Transcript of Prof. Chris Clarke's speech 

(Small text in brown denotes links to slides. A few have been included in the text)

I am actually going to be focusing almost exclusively on the scientific aspect, but we will progressively develop the theological aspects as the evening goes on. But the starting point that I come from is the idea that the history of RELIGION is a succession of enlargements of our view of what the universe is like and what our place in it is.

I feel now that with the increasing feeling of the inadequacy of our current society to address the problems that we face, the time really has come for a further enlargement of the religious view of what the universe is.

Throughout the spiritual development of humanity, human beings have always reached out to Absolutes; to the big picture and this is a diagram of the universe published in 1576.

It is an interesting moment because it is the moment when the idea that the universe might actually be infinite was starting to creep in. It would be published about eight years later in the teachings of Giordano Bruno. This is the standard medieval idea of a closed universe, with a crystalline sphere on the outside, but the author of this has some parts creeping outside as an indication of something which the text suggests may be of infinite extent; so there was an idea of an infinite universe coming in there, breaking out of the closed system.

And to describe our current view which now replaces that, the system is an integrated whole but it is an infinite whole and not a cosy bounded whole.

I want to start off with finding a way in which we can get into this modern picture; and the starting point for me (and probably for many people) is the feeling of mystery you get if you just look up at the night sky, and if you are not near London, you see something like the milky way.  We now know that the milky way is a vast assemblage of stars which we see because we are in the middle of a galaxy of stars like this one:

This is the Andromeda galaxy. Ours is very like this. If this were our galaxy, we would be out here somewhere and when we look out at the sky, we are looking through the cloud here and seeing the great mass of stars of the milky way. The universe is full of galaxies like this. Galaxies come in many shapes and forms. This is an amazingly beautiful galaxy, known as the Sombrero Galaxy. It is staggering to look at this and realise that this great cloud here is billions and billions of stars; any one of which may possibly have a solar system around it. I will be saying more about that later, but this is the ultra-deep field of the Hubble telescope.

The way they took this was to point the telescope at a patch of sky which appeared totally empty, taking a long exposure for a million seconds: and this was what they got – looking back at the faintest stars, the most distant galaxies. Every spot is a galaxy. This is what the universe is like; a mass of galaxies.

The next slide is an enlargement of a bit of this and there is one further enlargement. These are very distant galaxies and because they are very distant, the light takes a long time to get to us and so we are actually looking back in time at very early galaxies. At that stage they are all strange shapes. The galaxies were born rather incoherently and subsequently through interaction they developed the shapes that they have now. One last slide: that blob there is the furthest galaxy yet detected. Not a very spectacular one but that particular galaxy is probably so far away that we are looking at something which is only about eight hundred million years or so after the start (if there was a start). So it is a very very old galaxy.

But it is not the vastness, not the hugeness and extraordinariness of it all that I want to talk about this evening; it is the way in which it starts to make sense as a whole. And to see this I want to go even further back and start looking and thinking about the very earliest bits of information we have about the universe.


There are two bits of information, one of which has come up fairly recently – in the last ten years – which enable us to go back to very early times. One of them is this:

Start off with that picture of the ultra-deep field and imagine that you are looking out in space with eyes which are sufficiently acute to see that far and imagine that your eyes are capable of also receiving radiation of the microwave variety: the sort they use for telecommunications. Imagine that you are straining your eyes to see as far into that darkness as you can. What you would see if your eyes were able to see microwave radiation right back to the earliest stages, would be a continuous uniform glow over the whole sky. So imagine yourself being able to see in that way and imagine yourself entirely surrounded by this uniform glow. You are looking back to a time 300,000 years after the start and you are looking at a sort of sphere surrounding you from the universe at that time. If you examine it very closely, as it was examined recently by a satellite, you will find very small variations in the brightness of that. They are only one part in a thousand or so. And what the satellite has done is to observe the little variations in brightness. The next slide shows a map of that sphere, cut open and stretched out, and the colours indicate the tiny fluctuations. Those fluctuations are absolutely crucial, because out of those fluctuations the galaxies formed and the planets formed and we formed. They are the seeds of the whole universe.

The second thing we know about what happened in the very early stages is that we know that even before that time (300,000 years) the simplest elements were formed – hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium – the very lightest elements were formed, and we know from extrapolating backwards from there in considerable detail how those elements were formed earlier on. So we have a way of extrapolating those fluctuations in brightness back to the very earliest stages in the universe – back to the stage where the universe was so fresh and everything was happening on such a small scale that the whole structure of the universe we are seeing there was compressed into a size where quantum mechanics was dominating. These fluctuations are remnants of quantum processes in the early universe – almost certainly.   I didn't believe this theory at first. It just seemed too far fetched. But when the picture emerged it was clear that (good heavens) it is right, that the universe really is coming out of quantum fluctuations and, as Green put it, the galaxies are "quantum fluctuations writ large across the sky".


So starting with that very early stage, I want now to have a quick run through the story of the universe and I'll say a bit about the way it hangs together to make a proper cosmology.


Moving on, the next slide shows that way in which structure is formed from the fluctuations we have just shown. This is actually a computer simulation. It is taking those fluctuations in brightness and density and just calculating what happens to them after a few million years. If you actually observe the positions of the galaxies and plot them on a diagram, they form a network that does precisely match this computer simulation. So these fluctuations start producing this fibrous structure of condensed gas. Out of those condensations the galaxies then start to form and in those galaxies, stars start to be produced. There were some stars before that time, but when galaxies are formed, then stars start to be produced in large numbers.

This is a galaxy where stars are being produced. All these blue bits here are areas where active star production is going on. A point about the colours in these Hubble pictures: mostly the colours are exaggerated but they are the colours which are actually observed.

This is a galaxy where there is a great deal of turbulence happening so a lot of star formation goes on. The galaxies did not just sit there. They interacted with each other. The spiral arms are produced by galaxies going close past each other and spinning each other up. So galaxies are dynamic objects and not static.

If we go to the next slide where there is an enlargement of part of this, you will see the internal arrangements. These sort of shiny balls here are not individual stars but globular clusters of stars, each one of which contains many millions of stars. So this is a sort of power house of star generation. The first generation of stars which were produced, (there were roughly two generations) were just those original elements. All the later elements which made us and the earth and everything solid were formed in the second generation of stars which were formed when the first generation of stars died and exploded.

The next slide shows the crab nebula which was a star that exploded a long time ago. It was seen here on earth in the eleventh century but the actual explosion took place a lot earlier, and when the star exploded it threw out into space the heavy elements which had been made in its core.

In the next slide you can see the way these heavy elements scatter out into space (this is a different explosion that happened even earlier) and then the dust that was thrown out was the starting point, condensing to form the next generation of stars.

This is in our galaxy. This is the eagle nebula. This is a cloud of dust and Hydrogen gas. These are not actually the real colours but are accentuated to show up the presence of different elements. In these protuberances here at the end of each cloud are forming whole new stellar systems, solar systems, and these solar systems will be containing planets formed out of the dust which had been created there. So it is processes and structures like that which have produced our earth. The scale is, obviously, vast.

So it is this mix that has produced the earth which is the starting point of our personal interest in all of this. And the point about this is in order for that earth to be produced, it takes 13.7 billion years (13,700,000,000,000 years) of element formation and coalescence and generation of structure. You can't produce that in a shorter time; And for that to happen the universe has to be that big in order to keep going for 13.7 billion years. So we are necessarily a product of that history, and that sets the time scale. It could not be done any other way.

It has been said that it takes a village to make a child. One could carry on and say that it takes a planet to make a village and it takes a cosmos to make a planet.

 But I want to go on from this to give an idea of what this tells us about how it all hangs together. I want to start off by looking at some work that Joel Primak did in the 1990s. And, reconstructing his train of thought which his paper is the final result of, I imagine he started off by making a chart of the kind of sizes of different things in the universe.

So this would be to start off with the very smallest thing in the universe, the fundamental particles which are responsible for some of the most primitive forces in the universe. Then each one of these scales goes up by a factor of a hundred thousand. A hundred thousand times bigger than that you get atoms; then a hundred thousand times bigger than that you get DNA – and so on. You get human beings in the middle (I will say a lot more about the restrictions to human beings in a moment) and then up from that you get mountains and so on.

I have already mentioned, though, that in the very early universe at the far end (these are clusters of galaxies so the universe as a whole is up here somewhere) the universe was so small that it was a quantum system. So in the very early universe, the far end of this picture is actually down at this end. And so what Primak did was to say "Well they are sort of identified, aren't they".

So we get what he actually drew, which is this, a Ouroboros, the widespread symbol of completeness and wholeness. So he bent that picture round and here are the small particles, the solar system, the galaxy, the cluster of galaxies: and here is that quantum area, about which we still know remarkably little, except that the whole large scale structure was compressed as a small scale quantum field.

On the diagram of the Ouroboros I have added to Primak�s drawing another species (the cat) alongside the human being, because you will see in a moment that it is absolutely crucial that we look at the whole gamut of species there and the man would be Schrödinger and that will be his cat.

So what I want to finish off with is this way of looking at things in which organisms are sitting here at the middle of this whole scale and explain how organisms fit into the whole picture. Someone produced an article recently entitled "a view from the middle", and there is something very symmetrical about the fact that it is here, at the centre of this circle, equidistant from the beginning both ways, this sort of structure emerges.


I should say a bit about the remarkable symmetries in this picture. What is going on here is that the most primitive forces of the universe are the forces that determine the large scale structure of the universe. What are called the "Weak" and the "Strong" forces govern the nuclei of atoms and are also the forces which are responsible for the way in which everything is in such balance that the stars do actually form heavy elements and planets. So you have the correspondence across there. And then down here you have got the atom which is held together by electrical forces; and over here structures of the earth and the planets which are essentially governed by electrical forces, chemistry and biology. So there is a correspondence between the two sides of the diagram.

But I want to say more now about a different way of bending things round into a sort of circle which comes from the work of John Wheeler who was one of the founders of the ideas of quantum cosmology. Quantum theory has a lot to say about observation (although quantum theory is not very clear about what observation is). But it is clear that according to quantum theory, if we live in a quantum universe (which we think we do – that is the basic theory of the universe) then an essential part of what goes on has to be the act of observation. We might develop this in questions later but I don't want to attempt to get into that for the moment. What Wheeler did was to say that observation in the sense that it is meant by quantum mechanics happens with organisms, and therefore it is organisms observing the universe which play a part in forming the emergence of the universe from the quantum fuzz, as it were. And what Wheeler did was to wrap round the universe in a different way. This is a sequence in time rather than scale: so at this early point, early on we have the fundamental elementary particles in the universe. We have atoms emerging later; later on organisms. These later organisms observe the universe and in doing this they bring to being, as it were, the structures and fluctuations which are subsequently going to produce themselves. And Wheeler regarded the universe as being a self actuating system in this way. It was the capacity for observation here which links the whole thing into a self consistent whole.

So the picture we get out of this is that the universe is a cosmos. It is an interlinked whole and not just a succession of random entities. It has an inevitability because of the interlinking and the organisms such as ourselves are not observers in the sense of passive onlookers but active participants in the universe and in the emergence of the universe. And it is in this fact that we take our place among other organisms and we take our place as active participants in the universe; which actually gives us a dignity and a responsibility – and also a humility because we are just some among innumerable organisms on innumerable planets. It restores us to our position in the universe which is quite different and larger and more awesome than the position we had, but which now gives us a great responsibility.


So this is the factor I want to leave us with, as we move on to think about what it means for us: - this idea that really the universe is about a continuous flowering of creativity, a flowering of the emergence of new things – galaxies, stars – a continual emergence of creativity leading up to organisms. But it is a flowering of creativity in more of a cosmic community of participants of whom we are one.


So I will now move on to Miriam, who is going to reflect on what this has meant for her in religion.