The Greatest Story Ever Told

I found this tweet about a very beautiful space photo today. The links are well worth clicking on.

Ever since I was very little, I've been fascinated by space. It's big, it's beautiful, we still don't know that much about it, it's very very old, and we're just one tiny part of a massive universe. I find it very difficult to explain why I like it so much, so a quote from Paul Erdos might help to explain:
"Why are numbers beautiful? It's like asking why is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony beautiful. If you don't see why, someone can't tell you. I know numbers are beautiful. If they aren't beautiful, nothing is."
But yeah, that's why I like space. It's really helped me as well - because I was so fascinated by space as a child, I got into cosmology and then jumped into theoretical physics, which is now the thing I want to do for the rest of my life. Well, that or mathematical physics. (I know I don't speak much about either - this is because I'm not really that knowledgeable.)

It made me think about religion as well. Some people look at the stars in the sky, or the fossilised remains of an organism, and think about the amazing God who designed it. I look at the stars in the sky, or the fossilised remains of an organism, and think how much more amazing it is that all this happened due to physical, chemical and biological processes.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told" is commonly used to describe the life of Jesus. Fair enough - I'll admit that a story about the son of a god and a virgin who showed the world the true path and died to save humanity is pretty good. But that's all it is - a story. And it pales in comparison to the truth and greatness of the story of the universe.

About 13.75 billion years ago, give or take another 0.17 billion years, quantum fluctuations and the effects of inflation caused the universe to start rapidly expanding from a very hot and dense state. The one fundamental force differentiated into the four fundamental forces - gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force. Supersymmetry was broken, the fundamental particles acquired their mass, hadrons, anti-hadrons, leptons, anti-leptons and photons formed out of the quark-gluon plasma, and protons and neutrons began to form nuclei. As the universe cooled and expanded still further, becoming less dense, atoms formed and the universe became transparent as photons decoupled. Quasars, stars and galaxies formed; so did planets. On some planets which fulfilled certain conditions - like Earth, which could trap an atmosphere perhaps composed of substances like methane, ammonia, water, hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide or dioxide and phosphate, which had a moon and a tilt that allowed for tides and seasons, and which was neither too hot nor too cold - amino acids could form. Phospholipids could form lipid bilayers, which are essential to cell membranes. Self-replicating molecules arose (we're really not quite sure how yet) and underwent natural selection. The first protocells originated; we have many hypotheses, but we're still not sure. Multicellularity eventually evolved, and uni- and multicellular organisms spread around the globe. A couple of billion years of earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, continental drift, mass extinction events and asteroids falling to earth changed the courses of evolution and now we know of 1.9 million different species. And those are just the ones we've categorised and that are around today.

Among those more than 1.9 million species on a tiny blue dot in the middle of nowhere, there are about 7 billion funny bipedal animals who inhabit just about every place there is, though they're not really built for it. They've developed something called language and civilisation and they think they've conquered Earth. They're changing the atmosphere and destroying most other species on their perhaps not particularly smart. Then again, they've managed to figure out a lot about the universe, or they think they have at any rate.

This isn't even the most amazing part. The amazing part is that they might not just be limited to that tiny blue dot. Life might be spread all around a universe at least 93 billion light years in diameter, whether there are conquering aliens out there or simply bacteria.

Think about it. 13.75 billion years (give or take another 0.17), 93 billion light years in diameter, stars, galaxies and dust clouds up the wazoo, tiny dots called planets everywhere, and on at least one of them there's this weird newfangled thing called life - and then at least one species of absolutely tiny little critters who last for a blip in time think that they can figure the mysteries of the universe out. Amazing, isn't it?

To me, that's the greatest story ever told.