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May. 28, 2022 | Saturday
Editorials and Opinions
Dr. Brown: Creative destruction, Nobel Prizes and an expanding universe
Dr. William Brown.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the Infohealth series held on the second Wednesday of each month at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.  

Dr. William Brown

Special to The Lake Report

Just in case any of us might be in danger of thinking small, the attached photo portrays a supernova, the explosion in this case of a star more than a billion years ago, which was thousands of times the mass of our sun and surrounded by thousands, possibly millions of stars. With such a gigantic system there were probably many planets, more than a few of which might support life now or in the future. And for those where intelligent life, equivalent to our own, exists, it’s highly unlikely that any would have any awareness of who we are, what we feel or think. That’s quite a perspective.

There are thousands of these supernovas at any one time, each the crucible for all the elements essential for life such as oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and that most essential element of all the elements, carbon. Carbon is the one element, which more than any other, is most capable of forming stable, but not too stable, relationships (bonds) with those and other elements essential to carbon-based life and without which RNA and DNA, proteins and their constituent amino acids and other organic compounds would not have been possible. In that sense, carbon is the matriarchal bond-making element. However, a strong case could be made for hydrogen and oxygen too, given that they share electrons with one another to make water, life’s universal solvent for a myriad of molecules and ions.

Stunning too is the fact that recurring cycles of creative destruction and recreation, exemplified by the supernova destruction of this once giant star, were essential for life. For in their death, many stars, through a combination of intense temperatures, pressures and nuclear fusion, create the elements for carbon-based life and scatter them throughout the neighboring universe, to be incorporated in the birth of new stars, most well beyond our reach. On the one planet we know about, earth, warmed by a middling-sized star, life took hold and evolved – the product of chance and natural selection – into increasingly complex lifeforms of which our species was but one of millions, and perhaps not the most important.

Lest we think life emerged on our planet alone – think again. Current estimates based on data from the Kepler and Hubble telescopes, suggest that in our galaxy – the Milky Way – planets similar to our own may number in the many millions. Given that there are well over a trillion galaxies out there, the chances of carbon-based life taking root are very high in many places, and times in the universe. Such a realization suggests the very real possibility that intelligent life, the equal or exceeding our own, might exist or possibly could emerge elsewhere, perhaps in many places in the expanding universe, even if well beyond our reach.

The wonder is that our species over so many millennia and generations had the where-with-all - the imagination, creativity and audacity - to begin to grasp the magnificence of the macro world of the cosmos, the quantum world of the tiny and ephemeral, the biology of life and evolution and the natural laws, which govern all. That’s a stunning achievement for one species.

The Nobel prize for physics in 2019 year was awarded to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for studies that revealed the first evidence and tools for finding planets outside our star system and James Peebles for his work which helped us understand the role of dark matter in the formation of the earliest stars in the universe. The 2019 and 2017 physics prizes, the latter of which highlighted gravitational waves created by massive mergers by black holes and neutron stars billions of years ago, play into this year’s physics series, which focuses on the first three decades in the twentieth century physics when an expanding universe and the whole idea of a big bang began.