Saturday, February 16, 2019

God´s coming atcha

“How the Universe Works: The Quasar Enigma” is a documentary about one of the most insane phenomena in the cosmos: the so-called quasars (or quasi-stellar radio sources). When I was much younger, nobody knew what the quasars really were – the most exotic theory was that they were “white holes” spewing out all the matter black holes had swallowed (I actually wrote an unpublished science fiction story as a teenager based on this idea). The most recent understanding is that quasars *are* black holes, or rather the luminous accretion disks of super-massive black holes at the very center of old galaxies. They also emit so-called “quasar jets”, a kind of cosmic death rays that can rip entire galaxies apart! The perspectives are truly staggering: when a galaxy gets old enough, it´s simply eaten from within by a black hole, which then disgorges part of the captured matter, destroying everything in its wake. Believers in “eternal progress” should perhaps take heed at this. I wonder how many advanced civilizations have been destroyed literally overnight (together with the planet they are standing on) by quasar jets…

Another problem: the quasars are found at the core of extremely old galaxies, some of which formed only about 1 billion years after the Big Bang. This is impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them today – there simply wasn´t enough time for super-massive stars to form, live and die as ditto black holes. The documentary, with its official scientific perspective, doesn´t really have a solution to this, but surely one possibility is that the Big Bang never happened.

The most sensational piece of information in this production is that *our* galaxy, the Milky Way, has a sleeping quasar at its very center! It´s been known for a long time that there is a huge black hole at the core of the Milky Way, known as Sagittarius A-star. Over and above the Milky Way, there are mysterious clouds of matter. Astronomers now suspect that they were formed at some point in the past by quasar jets. How long ago? Only 6 million years! Sagittarius A-star could therefore be something as bizarre as a dormant quasar. Nobody knows what could awaken it, but in 4 billion years, the Andromeda galaxy will collide with the Milky Way, a collision that might merge the central black holes of both galaxies, leading to a truly spectacular show…spectacular, that is, if you´re safely ensconsed millions of parsecs away in another corner of the universe.

Despite their violent nature, quasars might nevertheless be necessary for star formation to happen in an even and balanced way, turning themselves on and off in the process like a thermostat. Without the quasar, star formation in a galaxy might be too rapid, with too many stars turning into supernovae, destroying all preconditions for life in the process. So in a final twist, quasars are not just threats to our survival as a planet (let alone species), they might at the same time be engines of creation – at least until that fateful day when the black hole gets too large and insatiable, effectively ending the galactic equilibrium.

I always wax philosophical watching stuff like this, and “The Quasar Enigma” was no exception. This quasar business feels like something so above our puny little heads that all our science, religion and even esotericism is stumped by its power. Show me one ancient belief system which included quasars…exactly, you won´t find any. (And if you´re into high tech, show me the tech that can stop a quasar jet. Exactly. As one of the scientists in the program says: “If a quasar jet´s coming atcha, it´s over”. ) At the same time, it also feels as if all this cosmic action somehow proves God´s existence. It´s a god who couldn´t care less about shrimp salad, ham sandwiches or blood pudding. I might have had my very first truly religious experience watching the show. Straight out of God´s answer to Job…

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