It’s rare that we find time to step back from our lives and ask life’s biggest questions: Where did we come from? How did we get here? Why is the universe made this way? Luckily for us, some of the world’s smartest people spend their lives asking these questions, and a rare few even write books answering them in language we can all understand.
In his final book, Professor Stephen Hawking displays his trademark ability to tackle the universe’s biggest questions but finds space and time to hypothesize on the fate of humanity. Weaving together social is sues with the solar system, Hawking lays out both the fundamental laws of the universe and his vision for the future of humankind.
Science and religion both offer answers to these fundamental questions, and both come to radically different conclusions. One argues there is inherent meaning in human life, the other that our existence is little more than accidental. It’s no wonder they’re viewed as two conflicting creeds.
But these questions come from a natural human tendency to understand and explain our universe – to search for answers and meaning. At first, these explanations came from religion. Gods were seen as causes of lightning, storms and eclipses. But now we have a more rational, consistent and verifiable explanation: our universe is a giant machine, governed by a set of unbreakable natural laws.
Just think about a simple game of tennis. Here, the ball always ends up exactly where these natural laws – like gravity and motion – predict. No anomalies. No exceptions. There’s variables, of course, like the player’s muscle power or the wind speed, but these act as mere data points, processed by these natural laws in an unchanging way to calculate the outcome.
And these laws aren’t just unchanging – they’re also universal.
This means that what applies to our tennis ball also applies to the largest celestial beings. The revolutions of our planet obey these laws, as does an icy meteor hurtling through interstellar space. What’s more, natural laws can’t be broken: even God would be subject to them, which disagrees with theology’s insistence of divine omnipotence.
Yet there might be a way to reconcile modern science with the idea of God.
This involves defining God as these fundamental laws of nature rather than a conscious being who created them. This is how Einstein referred to God – as a reference term for the observable, unbreakable rules of the cosmos.
This explanation is going to be unsatisfactory to many people. That’s because many of us are used to thinking about God as a human-like, sentient being – one with which we can have a personal relationship. But when you look at the universe in all its terrifying magnitude and compare it to how small and accidental human life is, the chance of a divine creator is minuscule.
But if our traditional explanation for the creation of the universe is flawed, how did the universe begin?
Aliens have captured our imagination for decades. We’ve seen them in movies, read about them in science fiction novels and killed them in computer games. Some people even claim to have met them. But what are the chances intelligent life actually exists beyond Earth?
Well, if we take the only example we have – Earth – it seems probable that extraterrestrial lifeforms have developed.
That’s because we have fossil evidence of basic life on our planet from 3.5 billion years ago – just 500 million years after the earth became habitable. And by the time Earth had formed, the universe was celebrating its seven billionth birthday. Many alien civilizations could have risen, mastered space travel and colonized their galaxy before we discovered fire!
So, the time frame seems to check out – but what about habitable planets? On the face of it, this doesn’t seem problematic either. It’s estimated that 20 percent of all stars have Earth-like planets orbiting them in the Goldilocks Zone – a region capable of sustaining life because it’s not too distant from its star to be an icy wasteland, but not close enough to fry its inhabitants.
Let’s put that into perspective. There are roughly 200 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. This potentially gives us forty billion Earth-like planets just in our cosmic neighborhood.
But if alien life seems so plausible, why haven’t we been visited? One theory argues that alien life might be common, but intelligent life is exceptionally rare.
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