Though he was a committed atheist, astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle acknowledged the appearance of design in the universe. Guest writer Don Olson demonstrates how recent research fine-tunes scientists’ understanding of Hoyle’s own discoveries—and, in doing so, reaffirms evidence for a Creator.
Since my childhood, I have wondered about the world around me—specifically, its structure and origin. Perhaps that curiosity is what drew me to analytical chemistry and why, at the age of 78, I am still at work developing new analytical technology.
Scientific discoveries over the past several decades have answered a wealth of questions about the formation and composition of the universe. Research continues to refine the details and reveal new findings, but one conclusion remains clear: the universe was fine-tuned from the beginning to support life. The production of carbon and oxygen, two life-essential elements, provides one of the best examples.
Starting with the Big Bang
Scientists first discovered the fine-turned nature of carbon and oxygen production in the 1940s. However, recent research by a group of German and American physicists further refined our understanding of the conditions necessary for the formation of these two elements. Researchers now know that the elementary particles that make up stable matter came into existence immediately after the beginning of the big bang event. These particles included quarks and electrons. Within the next few fractions of a second, quarks combined to form protons (hydrogen nuclei) and neutrons. These protons and neutrons began to fuse to form helium nuclei, and within four minutes, the universe was 75 percent hydrogen nuclei and 25 percent helium nuclei, with a trace of lithium nuclei from further fusions. Then, when the infant universe had cooled sufficiently (380,000 years after the big bang), the hydrogen, helium, and lithium nuclei combined with electrons to form atoms. Hydrogen, the lightest atom in the universe, has a nucleus made up of three quarks surrounded by a single electron.
As gravity drew the hydrogen atoms together, the resulting clouds became denser and hotter, eventually causing hydrogen atoms to fuse and produce helium atoms. According to Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2 (where m is the mass difference between hydrogen and helium atoms and c is the speed of light), the fusion of hydrogen atoms to form a lighter helium gives off an enormous amount of energy. This process ignited the first stars and initiated the production of helium. For example, each second our Sun converts about 700,000,000 tons of hydrogen into about 695,000,000 tons of helium and 5,000,000 tons of energy. Currently, the approximately 5-billion-year-old Sun is about 28 percent helium.
Stellar nucleosynthesis does not stop at helium. The sequence continues with nuclei combinations that form the heavier elements of the periodic table. For example, astronomers have identified more than 70 chemical elements in our Sun, including 0.97 percent oxygen, 0.40 percent carbon, 0.14 percent iron, 0.096 percent nitrogen, and 0.04 percent sulfur. Twenty-six of these elements are necessary for life; of these, carbon and oxygen are the most critical and must be present in the correct abundance for life to flourish on Earth.
In 1946, when Sir Fred Hoyle established the concept of stellar nucleosynthesis, researchers began to understand this stage of the big bang creation event. Hoyle studied the nuclear reaction that produces carbon and found that the reaction involves the combination of three He2+ nuclei (helium composed of two protons and two neutrons). He2+ is also known as the alpha particle. Hoyle predicted that in order for the reaction to work the carbon produced would be in an excited state with a very specific energy. Experimentation bore out this prediction. This excited state of carbon is now known as the Hoyle state, which is also important for the production of oxygen. The excited carbon particle combines with another alpha particle to produce oxygen.
The carbon energy level required to produce the abundant amounts of carbon life requires is statistically improbable, yet it occurs. Hoyle, an atheist, was so astounded by this that he later wrote: