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Frankie's song said it well: "That's life. That's what people say. You're riding high in April, shot down in May. ... But I don't let it, let it get me down. 'Cause this fine old world -- it keeps spinnin' around."

We are lucky, indeed, to be alive in this fine old world.

How did that come to be? Some ascribe it to gods residing outside the physical universe, but such stories are too grossly at odds with what we've learned during several centuries of paying close attention to reality. The true story is more interesting and, if one lets the music sink in, more inspiring.

Our universe started with the big bang, a microscopic quantum physics event 13.798 plus-or-minus 0.037 billion years ago. Physics suggests there could be other big bangs, in which case our universe would be one among many.

The big bang created two crucial physical entities from, literally, nothing -- a "nothing" that is more properly known as the "quantum vacuum." The two entities were energy and organization. Energy could be created from the vacuum because gravitational energy is inherently negative, while all other forms of energy, such as heat, light, and motion are positive. The big bang created positive and negative energy in equal amounts, so that the universe's total energy was and still is zero.

"Creating" organization was automatic. The vacuum already has zero disorganization, because there are no things in it. Due to the big bang's microscopic quantum nature, the "entropy" or "disorganization" of the early universe had to be zero or nearly zero. The early universe probably consisted of a single quantum object and was too simple to have any disorganization.

Since that lucky day, the universe has expanded and differentiated into many forms of energy (still with a net energy of zero), and become more disorganized. This inevitable tendency toward disorganization happens for the same reason that a perfectly ordered deck of cards becomes less organized after one shuffle. It's called the "second law of thermodynamics," and it's the reason there is a "past" and a "future," with the future being the direction in which disorganization (entropy) increases. Thus life is bound intimately to creation -- the big bang -- and to death.

We still live in an extremely low-entropy universe. Every star is a large mass of hot (tens of millions of degrees) matter situated in cold (minus 450 degrees) space. This is a highly organized situation, like a deck of cards with the red cards strictly separated from the black cards.

Given low entropy, the second law expresses itself in enormous energy flows from hot stars into cold space. Our planet intercepts a small fraction of this high-temperature radiation and is warmed significantly above the temperature of space, making life possible. Sunlight not only warms us but also brings the organization needed for the complex molecular structures of life. During the process of photosynthesis, the organization represented by the temperature difference between the sun and space drives the construction of complex organic molecules. We are lucky to be part of a planet where conditions of temperature, water and chemistry have been just right for this to happen for the past 4 billion years.

The universe will probably continue disorganizing for tens or hundreds of billions of years until, in the far future, it reaches an equilibrium in which everything is at the same temperature and nothing much can happen anymore. Ironically, it's those energy flows from hot to cold, in other words the very process of running down, that makes life possible. We are indeed lucky to have this moment of creative disequilibrium.

Be glad to be here, my friend, glad to exist, thankful for life and the possibility of love. Treat your roller-coaster ride in the sun with respect. Your material constituents could after all have wound up in a star, or a rock. You are enormously, ridiculously, lucky to be alive, and your death is part-and-parcel of the big picture. You can most enjoy the ride by taking good care of your corner of the universe; evolution has bred this joy into all of us. And the first order of this breeding is to take care of yourself, for it's only by keeping your own house in order that you can help organize humankind to take advantage of its moment in the sun. Indian philosopher Ramana Maharshi put this memorably a century ago: "Your own self-realization is the greatest service you can render the world."

It's pretty much what Frankie was saying.

Commentary on 09/27/2016

Print Headline: Sing it, Frankie

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