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The Fractal SelfScience, Philosophy, and the Evolution of Human Cooperation$

John L. Culliney and David Jones

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780824866617

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824866617.001.0001

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Primal Emergence

Primal Emergence

(p.17) 1 Primal Emergence
The Fractal Self

John L. Culliney

David Jones

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

Since the Big Bang, the universe’s inflation and its aftermath might be called the “creation story” according to science, in which tremendously variegated order and deterministic pattern propagated from a cosmic seed of perfect uniformity and smoothness. The formative properties of matter and energy were forged through initial quantum turbulence and an emergent principle of attraction that seems to pervade all of nature. As it emerged out of simplicity, the universe adopted a modus operandi that we call the cooperative constant, initially manifested in physical forces, especially gravity, and progressively complemented by chemistry. From an evolutionary point of view, an emergent catalytic potential, an attraction to cooperate, or participate in heterogeneity—which becomes a sine qua non for the existence of life—is widely characteristic of matter in our universe. This tendency is now found at the heart of the most progressive systems of which we are aware. Chapter One weaves its cosmological story through leading theories and revelations in astrophysics including primordial quantum turbulence, the multiverse, recombination, and the origin of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), also the enigmas of dark matter and dark energy, and nuclear synthesis of the elements of life within stars.

Keywords:   cosmology, multiverse, Big Bang, quantum turbulence, inflation, recombination, CMB, dark matter, dark energy, stellar carbon

The universe looks like a huge growing fractal. It consists of many inflating balls that produce new balls, which in turn produce more new balls, ad infinitum. Therefore the evolution of the universe has no end and may have no beginning.

—Andrei Linde, Stanford University

The instant it happened, cosmologists have surmised, an unfathomable, dimensionless seed burst with energy that might sustain its growth forever. This was the hypothetical Big Bang that gave rise to our universe. Explosion is an imprecise description for what presumably happened; inflation and expansion are somewhat better terms, for everything was internal to the process. Cosmologists now usually reserve “inflation” for an incredibly rapid size increase of our universe in the first moments of its appearance. The initial event of the Bang is still—and probably always will be—a theoretical construct, utterly impossible to verify by any observation or measurement. However, physicists have fairly confidently backtracked—guided by microcosmic experiments that accelerate subatomic matter and achieve enormous kinetic energies—to envision the macrocosmic environment inhabited by such matter just trillionths of a second after the Big Bang. A carefully calculated model of this earliest-simulated environment indicates that at this time the temperature was about 1,000,000,000,000,000 degrees (one quadrillion, or 1015 in scientific notation). This calculation and the description of early cosmic development that follows are based on classic to recent interpretations by physicists worldwide.1

At such a temperature, the universe we now inhabit must have been a bubble of ultra-dense gas called a plasma and must have been expanding at an inconceivable rate. In fact, by the time the temperature had cooled to 1015 degrees, most of the inflation was already over, and space extended through a vast volume. Even at this very early stage, all of the kinds of subatomic particles familiar to nuclear physicists, as well as their antiparticle counterparts, were in play: matter and antimatter coexisted briefly in enormous quantities.

Shortly thereafter, but still within the first minutely split second of universal existence, most of the particles and antiparticles neutralized one another and disappeared in an enormous, cumulative surge of energy. However, riding ahead (p.18) of this surge with an enormity of significance (in which we have written and you are reading this paragraph) was a tiny excess of matter over antimatter.2 It appears that quarks outnumbered antiquarks and electrons exceeded antielectrons (positrons), among other such particle pairs, by about one in ten billion. Within the next few minutes, combinations of this primordial matter produced the nuclei (but not yet the complete atoms) of the lightest elements in our universe—mostly hydrogen and helium.

Modern cosmological science holds largely to the Standard Model of high-energy physics, which traces the origin of our universe to the Big Bang, although challenges to the Standard Model have appeared (one of them concerns the matter-antimatter ratio). Nevertheless, the Standard Model is well-reasoned, backed with mathematical rigor, and very sober stuff. Overall, the epic grandeur of the subject is unparalleled and has moved even some scientists, in descriptive and reflective writings, to passionate and romantic discourse. We hope to reflect some of the excitement of the progressive discovery of our universal origins in this chapter. Our inspiration is illuminated by the trajectories of giants. Carl Sagan’s voice has now diffused through light years of space, and recent discoveries have begun to shine with flashes of passion in some of the writings of leading physicists and cosmologists in this field of tracing universal evolution—Steven Weinberg, Leonard Susskind, Neil Turok, and George Smoot, among others—on which we have based this sketch of ultimate beginnings.

The matter-antimatter ratio was clearly a lucky happenstance. Yet another astonishingly favorable “setting” of conditions at the earliest moments of the universe, according to the model, was a concentration of net vacuum energy, now often called dark energy (see discussion later in this chapter). This condition, discovered by Einstein, is also known by its more philosophical-sounding name: the cosmological constant. The vacuum of space is not the same as nothingness; it has never been empty, and remains filled with energy (and scattered motes of matter). That energy has been governed by a number of contributing forces that began with the Big Bang, and cosmologists have recognized that an almost incredible balance long existed between expansive forces that have inflated the universe and opposing forces, notably gravity, that operate to collapse it. Without the extreme fine-tuning of the cosmological constant, our universe would either have expanded so quickly that matter could never have coalesced into stars and galaxies, or it would have collapsed back on itself long ago. Either way, life would have been impossible.

Indeed, among leading theories of universal origins, and compatible with the Standard Model, is the idea that ours is only one of a near-infinite variety of universes—thus part of a collection of universes called the multiverse, or megaverse—with variants that have existed and will continue to bubble into existence throughout eternity. Conditions such as the cosmological constant that govern duration and distribution of energy and mass may be different with every Bang (some may be mere Pops), and our universe can be seen as one of an infinitesimal few capable of generating life.3 With an eternity of Bangs, time stands outside our universe, and nature at large runs on an infinite clock.

(p.19) The ancient Greek atomists, led by a progression of scholars, notably Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, some three hundred to four hundred years before the Christian era, defended this view of an infinite and near-infinitely divisible and eternal void as the arena of existence. Thus they covered all bases for their universe, and filled it at the lowest limit with indivisible particles (atoms—the Greek word atom means uncuttable or indivisible). Epicurus, in particular, saw material objects in nature as associations of atoms subject to rearrangements and evolution; he considered even the gods and goddesses as material beings subject to the same random and non-teleological emergence of events. There was no universal purpose in and of itself for Epicurus. An infinite number of atoms, colliding into clusters, made up everything—they were the world, and if they were infinite, the possibility of infinite worlds also existed.4 And, he reasoned, if atomic assemblages manifesting perceptible nature were broken up into individual atomic particles, reassembly would proceed spontaneously to form new objects in the universe.5

Competing philosophers such as Aristotle differed, arguing that there were no atoms and no spatial void. Below the moon, a continuous fabric of the four essential elements (aitea)—earth, air, fire, and water—composed material nature, which takes forms that are predestined. Objects or organisms may change, but they contain a sort of embryonic program that takes them toward a final form. First the material cause, the “from what” (to ex hou) of which things are made (ingredients), then the efficient cause, or the “by what” (to hupo tinos) by which things come to be (forces that generate), and then the formal cause, the “what” (to ti esti), the idea contained within anything that circumscribes its specific nature or identity, and lastly the final cause, the “for what” (to hou heneka), possibly presaging emergence or evolution, bespeaking the purpose, or destiny of the thing (the raison d’être).6

Whereas the atomists imagined the relationships of the various atoms and how everything in the world emerged from their atomic combinations, Aristotle saw the essence of things in their formal cause, that is, in some ontological structure. The acorn, for example, contained the ontological structure of the oak tree in its formal cause, given the soil, moisture, and sunlight provided by the efficient cause or forces acting on it. Acorns can become nothing but oak trees in this model, but as we will see later, in the Chinese worldview, as the comparative philosopher Roger T. Ames has wittily suggested, 99 percent of acorns never reach their purely oak-tree destiny, for they become meals for squirrels.

Meanwhile, his thinking on connected essences led Aristotle to the conclusion that the universe consisted of concentric spheres all the way out to the stars. Above the moon, all objects were composed of a fifth element he called quintessence. In the outermost sphere, Aristotle speculated the existence of a Prime Mover that represented, along with the motions of the stars, an eternal, constant perfection. On one level, Aristotle’s Prime Mover was a vision of God completely divorced from its creation; however, on another level, it is the highest reality or being as pure potential. Without this potential presence, the material universe would have gone nowhere, just as the acorn in its microcosmic way must be (p.20) guided by its essential potential to become an oak tree. Thus his God represents not so much the beginning cause but the final cause toward which the universe strives for perfection. This God does not act, did not materially create the world, for it is co-eternal with it, and is only logically capable of merely contemplating itself forever in abject isolation.7

Much later, Christians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas adapted Aristotle’s views to bolster biblical notions of the finiteness of time and space, envisioning God as the ultimate authoritarian, a creator who stood outside the universe and had put it on a definite schedule.

Recombination: Then There Was Light

To biblical literalists and, indeed, many people outside of the cosmological community, it may seem surprising that our early universe, seething with radiation and packed with flying electrons and particles of initially condensed nuclear matter, developed in darkness or at least dimness. The “shining” of early photons (the common units of electromagnetic energy) was mostly far beyond the gentle radiant manifestation we now classify as the visible spectrum. Even as cooling progressed, photons nearly universally irradiated space with gamma and X-ray wavelengths and energies for hundreds of thousands of years. And in the primordial cloud of plasmic-matter, photons were hardly free to glow at any wavelength before they collided with nearby masses, especially electrons, and were reabsorbed, then reemitted briefly, absorbed again, and so forth. Matter restrained light. Then, at last, the universe suddenly became transparent, and thereafter gradually cooled through the spectrum to reveal, ever more widely, the wavelengths of the rainbow.

What happened to brighten the universe was that everything was becoming “cool” enough for the plasma-gas of photons, electrons, and lightweight atomic nuclei to radically change its character—a transition called recombination. The nuclei began to capture and confine many of the photon-retarding free electrons, and now true atoms formed for the first time. Electrons are naturally attracted to nuclei, owing to their opposite electrical charges, but this relatively weak attraction could not happen until temperature and kinetic energy declined to a critical threshold. However, as the electrons joined nuclei, their energy dropped suddenly to a new low level. The abandoned energy of the electrons appeared as new photons, and now the photons could travel much farther without interference. All of space had cleared like the air after a rain shower, and its radiation, now mostly unbound, illuminated the scene much more widely. At this stage the temperature everywhere was something like that near the surface of the sun, and very nearly uniform, but with surprising small variations here and there, like warmer and cooler spots in an early-summer swimming hole. Poised to evolve in complexity and promise, the universe entered a new, quickening season.

Remember, as yet there were no stars or galaxies; matter had become organized merely into the simplest of atoms whizzing through the void. But at this critical phase of universal evolution, the forces and energies that now filled space (p.21) and time relaxed into patterns that would prove discoverable and even logical (if not always intuitive). This threshold arrived some 380,000 years after the Bang,8 and these discoveries would be made much later by us, as living derivations of those atoms, after they had been arranged and energized ever more gently through emergent passages of an incredible journey. The evolution of this universe ultimately led to an awareness of itself.

Uniformity to Pattern: A Cosmic Butterfly Takes Wing

In theory, the Big Bang itself began as an “explosion” of absolute symmetry, starting from a virtually infinitesimal point. At this formative scale of universal (or pre-universal) existence, the only nonhomogeneous effects were those that physicists calculate and conceptualize as random quantum fluctuations. Those fluctuations occur generally in energy fields at subatomic levels and have persisted throughout the history of the universe. When the Big Bang happened, during its inflation phase quantum fluctuations in the primordial energy field expanded with space virtually at once, stretching beyond the scale of galaxies. Cosmologists generally agree that this enlargement of quantum turbulence took place in less than 10–33 of a second. Close to the very beginning of everything, a roughness was imposed on the universe. Its properties—energy, mass, and the forces uniting mass-energy—began in a completely unified state, but they would not stay that way for long and would be profoundly affected by the stretching of quantum irregularities. Quickly, the smooth homogeneity of everything developed waves, lumps, and wrinkles, especially variations of the density of energy and mass that began to structure space and time. Also, superimposed on the enormously magnified quantum effects to further shape the cosmos was a process physicists have termed symmetry-breaking.

The small surplus of matter over antimatter was only one of the asymmetries. Equally profound, engendering structure out of the matter that remained, was gravitational energy that broke out of the unified energy field at the beginning of the universe we inhabit. Following inflation, gravity amplified its effects throughout space in response to the stretched quantum fluctuations that first set the patterns into which structure would evolve. Matter began to concentrate in some regions, leaving other areas relatively less dense. The distribution of galaxies would later correlate with this initial pattern of lumpiness. In other ways, the early shaping of our universe may have progressed through discontinuities emerging out of symmetrical force fields that then took particular forms within the wrinkled “quantum fabric” of spacetime.9 One seminal example that led out of physics to chemistry and, ultimately, biology was a unified particle symmetry that concerned an electron-neutrino unity. These particles assume a smooth, uniform identity—virtually pure energy at an extremely high temperature—but, upon cooling to a certain threshold, suddenly break into unique entities, with the electron assuming much more of its energy as mass and the potential to build the emergent complexity of chemistry around elemental matter. Thus, the early breaking of symmetries led to various subsequent (p.22) processes to shape the universe on all scales with an inexorable potential for the emergence of everything.

Symmetry-breaking that generated primordial complexity in the early, rapidly cooling universe has been compared to the transitions many common substances go through as they change physical character from gas to liquid to solid compositions. Technically, such shifts of organization in matter and energy are called phase changes. Perhaps the most familiar example is water. Its changes in structure and symmetry—from vapor to liquid at cooling, to vapor at the boiling point, and from liquid to ice at the freezing point—crudely parallel some of the shifts in symmetry and coalescence of structure in the early universe.

To modern students of complexity, such phase transitions represent the potent state of being known as the edge of chaos (see introduction). The structural organization and symmetry of water change swiftly and radically at the temperatures of both boiling and freezing. Condensing from vapor to liquid, water molecules begin to stick together in clumps, albeit jostling and oscillating with variable localized distributions of energy, breaking free and rejoining liquid patches of all shapes and sizes. The symmetry of the gas—smoothly, randomly similar in every direction, is broken into a more constrained but locally chaotic pattern of interacting molecules forming the clumps and clusters of the liquid. At the freezing point another dynamic transition ensues, and the symmetry breaks again from the clumpy-chaotic to the more highly constrained crystalline. The point to be taken from such models, even the simplest, as represented by water, is that the systems of nature reveal seminal nodes—tipping points regarding symmetry or structure or behavior or all of them combined—where suddenly everything changes; new properties spring forth; novel worlds take shape.

Some philosophers, hearkening back as far as Aristotle as we saw above, and even a few physicists have toyed with an idea called the anthropic principle: that there is some Prime Cause, or directed, mystical quality inherent in our universe. The universal “settings” are all so perfectly in our favor.10 Did our universe anticipate us, or something like us, that would try to understand its story and decipher its meaning? Most cosmologists resist the anthropic principle; the multiverse (infinite Bangs) extension of the inflation hypothesis gets us off the hook by suggesting that among all the universe start-ups, at least one like ours was inevitable. We are here simply because we cannot be anywhere else.

Instead of some top-down, cosmic directorship, ours looks to be a place of serendipity that somehow leads to marvelously emergent self-organization. It began with absolute simplicity and the most basic physical laws, then improvised and leveraged increasingly sophisticated “cause” along the way. Among the rules, and perhaps the farthest-reaching of them, is sensitive dependence (see introduction). But this could not be dependence on initial conditions in the case of the Big Bang. The first sensitive dependence would have been in response to the initial disturbance, quantum fluctuations as asymmetry in the inflating universe. Some of the latest interpretations of cosmologists point to an amazing butterfly effect—the biggest and most persistent in all time and space that we can know. (p.23)

Primal Emergence

Figure 1.1 A depiction of universal evolution. The Big Bang begins at the far left, followed by immediate inflation. From recombination (here termed “afterglow”), when radiation (the universal photon field) was released from plasmic confinement, the universe gradually expanded as stars and galaxies formed and reformed until fairly recently, when dark energy began to increase relative to gravity, and space started to grow more rapidly again.

Credit: NASA / WMAP Science Team.

It presumably depended on the early condition of asymmetries; then it unfolded directly from disturbances in the gas density of the primordial plasma during the momentary interval of inflation.

The Music of the Plasma

Although the universe was opaque, or nearly so, until the phase of recombination, it was anything but silent. Echoing ancient Vedic religious thinkers, who speculated that “om” is the universal intonation, contemporary scientists realized the universe began to sing very shortly after its birth and continued with a deepening voice for about 380,000 years—that is, until the time of recombination.11 Although not considered especially significant until the 1990s, this realization first surfaced in the 1960s when researchers in the United States and the Soviet Union proposed that sound was a property of the plasma that filled the early universe. The sound of the universe began with kinetic energy playing through small variations in plasma density: compression and rarefaction. Owing to the almost instantaneous inflation after the Big Bang, those density variations (p.24) (sound waves) of the same intensity appeared on all scales virtually at once. This started all the sound waves in phase with each other. The universe had tuned itself like a musical instrument, and it began to play with overtones or harmonics, like an organ in a cathedral.

Compression in a medium raises its temperature, and rarefaction induces cooling. Thus the distribution of temperature through the plasma patterned itself exactly in synchrony with the sound waves. Slightly warmer and cooler regions formed in space, marking extremes of high and low plasma density. As the universal song extended through time, these regions expanded, and they oscillated in temperature with the beat. Then the song of the plasma ended at the recombination phase of the universe, when matter abruptly thinned and stopped the music. However all of the sounds then playing left a ghostly imprint on the cosmos in the shape of final warm and cool patches in the radiation (photon) field of space. The patches were of varying sizes, depending on each particular acoustic wavelength in the pattern of overtones that existed when the song stopped playing. The largest patches of all were cool and represented the traces of the fundamental wave of the universal sounding board—stretching from earliest compression to final rarefaction at the time of recombination.

From this time, the immortal song was recorded in light-temperature (the energy of photons), and even galaxies would eventually dance to its rhythms. This is a milestone in modern cosmological understanding of the universe in its infancy, elucidated during three decades of brilliant research involving numerous scientists from many countries.

The rest of this story takes us through spacetime from the abrupt phase of universal recombination, with its release of wide-wandering photons, down to scientists’ observations of those photons, now greatly cooled to around 2.7 degrees on the absolute (Kelvin) thermometer. When these ancient photons were discovered in 1965,12 coming at us from all directions of space, they were cumulatively dubbed the cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB. Very soon, cosmologists realized they were detecting the faint afterglow of the hot early universe. Following the Standard (Big Bang) Model, they then realized that the CMB specifically traced to the time of recombination and were able to calculate the approximate date of its initial release—380,000 years after the Bang. At first the glow seemed absolutely uniform in temperature. However, in the early 1990s, using increasingly sensitive equipment, scientists first confirmed slight variations in the temperature of the CMB.13 Those variations, now carefully mapped across the visible cosmos, show up as the different-sized patches that are warmer or cooler than the average reaches of space around them.

Thus when the music of the plasma died with the recombination of matter, its final song was imprinted in those virtually uninhibited photons that spread from this significant cosmic horizon. Photons emerging from the compressed regions of sound waves were slightly warmer, and those from rarefactions slightly cooler than the average. Now we can trace them back to discover the harmony that prevailed as the universe went into an especially pregnant phase change.

(p.25) The astonishing finale of this story to date is that out of the song that recorded itself across the cosmos in radiant immortality, there also emerged the universe’s dominant physical structure. Over eons, the slightly elevated gravity of compressed (denser) regions pulled matter together into patches of stars, quasars, and galaxies, while the rarefied zones remained relatively empty voids. Scientists mapping space have now confirmed these patterns on scales up to more than several billion light-years.

Dark Enigmas

The classic American philosopher Charles Peirce conceived of nature as initially in a state of randomness, but with an inherent, albeit weak, property to take on “habits.”14 Out of this property, he envisioned a self-organizing tendency would ensue from which large-scale regular patterns could evolve from very slight shifts in formative conditions. His views seem to anticipate trends of universal self-organization such as those that were seeded at the time of recombination and recorded in the scattering of the CMB. Moreover, Peirce argued that the universe might change even its most basic habits, subjecting science to wrenching revisions of entrenched interpretations of nature.

Cosmologists have known for some time that, in our universe, what we see is not all we have. In fact, ordinary matter that appears as quasars, stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies, and other visible substance seems to constitute just a very small fraction.15 Current theory holds that around 4 percent of the universe is made up of normal matter—the stuff of stars, planets and people—and somewhat over 20 percent of it is dark matter. Dark matter does not interact with ordinary matter or with visible light shining through space, except by contributing to gravity. Subtle observations by astronomers indicate that this dark matter is distributed in clumps and clusters arranged in close proximity to normal galaxies. So, it too has been organized by the primal forces emerging from the Big Bang. However, just what makes up dark matter and whether we would know if it were slipping through our fingers remains a mystery.

This leaves nearly 75 percent of the universe that is thought to have a very exotic composition indeed. That remaining component, more dramatic than dark matter (and unrelated in any specific sense), is dark energy, a recent term in science for what passes in science fiction as antigravity. This concept actually was part of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, but until 1998 physicists had largely ignored it as a mathematical artifact and not part of our tangible universe. In that year came the first observational evidence that the expansion of the universe is now accelerating, rather than continuing to decelerate after its earliest phase of inflation.16 The observations were made, by the Hubble Space Telescope, of relative brightness coming from supernovas—brilliantly exploding stars—of a standard type with a well-known luminosity at precisely calibrated distances from Earth. Intensities of light detected from a series of these supernovas (as related to their distances) did not fall on a smooth curve. The farther explosions appear relatively bright considering their distance (their (p.26) photons started toward us when the expansion of everything was slowing down, so the distance traveled was comparatively short). But the nearer supernova emissions were dimmer than expected, meaning a longer travel path than predicted (other possible explanations, such as intergalactic dust, had been reliably ruled out). The break point in the relative luminosity curve appears, for these supernovas, to occur at a distance of around five billion light-years. The light has taken that long to reach us—so we are seeing a change that began about five billion years ago. Since then, like fireflies being scattered by a rising wind, the substance of the universe has been dispersing ever more quickly.

In one imaginative effort to explain the apparent antigravity property of dark energy, New York University physicist Georgi Dvali proposed that normal gravitational energy in the form of its hypothetical quantum units, called gravitons, is leaking out of our observable universe.17 The gravitons disappear into multidimensional space that could lie undetected around us (see next section). So far dark energy’s relative density is such that it only affects matter on the largest scales. It overcomes gravity to the degree that perhaps large galactic aggregations can no longer form and indeed may be starting to come apart. However, subtle indications in the CMB suggest that dark energy has increased with time and now rules over all other forms of energy and matter. If it continues to grow in strength, cosmologists predict it could take apart galaxies themselves, and eventually all organized matter down to atomic nuclei. Dark energy would be the ultimate attractor of dissipation.

Star Struck: The Enabling of Life

Following the recombination phase of our universe, the first stars began to form by gravitational attraction. Everywhere responding to gravity, they coalesced into galaxies. The earliest stars were made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, with a pinch of lithium. Those three are the lightest and simplest of the pure chemical substances known as elements and were first formed at recombination. As yet there were no heavier elements, but they would soon appear in the interiors of stars.

Stars are pressure cookers for creating elements heavier than lithium.18 As beginning science students learn, the weight of an element refers to the weight of its atoms, and is nearly all in the nucleus, made of relatively heavy subatomic particles called protons and neutrons. (Remember those particles are thought to be composed of even more basic building blocks known as quarks). Protons are positively charged, and their number defines a given element—hydrogen has one proton; helium, two; lithium, three, and so forth. Neutrons can vary in number within a small range for each element; for example, the most common form of hydrogen has only the proton as its nucleus, but another form has a proton and a neutron. Such a variant is called an isotope—the “heavy hydrogen” isotope just mentioned is named deuterium.

Note that in the ultra-hot, dense milieu in the interiors of stars (as in the very early universe), complete atoms do not exist. Their final components, the lightweight (p.27) and negatively charged electrons, remain free—too energetic to be captured by the nuclei. Only in cooler realms will electrons be attracted by protons to surround the nucleus in a structured cloud. Then, in pure elements, at relatively modest temperatures, the electrons match protons in number—making for electrically neutral atoms.

All the precise recipes for cooking up heavy atomic nuclei deep in the interiors of stars are not necessary to state here. Suffice it to say that the enormous temperatures and pressures within the stellar furnaces force particular combinations of hydrogen, helium, and lithium nuclei to come together. Then the products of those fusions, such as carbon, combine with sundry others to form yet heavier nuclei—all the way to iron—in thermonuclear reactions that release immense energies. Lighter elements are thus “burned” in stars and the “ashes” emerge as brand-new heavier elements. The energy released by this burning is the energy of suns.

Carbon, the matrix element of life, has one of the most thrilling creation stories in our universe of complexity.19 Deep inside a star, two helium nuclei are crushed together, momentarily forming a heavy and unstable nucleus of beryllium with four protons and four neutrons. Too many neutrons makes beryllium unstable. The tendency of this particular heavy isotope is to break apart (fission) almost instantly, reverting to its original components. But in a substantial number of cases, beryllium fuses with another helium nucleus creating carbon (six protons, six neutrons) known as carbon-12 for the total makeup of its nucleus. At the moment of its formation, carbon-12 exists in what nuclear physicists call an excited (high-energy) state. But unlike the heavy beryllium, it sheds excess energy not by fissioning, but simply by emitting a photon (quantum, or ray of pure energy). Owing to size and spatial packing of its protons and neutrons, this carbon nucleus then settles into a configuration that is virtually fission-proof.

However, this critical process of atomic creation depends on an almost incredible precision in the energy of the excited state as carbon-12 is formed. The excited state, in turn, depends on the energies of the beryllium and helium nuclei as they fuse—if slightly too low, fusion would fail. However, if carbon’s excited state were slightly higher on the energy curve, in the infinitesimally longer embrace to achieve fusion, the beryllium would fission apart before any significant amount of carbon could appear. This exceedingly fine adjustment in the energy of carbon formation is another of the universal settings (albeit belated) in our favor. In the hot, plasmic, stellar depths, carbon’s nucleus itself becomes a new building block—leading to oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, and other essentials of life. Without ample carbon in our universe, we would not be here to look back along our ancient pathway of becoming the universe.

Cool Runnings

Following stellar synthesis of all the elements crucial to life—and more—supernovas spread them far and wide. Supernovas are colossal explosions of certain relatively large stars at the end of their existence. Such stars reach an (p.28) abrupt crisis in old age. Cycles of heavy-nucleus building by fusion have almost ended; there is little lightweight “fuel” left, and the dying fusion energy that creates an outward pressure from inside the star can no longer support its bulk against the unbelievable gravity that is generated by its mass. So the outer layers, now rich in carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, silicon, and so on collapse toward the last-formed and central core of iron, and the resulting rebound is the explosion, with the energy of up to a billion suns. Once away from the stellar furnace, atomic nuclei can attract and hold electrons, becoming complete atoms in the process. All that star stuff, now with the potential to become our stuff, is scattered in nebular dust clouds through light-years of space—until it comes together again in a new cycle of gravitational attraction and star formation.

Sometimes such renewed attractions produce planets, with generous shares of the heavier elements, around their second- or third-generation stars. And on and around the much cooler environs of planets, elements can behave in vastly more complex and intricate ways. Chemistry now emerges far beyond the intensely hot, brutal bashing of atomic nuclei, for in its dominant workings, chemistry resides in the electrons and especially in the rarefied realm of electrons in the outermost parts of the stratified cloud they occupy, well away from the nucleus.

At the mild temperatures that characterize planets, even in a volcanic eruption or exploding dynamite, most atoms are whole. In each, a nucleus at the center maintains, by electrical attraction, a kind of structured “atmosphere” of electrons that becomes more complex in heavier elements. Again, the precise details are not needed here for an overview of the lay of the emerging landscape. Those details can be found in any basic high school chemistry text. What is important is that as the milieu becomes cooler, chemistry builds complexity to produce some of the most intricate and interesting things that appear in the universe—but not where it gets too cool. Like Goldilocks’ preferred porridge, the ideal condition lies in a mid-range of temperature. Most parts of the universe are now very cool indeed, and matter and energy dwell there in relative simplicity.

It is perhaps surprising that interactions focused merely in the electron-cloud tops of atoms ultimately took the evolutionary lead in building molecules that, depending largely on size and temperature, phase themselves into the gases, liquids, and solids of everyday substances. Among the molecules, those constructed with a framework of carbon atoms proved to be especially versatile. As noted above, carbon as a naked nucleus burning in stars was crucial in generating other essential basic ingredients of an (explosively) emergent chemistry. But in its second coming, with an electron halo, abundantly manifest in condensing clouds of supernova ash, carbon exhibits an especially cooperative (covalent) tendency to attract other atoms. It joins readily with its own kind, forming carbon chains and ring clusters, as well as with an ecumenical range of atoms of other elements, especially hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Constructive carbon builds the framework for an almost infinite variety of organic molecules, each with unique structure and properties. And (p.29) some of these materials then assume a potential to generate the amazing dynamic complexity and ever-more-potent capacity to cooperate that catalyzed the most profound emergence of all.

Physicist Andrei Linde’s characterization of the universe quoted in the epigraph that opens this chapter: “the universe looks like a huge growing fractal …” refers to the multiverse model of serial inflations. But in the particular universe we now inhabit the fractal organization of nature has progressed through ever more refined forms for 13.8 billion years. The human mind and human society lately have become parts of this swirling, diversifying, branching, evolving, and emerging continuum in which the fractal self is now at work and in play. In this chapter on physical origins we have glimpsed touchstones of the cooperative cosmos uncovered by science, tracing the long road to our time of complexity in universal history. In Chapter 2 we will focus on microcosmic origins of the fractal self as an emergent human spirit in our ancestors seeking connections in the grand milieu of nature.


(1.) Cosmologists, most of whom are also physicists, have progressively fine-tuned models of the evolving universe with many points of agreement. After the 1980s, the pace of astrophysical discoveries accelerated, and new insights honed and pruned classical conclusions. Some general overviews of this progress in cosmological understanding can be found in S. Weinberg, “Life in the Universe,” Scientific American 271, no. 4 (1994): 44–49. Also see A. Guth, The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins (Reading, MA: Perseus, 1997); Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004); and L. M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (New York: Free Press, 2013).

(2.) J. Cartwright, “Evidence of Antimatter Anomaly Mounts,” Science NOW (AAAS, 2012), http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/02/evidence-for-antimatter-anomaly-.html.

(3.) A lucid, readable source is L. Susskind, The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design (New York: Little, Brown, 2006). Also, see Linde (1994).

(4.) The source for this is from Simplicius: “For those who supposed the worlds to be infinite in number, like the associates of Anaximander and Democritus and afterwards those of Epicurus, supposed them to be coming-to-be and passing away for an infinite time, with some of them always coming-to-be and passing away; and they said that motion was eternal.” Quoted from G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts (London: Cambridge University Press, 1957), 124.

(5.) J. C. Gregory, A Short History of Atomism: From Democritus to Bohr (London: A. & C. Black, 1931), 258. Also S. Berryman, “Democritus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. E. N. Zalta, 2010, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries.

(6.) Cicero translated Aristotle’s four kinds of aitia into the Latin causae, where our word “causes” comes from. Hence we’ve inherited the terminology of Aristotle’s Four Causes. Randall writes that “[the Greek word] Aition means literally the answer or response to a question; it meant in Greek what could be held ‘answerable’ or ‘responsible’ in a law court. Aristotle’s four aitia are the four different factors ‘responsible’ for a process, the four ‘necessary conditions’ of any process, four dioti’s or ‘reasons why,’ four ‘wherefores.’” See John Herman Randall Jr., Aristotle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 123–124.

(p.203) (7.) As Aristotle writes of the Prime Mover: “Therefore it must be of itself that the divine thought thinks (since it is the most excellent of things), and its thinking is a thinking on thinking” (295) and “It is clear then from what has been said that there is a substance [ousia, fundamental being] which is eternal and unmovable and separate from sensible things” (286). This is all prefaced by Aristotle’s conclusion: “There must, then, be such a principle, whose very essence is actuality” (282). See Richard McKeon, Introduction to Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1947).

(8.) For a lucid account, see L. Looney, Department of Astronomy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (web pages for this astronomy class illustrate a brief history of the universe), 2011, http://eeyore.astro.illinois.edu/~lwl/classes/astro330h/spring11/Lectures/lecture5.pdf. Also, L. M. Krauss (2013).

(11.) W. Hu and M. White, “The Cosmic Symphony,” Scientific American 290, no. 2 (2004): 44–53.

(12.) The discovery of the CMB—remnant “glow” of the Big Bang—was reported by A. A. Penzias and R. W. Wilson, “A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Mc/s,” Astrophysical Journal Letters 142 (1965): 419–421. Also, collaborators at Princeton University interpreted the cosmological implications of the CMB. See R. H. Dicke, P. J. E. Peebles, P. J. Roll, and D. T. Wilkinson, “Cosmic Black-Body Radiation,” Astrophysical Journal Letters 142 (1965): 414–419.

(13.) First detection of anisotropy (or nonhomogeneity) in the CMB was discovered by George Smoot and colleagues. A readable account is found in G. Smoot and K. Davidson, Wrinkles in Time (New York: William Morrow, 1994), 331. For a modern update on subsequent improved resolution of the CMB, see for example: http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/.

(14.) Ahead of his time, Charles Peirce probably would not have had trouble fitting concepts such as quantum physics and chaos theory into his worldview. See, for example, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/peirce/#anti.

(15.) See any current astronomy textbook.

(16.) See, for example, R. Panek, The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 320. Also, a short summary of the detection of the onset of faster expansion of the universe appeared in http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/11/magazine/11dark.t.html?pagewanted=all.

(17.) G. Dvali, “Out of the Darkness.” Scientific American 290, no. 2 (2004): 68–75.

(18.) See any recent astronomy textbook.

(19.) See, for example, chapter 4 in D. Prialnik, An Introduction to the Theory of Stellar Structure and Evolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 263.