Fine-Tuned Stellar Nucleosynthesis of Carbon and Oxygen

Though he was a committed atheist, astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle acknowledged the appearance of design in the universe. Guest writer Don Olson demonstrates how recent research fine-tunes scientists’ understanding of Hoyle’s own discoveries—and, in doing so, reaffirms evidence for a Creator.

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Since my childhood, I have wondered about the world around me—specifically, its structure and origin. Perhaps that curiosity is what drew me to analytical chemistry and why, at the age of 78, I am still at work developing new analytical technology.

Scientific discoveries over the past several decades have answered a wealth of questions about the formation and composition of the universe. Research continues to refine the details and reveal new findings, but one conclusion remains clear: the universe was fine-tuned from the beginning to support life. The production of carbon and oxygen, two life-essential elements, provides one of the best examples.

Starting with the Big Bang

Scientists first discovered the fine-turned nature of carbon and oxygen production in the 1940s. However, recent research by a group of German and American physicists further refined our understanding of the conditions necessary for the formation of these two elements. Researchers now know that the elementary particles that make up stable matter came into existence immediately after the beginning of the big bang event. These particles included quarks and electrons. Within the next few fractions of a second, quarks combined to form protons (hydrogen nuclei) and neutrons. These protons and neutrons began to fuse to form helium nuclei, and within four minutes, the universe was 75 percent hydrogen nuclei and 25 percent helium nuclei, with a trace of lithium nuclei from further fusions. Then, when the infant universe had cooled sufficiently (380,000 years after the big bang), the hydrogen, helium, and lithium nuclei combined with electrons to form atoms. Hydrogen, the lightest atom in the universe, has a nucleus made up of three quarks surrounded by a single electron.

As gravity drew the hydrogen atoms together, the resulting clouds became denser and hotter, eventually causing hydrogen atoms to fuse and produce helium atoms. According to Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2 (where m is the mass difference between hydrogen and helium atoms and c is the speed of light), the fusion of hydrogen atoms to form a lighter helium gives off an enormous amount of energy. This process ignited the first stars and initiated the production of helium. For example, each second our Sun converts about 700,000,000 tons of hydrogen into about 695,000,000 tons of helium and 5,000,000 tons of energy. Currently, the approximately 5-billion-year-old Sun is about 28 percent helium.

Stellar nucleosynthesis does not stop at helium. The sequence continues with nuclei combinations that form the heavier elements of the periodic table. For example, astronomers have identified more than 70 chemical elements in our Sun, including 0.97 percent oxygen, 0.40 percent carbon, 0.14 percent iron, 0.096 percent nitrogen, and 0.04 percent sulfur. Twenty-six of these elements are necessary for life; of these, carbon and oxygen are the most critical and must be present in the correct abundance for life to flourish on Earth.

In 1946, when Sir Fred Hoyle established the concept of stellar nucleosynthesis, researchers began to understand this stage of the big bang creation event. Hoyle studied the nuclear reaction that produces carbon and found that the reaction involves the combination of three He2+ nuclei (helium composed of two protons and two neutrons). He2+ is also known as the alpha particle. Hoyle predicted that in order for the reaction to work the carbon produced would be in an excited state with a very specific energy. Experimentation bore out this prediction. This excited state of carbon is now known as the Hoyle state, which is also important for the production of oxygen. The excited carbon particle combines with another alpha particle to produce oxygen.

The carbon energy level required to produce the abundant amounts of carbon life requires is statistically improbable, yet it occurs. Hoyle, an atheist, was so astounded by this that he later wrote:

Would you not say to yourself,…Some supercalculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule….A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.1

The Hoyle State’s Fine-Tuning

The recent work by the team of German and American physicists2 sheds light on the conditions necessary for formation of the Hoyle state. First they confirmed the existence and structure of the Hoyle state, which has a specific energy measured at 379 keV higher than the combined energy of the three alpha particles. Then, through calculations on a supercomputer simulating how protons and neutrons interact, they determined that the mass of the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons is vital to the Hoyle state’s energy level. According to Dean Lee, one of the physicists,

The Hoyle state of carbon is key….If the Hoyle state energy was at 479 keV or more above the three alpha particles, then the amount of carbon produced would be too low for carbon-based life. The same holds true for oxygen….If the Hoyle state energy were instead within 279 keV of the three alphas, then there would be plenty of carbon. But the stars would burn their helium into carbon much earlier in their life cycle. As a consequence, the stars would not be hot enough to produce sufficient oxygen for life. In our lattice simulations, we find that more than a 2 or 3 percent change in the light quark mass would lead to problems with the abundance of either carbon or oxygen in the universe.3

Thus, we see that fine-tuning the mass of the quarks produced in the universe’s first moments assured stellar production of carbon and oxygen in the right abundances necessary for life on earth. Hoyle said the evidence “overwhelmingly” points to a superintellect who designed carbon to support life. The new studies provide us with a glimpse of how the superintellect—that we would argue is the biblical God—designed the Hoyle state to allow the right amounts of both carbon and oxygen for abundant life on Earth.

References

1. Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Engineering and Science 45 (November 1981): 8–12.

2. Evgeny Epelbaum et al., “Viability of Carbon-Based Life as a Function of the Light Quark Mass,” Physical Review Letters 110 (March 15, 2013): 112502, doi: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.110.112502.

3. “Formation of Carbon-Based Life Leave Little Room for Error,” Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence, last modified March 15, 2013, http://www.kurzweilai.net/formation-of-carbon-based-life-leave-little-room-for-error.

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By Don C. Olson

Dr. Don C. Olson earned a PhD in analytical chemistry from Purdue University in 1961 and currently works as CEO of Global FIA, Inc. in Fox Island, WA.

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