Kia ora: For so long we have used God as an excuse to keep our patience when we did not have the understanding and knowledge to change things that needed to change. We could not heal disease, we did not understand the causes of natural disasters. Religion helped to develop patience and give hope when life was tough. But the remedy of religion is past its use by date. As Humanists we must demand that solutions be found for the troubles that we see around us.
Monthly meeting: Monday 3 April 6.30 pm
Renowned Academics Speaking about God – Youtube compilation
With counterpoint arguments by Christian Academics
‘The more scientifically literate, intellectually honest and objectively sceptical a person is, the more likely they are to disbelieve in anything supernatural, including god.’ J Pararajasingham
Plus a Toilets for Schools project
Damodar Neupane has a dream to build toilet blocks in several impoverished Nepali schools without toilets. Instead, students must go into the jungle. One school is in a village in the Bardia National Park jungle, the others in the mountain area of Dailekh, Mid Western Nepal, three days walk from the road end. Transport of materials is difficult and expensive. Damodar will give us a short outline of this dream and how he is working on a plan to turn this dream into reality.
All interested people are welcome, Society members and members of the public – bring a friend.
Note the change of venue
Venue: Old Bailey corner Lambton Quay & Ballance St, in curtained area to left of Bar.
- Subscriptions for 2017 year are now due: We appreciate your support which helps lend weight to our campaigns. Visit our website humanist.org to renew your subscription or join us for the first time. Your subscription may also be sent to us by cheque to P.O. Box 3372 Wellington. Subscriptions remain the same as 2016. An unwaged subscription is $20.00 with a waged subscription of $35.00.
- Informal Visit by Professor Jerry Coyne to NZ- Wellington segment: Professor Jerry Coyne, is the author of ‘Why Evolution is True’ (2009) where he weaves together the many threads of modern work in genetics, palaeontology, geology, molecular biology, anatomy, and development to demonstrate the ‘indelible stamp’ of the processes first proposed by Darwin, and ‘Faith vs Fact’ (2015) where he asserts that ‘science and religion are incompatible, and you must choose between them.’ Jerry is presently in NZ and has offered to meet up with interested people on his way through from Queenstown to Auckland. Jerry will be in Wellington sometime THIS WEEK 27 March- to 31 March. There will be an informal meet up with Professor Coyne. We are waiting to hear his day of arrival in Wellington. The date and venue will be advised at short notice. There has already been a notice placed on our Facebook page so please keep an eye on our Facebook page and Website humanist.nz for final details of this exciting and unexpected opportunity. Jerry’s blog: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/ has a travelogue and superb photos. People in Auckland can ????
- Last month’s meeting: Marriage Discussion, Peter made a point that the human emotion of jealousy works against the practice of several partners in one relationship. In the West, this practice has largely ceased, except perhaps for some Mormon cults and the small polyamorous community. However, in some other cultures, the practice of more than one partner has continued. There is now a dilemma for NZ as globalisation brings many cultures together. A relationship frontier is being pushed and discussion can be found about more than two partner relationships. Radio NZ recently interviewed a US lawyer who does legal work for such situations. However, child marriage, coercive or forced marriage, marriage without full informed consent, a second or third partner brought into a marriage without the full informed consent of existing partners, are all aspects of more than two person relationships that we would not welcome in NZ. How can we ensure good relationships without ring fencing with law?
- A Billboard campaign? Tick No Religion. Religion classifications are to be expanded for the 2018 Census. This is the first update of religious affiliation since 1999. Andrew Hancock, Statistics NZ senior researcher, says this is not an attempt to define religions but to enable more responses to be coded. The last three Census surveys have shown that the number of Kiwis who affiliate with Christian denominations is declining and the number who affiliate with other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are increasing. However, in general Kiwis are opting for a life without religion. Figures from the 2013 Census show that fewer than 1.9 million people affiliate with a church, down from more than 2 million in 2006. Under the category ‘Other Religions, Beliefs and Philosophies’ further choices are to be added: Deism, Jedi, Atheism, Agnosticism, Cao Dai, Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Falun Gong, Humanism, Libertarianism, Maoism, Marxism, Rationalism, Socialism. A Bill Board campaign? What do you think? Email [email protected] .
- Personhood status for our Whanganui River and the two iconic rivers of India, the Ganges and the Yamuna: NZ was again first in the world by bestowing the legal status of a person under a unique Waitangi Treaty settlement on our Whanganui River. A few days later in India, the highest court in Uttarakhand, the Himalayan state where the Ganges originates, declared the Ganges and Yumana Rivers as ‘living entities having the status of a legal person and all corresponding rights.’ This is an exciting development bringing care for our environment within our human sphere of responsibility. It is no longer a god, or God, or a designation of ‘holy’ that is invoked to take responsibility. It is OURSELVES, not a supernatural entity that must take care.
..‘The End of the Universe as we know it’ Lawrence Krauss
This piece is adapted from “The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far,” by Lawrence M. Krauss, available March 21st. Copyright © 2017 by Lawrence Krauss. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
The notion that the world of our experience is an accident of our particular circumstances has become central to modern physics.
What if the world around us is just a shadow of reality? Imagine, for example, that you wake up one cold winter morning and look out your window to find that the view is completely obscured by beautiful ice crystals, forming strange patterns on the glass. You might see something like the image above: its beauty is striking at least in part because of the remarkable order at smaller scales lurking within the obvious randomness at larger scales. The ice crystals have grown gorgeous treelike patterns, starting in random directions and bumping into each other at odd angles. The dichotomy between small-scale order and large-scale randomness suggests that the universe would look very different to tiny physicists or mathematicians living on the spine of one of those ice crystals.
If you were such a tiny physicist, one direction in space, corresponding to the direction along the spine of the ice crystal, would be special. The natural world would appear to be oriented around that axis. It would be easier to move along the spine than to move perpendicular to it; the forces you would experience in those two different directions would behave differently. And yet, if you were lucky enough to leave your crystal, it would soon become clear that the special direction that governed the physics of that world is an illusion. You would find, or surmise, that other crystals could point in many other directions. Ultimately, if you could observe the window from the outside on a large enough scale, the underlying symmetry of nature under rotations in all directions would become manifest.
The notion that the world of our experience is a similar accident of our particular circumstances rather than a direct reflection of underlying realities has become central to modern physics. Physicists even give it a fancy name: “spontaneous symmetry breaking.” The physicist Abdus Salam, who won a Nobel Prize in 1979, described the phenomenon this way: Picture sitting down with a group of people at a round dining table set for eight. When you sit down, it may not be obvious which wineglass is yours and which is your neighbour’s—the one on the right or the one on the left. Still—regardless of the laws of etiquette, which dictate that you should drink from the glass on your right—once the first person picks up her glass, everyone else at the table has only one option if everyone is to get a drink. Even though the underlying symmetry of the table is manifest, the symmetry gets broken as soon as a direction is chosen for the wineglasses.
Yoichiro Nambu, another Nobel laureate—he was the first physicist to describe spontaneous symmetry breaking in particle physics—gives another example. Take a drinking straw, hold it up with one end on a table, and press down on the top end. Ultimately, it will bend. It could do so in any direction, and if you try the experiment several times, you may find it bending in different directions each time. Before you press down, the straw has complete cylindrical symmetry. Afterward, one direction among many possibilities has been chosen more or less at random. The direction of the bend isn’t determined by the underlying physics of the straw but by the accident of the particular way you press on it each time. The symmetry has been broken spontaneously.
Symmetries can break for a variety of reasons. Think of how the crystalline world of the window frame changes over time. In that world, the characteristics of materials change as the system gets colder: water freezes, gases liquefy. In physics, such a change is called a phase transition, and, as the window example demonstrates, whenever a system undergoes a phase transition, it is not unusual to find that symmetries associated with one phase will disappear in the next phase. When the window gets cold, beautiful ice crystals emerge. If it were to warm up, however, those ordered crystals would be replaced by a chaos of water droplets
Such transformations can occur at very small scales in the world around us, and, when they happen, they can affect the most basic properties of matter. One of the most astonishing phase transitions in science was first observed by the Dutch physicist Kamerlingh Onnes on April 8, 1911. Onnes, who had developed special techniques for cooling matter, cooled a mercury wire down to 4.2 degrees above absolute zero in a liquid-helium bath. When he measured the wire’s electrical resistance, he discovered, to his astonishment, that its resistance had somehow dropped to zero. Currents could flow in the wire indefinitely once they began—even after any battery that started the flow was removed. Onnes’s talent for public relations was as acute as his talent for experimental setups: he coined the term “superconductivity” to describe this remarkable and completely unexpected result. In 1913, he won the Nobel Prize.
Could it be that the same principles that apply at very small scales—at the scale of ice crystals on a windowpane, or of atoms in a superconductor—also apply at very large scales? In the nineteen-eighties, a physicist named Alan Guth started thinking about the effect that spontaneous symmetry breaking and phase transitions at the scale of the universe might have on its evolution.
To understand such changes on that large a scale, it helps to remember that they don’t always happen gradually; they can happen suddenly, too. Consider what happens when you plan a big party but forget to put the beer in the fridge. You then put the beer in the freezer and forget about it during the party. The next day, you discover the beer, open a bottle, and wham!—the beer in the bottle suddenly freezes and expands, shattering the glass. Why didn’t that happen in the freezer? Before the top was taken off, the beer was in a “metastable phase”: it was under high pressure, and beer at that pressure and temperature remains liquid. It’s only once you open the top and release the pressure that the beer suddenly freezes. During the transition, energy is released as the beer relaxes to its new state—enough energy to cause the expanding ice to break the bottle.
Guth wondered what would have happened if such a metastable phase transition occurred in the early universe. What if the universe cooled down past the point where some new, symmetry-breaking arrangement of fields and energy became preferred? Before such a transition occurred, Guth thought, energy might be stored throughout space which would later—once the transition was complete—be released as heat and radiation. He calculated that, until that happened, the stored energy would be gravitationally repulsive, causing the universe to expand in a surprisingly short time and, potentially, by a huge factor—perhaps twenty-five orders of magnitude or more. He dubbed this period of rapid expansion “inflation.” Such inflation would have occurred during the universe’s very earliest moments; after the transition was complete, the energy stored in space would have been released, producing the initial conditions of the big bang.
The inflation model turns out to predict many properties of our universe today. Still, for a long time, it was merely an interesting proposal. The discovery of the Higgs particle, in 2012, changed that. The Higgs particle is associated with an invisible background field—the Higgs field—that has been postulated to exist throughout all of space. The idea is that, as elementary particles propagate through space against this background field, their properties are affected: particles that interact more strongly with the Higgs field experience more resistance and behave as if they have larger masses; those that interact less strongly experience less resistance and so have less mass; and those that don’t interact with it at all, such as photons, experience no resistance and so have no mass. In this way, the masses of all elementary particles depend on the Higgs field. In a sense, those masses are an accident of our existence; they depend on the nature of the Higgs field, just as the properties in the ice-world, as measured by physicists on those ice crystals, depend on the orientation of their particular crystal. If the Higgs field hadn’t “frozen” early on in the universe in its current configuration, the properties of our universe would be quite different, and quite likely we wouldn’t exist.
The Higgs field is different from the field that Guth proposed in his theory of inflation. (That field is sometimes called the “inflaton.”) But the existence of the Higgs field makes it easier to believe the idea that, as the universe cooled, energy stored in the inflaton was released, producing spontaneous symmetry breaking that, in turn, determined the characteristics of the universe as we know it today.
Moreover, in 1998, it was discovered that our universe is now undergoing a new version of inflation. Space is once again expanding exponentially fast—albeit at a far gentler pace than it would have during Guth’s early inflationary phase of the universe—with galaxies spreading apart at an ever-increasing rate. Naturally, questions arise. What could be causing this current accelerated expansion? Could the energy powering it be stored in yet another invisible background field? If this is the case, then will its energy be released as the universe continues to cool down? If that occurs, will our symmetries break in a new way? Will properties of matter change in ways that preclude the continued existence of stars, planets, and life? Or will the universe simply continue to expand faster and faster, with all the galaxies we observe today one day disappearing from view? Either way, the future doesn’t look bright.
Right now, there are many possible answers to these questions. It’s possible that the current gentle inflationary expansion could be the result of a fundamental property of empty space not associated with some new background field. Einstein’s general theory of relativity can accommodate something he called a “cosmological constant”; perhaps that could represent some nonzero ground-state energy of the universe that will exist indefinitely into the future. If the cosmological-constant explanation is correct, then we don’t have to worry about some as yet undiscovered field that may one day relax into a new state, releasing the energy currently stored in space itself.
On the other hand, suppose that such an energy release were to take place. The stability of matter as we know it could come to an end. Galaxies, stars, planets, people, politicians, and everything we now see could disappear. The transition could begin with some small seed in one location of our universe, in the same way that, on our frozen windowpane, small dust grains helped seed the formation of ice crystals. It would then propagate throughout space at the speed of light. We wouldn’t know what hit us.
Another, remote possibility is that the Higgs field, rather than some other, undiscovered field, is responsible for inflation, either in the early universe or now. If the Higgs field isn’t in its final ground state, then there could be another transition that will change the masses of particles. In fact, calculations suggest that the existing Higgs background field is teetering near the edge of instability: it could change from its current value to a vastly different value associated with a lower-energy state. It’s possible to imagine scenarios where such a transition could fail to produce a noticeable change, but that is by no means guaranteed; if meaningful changes do occur, matter as we know it would most likely disappear, like ice crystals on a warm, sunny morning. For those who enjoy horror stories, another, even more gruesome possibility is that the Higgs field might grow in magnitude indefinitely. As a result of such growth, the energy stored by the evolving Higgs field would become negative. This could cause the entire universe to collapse in a cataclysmic reversal of the big bang—a big crunch.
Happily, the data offer us some reasons for calm. The same calculations that suggest the possibility of a future phase transition in the Higgs field also suggest that our current metastable configuration could persist, not just for billions of years but for billions of billions of billions of years. And there are other sources of consolation. Nature is constantly surprising us. Discoveries at the Large Hadron Collider or elsewhere could change the picture entirely, stabilizing what appears to be an unstable Higgs field.
All the same, I find myself strangely fascinated by these doomsday scenarios. They reflect the fact that the universe doesn’t give a damn what we would like or whether we survive. Its dynamics continue independently of whether or not we exist. The remarkable accident that is responsible for our existence—the emergence of a background Higgs field that allows for the current stability of matter, atoms, and life itself—is just a bit of good luck.
The truth is that we’re not unlike those imaginary scientists living on a windowpane, on the spine of an ice crystal. Those scientists would discover that one direction in their universe was particularly special; perhaps that discovery would be celebrated by their theologians as an example of God’s love. Digging deeper, they might discover that this special circumstance is just an accident and that other ice crystals can exist in which other directions are favored. And even as they might celebrate those discoveries, as we are wont to do, they might also be unaware that the sun is about to rise. Soon their ice crystal will melt, and all traces of their world will vanish. Would this make the thrill of their brief existence less enthralling? Even as I lie awake at night, considering these possibilities, I am relieved by my conviction that the answer is no.
Big Bang research, delving into the early moments of our universe is being carried out at Otago University by Dr Florian Beyer. He is involved with calculations in the interval of time that is infinitesimal-between the start of time at 0 secs and 10 to the power of minus 36 sec. A talk with Lawrence and Dr Beyer would be fantastic for our 2018 General Assembly! Gaylene Middleton