Hawking's Universe: Cosmic Alchemy

Keenan Edward Dungey (kedungey@umich.edu)
Tue, 11 Nov 1997 14:47:35 -0500 (EST)

Here's my review of the third episode in this series, which aired Mon,
Oct 27. I taped several episodes and am just now getting caught up with
them. The last episode (of six) will be aired Mon, Nov. 17, "An
Answer to Everything."

Stephen HawkingIs Universe

Episode 3: Cosmic Alchemy

This episode was much more rewarding than the first one, perhaps because
it dealt with chemistry, my field. Although some of the hoaky special
effects were still present, the pictures of and descriptions of the actual
experimental equipment used by Curie and Rutherford were informative.
The Big Bang (previous episode) described how the universe began.
However, "how did all the variety in the universe come from a single
point?" This episode answered that question by giving a history of
chemistry and subatomic physics, starting with the alchemists. The
alchemists were characterized as searching for how to make gold. They
sought to obtain a primal substance, and transmutate it. They renewed
belief in the Greek elements (earth, water, fire, air). An interesting
comment about the alchemists was that they considered the process as
important as the goal. So this episode went beyond the stereotypical view
of alchemists. Then Hawking's comment reverted back to the stereotype.
"Mystic beliefs and greed for gold are not good for science," said
Hawking. But transmutation from primal matter was, "perhaps accidentally,
a step in the right direction." He ignored the complex interaction
between religion, mysticism and science in the Renaissance. Many of the
early scientists participated in all three systems. [1]
A face is put on the father of the periodic table, Dmitri Mendeleev
(1834-1907) with a description of his family's glass factory, which burned
down. Proceeding through his education and work, we are told that, at
that time, chemists set out to "deconstruct" matter into its basic
units-atoms (indivisible particles). In 1869, Mendeleev shuffled cards
of the elements to find a pattern. This was an accurate and refreshing
view of how science works: sometimes with simple pieces of paper (Watson
and Crick with paper cutouts of DNA base pairs; Smalley built a fullerene
model out of paper).
He believed matter had to have an underlying order. We are not
given any clues as to why he believed that. Perhaps there were religious
motivations. "And while he believed it to be 'the glory of God to conceal
a thing,' he was firmly convinced that it was 'the honor of kings to
search it out.'" [2] That belief is obviously a Biblical reference (Pr
25:2). So he founded the Periodic Table, and suggested people study
Uranium. Which led to...
Marie Curie (1867-1934), quantifier of radiation and discoverer of
Polonium and Radium. As I mentioned above, there are some good shots of a
scientific apparatus, complete with a description of the experiment and
the clues it gave to the existence of the other radioactive elements. But
the nature of radiation wasn't understood yet.
Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) determined that the radiation from Ra
was not Ra vapor, but another element, He. "the impossible had
happened...the miracle that eluded the alchemists"-transmutation of the
elements. Rutherford was described as the original atom smasher, an
experimentalist who used glass and wire to prove Einstein's special
relativity (1905): E = mc2. He set out to study "the inner sanctum of
matter," and discovered the nucleus: atoms are divisible into subatomic
Lawrence and Livingstone were briefly introduced as inventors of
the cyclotron, which allowed them to accelerate particles faster. Then to
Paul Dirac, who stated that when matter is produced from energy,
antimatter should also be produced. Since the Big Bang was essentially
energy producing matter, there should be a lot of antimatter hanging
around the universe. In 1932, Carl Anderson discovered anti-electrons
(positrons) in cosmic radiation. A description of cloud chambers was
given, with some actual shots of wispy, short-lived vapor trails from
cosmic radiation. A modern atom smasher described a detailed, recorded
cloud chamber track from a current experiment, where high energy photons
produced electrons and positrons.
A professor from Dartmouth stated that scientists "trust in the
laws of physics." Why should we believe the scientists' pictures are true?
"Look at technology," he said. A Christian might respond that science can
understand the truth because God created both the universe and the human
Then this professor described how the universe is slightly asymmetric,
with more matter produced in the Big Bang than antimatter. If not, the
universe would just be energy. "That's the ultimate reason for us to be
here." But what is the reason for the asymmetry in the universe?
Wouldn't that be the *ultimate* reason for our existence? Hugh Ross, among
others, has addressed how the fine-tuning of the universe points to a
Designer who had human life in mind. [3]
The story of the universe is summarized, from the Big Bang, to nuclei
forming after 1 sec, atoms forming after 1,000 years (H), clouds forming,
then galaxies, then stars, then planets, then life. Stephen Hawking
finished with, "a remarkable story" "from the white hot Big Bang to
planets and people." "It may be difficult to believe...but that is the
way the universe seems to be." Essentially, he told us that the
physicists have the whole story figured out and that we should believe
them, no matter how strange the story sounds.
1) Brooke, J. H. NScience and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives,.
Cambridge U. Press: New York (1991), pp. 52-81.
2) Jaffe, B. NCrucibles: The Story of Chemistry,. Dover: New York
p. 155.
3) Ross, H. in NThe Creation Hypothesis,. InterVarsity: Downers Grove, IL
(1994), pp. 141-172.

Keenan E. Dungey
The U. of Michigan 3610 Partridge Path, #7
Dept. of Chemistry AA, MI 48108
930 N. University 313/677-6304
AA, MI 48109-1055 kedungey@umich.edu
313/647-2876 http://www-personal.umich.edu/~kedungey
"Reason builds on a foundation of faith" -Phillip Johnson