The Wonders of Things Unseen

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In 1977, George Lucas struck box-office gold with the epic adventure Star Wars. Mystic luminaries, anthropomorphic androids, light sabers, and computerized special effects captured the imaginations of audiences young and old alike. But perhaps the most lasting impression on viewers was Obi-wan Kenobi’s Delphic disclosure: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power… It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

An invisible source of staggering energy permeating the cosmos, which common folk could summon for noble or ignoble ends, was the perfect hook for audiences brought up in the dawning age of high technology and Western mysticism. At the height of the film’s popularity, I was playing on a community soccer team named “The Force”; we co-opted the film tagline, “May the Force be with you,” for our game whoop. The tagline may have contained more truth than Lucas and Co. realized.

A Startling Discovery
Over 20 years after the initial Star Wars episode, the astrophysics community stumbled on an extraordinary revelation.

Although the outward expansion of the universe had been a well-established fact since 1929 when Edwin Hubble detected redshifts in light emitted from distant stars, measurements from supernovae in the late 1990’s revealed that galaxies and stars are receding from each other at an ever-increasing rate. In other words, the universe is not only expanding but accelerating in its expansion. Physicists, scrambling to identify the source of this phenomenon, dubbed it “dark energy” because of its mysterious, hidden nature.

 

Subsequent measurements revealed that this invisible force, suffusing the cosmos, accounts for an amazing 70 percent of all the stuff in the universe. If you add to this all of the dark matter in the universe—matter that is not visible—the dark “stuff” makes up 95 percent of the known cosmos.

The unexpected appearance of dark energy, and its implications for understanding the universe, has led prominent physicists to call it the biggest question in all of physics. As University of Chicago physicist Michael Turner put it, “Dark energy holds the key to understanding our destiny… [and] could well be the number one problem in all of physics and astronomy.” It is a mystery they are determined to unravel.

As a starting point, I suggest that they ponder an insight from antiquity: “The universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Somehow, I doubt they’ll take me up on this.)

A Not-So-Empty Space
Ask almost anyone what resides in the dark vacuum of space, and they will most likely reply, “Nothing, of course!” Likewise, in the scientific community it was long believed that—with the exception of sparse collections of galaxies, stars, planets, and interstellar dust and gas—the vast expanse of space was empty—a vacuous wasteland devoid of matter and energy.

However, with the advent of quantum theory and Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity (general relativity), scientists began to imagine space not as a vast region of emptiness but as something like a “fabric,” i.e., a sort of invisible cosmic veil stretching out over 13 billion light-years in every dimension. (An ancient writer put it this way: “He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent.”)

These two revolutionary theories became the bedrock of physics and resulted in a new paradigm of space-time as a gossamer-like structure, interwoven in the subatomic scale with wildly undulating threads of quantum energy causing tiny, exotic particles to continuously pop in and out of existence.

At large scales, the movements of galaxies and stars create gravitational waves rippling throughout the cosmos like those of the ocean under the influence of lunar movement. In symbiotic interdependence, matter gives form to space-time which, in turn, gives motion to matter.

A Huge “Blunder”
In what turned out to be one of science’s great ironies, Einstein modified his original theory of general relativity by including a small repulsive force to counteract the attractive force of gravity. Einstein felt this modification necessary after realizing that the inward pull of gravity would lead to the eventual collapse of the universe, whereas he and everyone else “knew,” at that time, that the universe was eternal and unchanging.

But with the discoveries of stellar redshifts and universe expansion, Einstein had to retract his modification, calling it his “biggest blunder” since the universe was not contracting but expanding. His “blunder” would resurface some 70 years later to become a leading theory for dark energy—the strange force behind cosmic acceleration.

Still unanswered is what this mysterious energy is and where it comes from. A top candidate for many theorists is the roiling energy of the quantum field thought to saturate all of space. However, this compounds the dilemma with more fundamental questions: What is its origin? And what “engine” sustains it? Again, we have an answer from an early voice: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory … sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

Another problem, according to quantum field theory, is that the amount of energy in one cubic centimeter of “empty” space is more than that contained in all of the matter of the universe! (I guess Darth Vader wasn’t kidding when he chided, “Don’t underestimate the Force!”) This brings us to the next question: why is the energy we observe so much less than what is available? (Hint: courtesy of another ancient: “His glory covered the heavens … rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden.”)

Finally, there is the “coincidence” that energy and matter are in just the right amounts for the universe to sit astride the dividing line between eternal expansion and eventual collapse. This has caused some researchers to conclude that we live in a favored place and epoch in which the “just right” conditions for the universe exist and in which man can observe and discern many of the mysteries of creation. But as physicist Brian Greene observes, “[Any answer that] hinges its success on extremely precise tunings of features for which we lack fundamental explanation … makes most physicists recoil.”

“Why is that?” you ask. Because it implies that there is Someone on the “outside” fiddling with the controls. And that is strictly against the rules of scientific materialism. This could be the reason another writer warned of a latter time when “people will be … always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.” Oh, well.

Over the last 300 years, scientists have made tremendous strides in describing the observable phenomena of nature. But with each discovery have come new questions multiplying the mysteries we behold. What is becoming increasingly clear is that advancing from description to explanation is beyond the realm of scientific inquiry alone. In fact, the answer to one of the oldest rebukes on record—“Do you know the laws of the heavens?”—is as negative today as it was then.

From the infinitesimal to the infinite, the design and structure of nature points inexorably to the wonders of things unseen. While the scientific enterprise continues to unveil the hidden infrastructure of nature, evidence mounts for a supra-natural Source that not only supercharges and animates the cosmos but holds the ultimate answers about the universe and even reality itself.

Ever since our arrival on the set, there has been a nagging story circulating about things unseen and of Someone behind the curtain tweaking the dials. And despite our efforts to set this uncomfortable notion aside, each twist of the plot keeps leading back to the inevitable conclusion that there is something to it.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Regis Nicoll

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Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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