the center of the Milky Way than Earth is today. There, the primordial Earth was exposed to several nearby supernovae and to the winds of several nearby Wolf-Rayet stars (evolved massive stars that have exhausted their source of hydrogen for fusion burning and are fusing helium and heavier elements in their nuclear furnaces). Consequently, the primordial Earth was bathed in huge quantities of radiation from the radiometric decay of aluminum-26.4

The radiation from the decay of aluminum-26 (half-life = 717,000 years; a half-life is the time it takes for a given quantity of a radioactive substance to be reduced by half) blasted away most of the volatiles (gases and liquids) that the primordial Earth possessed. The Moon-forming event—in which a planet at least twice the size of Mars collided with the primordial Earth (see Figure 3)—that occurred a few tens of millions of years later removed all or virtually all of the volatiles that remained.5 Later, comets restored a tiny fraction of the volatiles that Earth had lost.6

The end result of this unique early history is that Earth ended up with exactly the right amount of carbon to optimally sustain advanced life. But even that is not the end of the story. The exactly right amount of carbon that Earth came to possess is optimally distributed throughout our planet's environment to give the greatest possible benefit to human life and human civilization.

All told, the story of carbon in the universe and on Earth reveals multiple miracles of divine design for the benefit of physical life, and especially for human beings and human civilization. In studying this story, we become witnesses to these miracles, even as we reap their benefits. 

More on ID from the Salvo online archives.

Why the Design in Living Things Goes Far Beyond Machinery by Jonathan Wells

The Law of Conservation of Information: Part I by Denyse O'Leary

A Review of Heretic: One Scientist's Journey from Darwin to Design, by Matti Leisola & Jonathan Witt by Terrell Clemmons


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