This is a trippy story. The carbon molecule called a “buckyball”—named after Buckminster Fuller—has been discovered to be floating free in space:
Sir Harry Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Bob Curl and Rick Smalley for the discovery of buckyballs, said, “This most exciting breakthrough provides convincing evidence that the buckyball has, as I long suspected, existed since time immemorial in the dark recesses of our galaxy.”
Buckyballs are also known as fullerenes. Here’s what is being talked about:
Isn’t it amazing that the universe generates such strikingly symmetrical objects? Don’t they appear to be the products of mind and design (and not of blind chance)?
Kurzweil.net defines a buckyball this way:
Buckyballs are soccer-ball-shaped molecules first observed in a Rice University laboratory 25 years ago. Buckyballs are made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in three-dimensional, spherical structures. Their alternating patterns of hexagons and pentagons match a typical black-and-white soccer ball. The research team also found the more elongated relative of buckyballs, known as C70, for the first time in space. These molecules consist of 70 carbon atoms and are shaped more like an oval rugby ball. Both types of molecules belong to a class known officially as buckminsterfullerenes, or fullerenes. They are named for their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, which have interlocking circles on the surface of a partial sphere. Buckyballs were thought to float around in space, but had escaped detection until now.
In the above quote, did you catch that part about buckyballs being “named for their resemblance to architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes”? In other words, an architect’s structure—something that was once thought to have had its origin in an architect’s mind—has been found in nature.
That’s curious, isn’t it?
And would it be more curious, or less curious, if a human architect’s structure was found floating in space at the macro-level (as opposed to the micro-level)? In other words, is its nano-level size influencing our judgment about how strange this really is?
How, in the name of heaven and earth, did so elegant a carbon molecule end up floating about in space? The most direct answer is that it’s the sloughed off byproduct of an aging star. Scientists detected it in a nebula. Like you and me, buckyballs are the carbon dust of stars. But does that solve the riddle? Given enough time and chance, is everything, sooner or later, bound to happen? Maybe we’re part of a multiverse, and we just live in one of the universes where its chemistry must make, under occasional conditions, carbon buckyballs. No big whoop. I eagerly await news that the Pantheon has also been found free-floating about in space (in our universe, or in another; at the nano-scale or otherwise).
But whether by accident or design, it’s wonderful to think that both the carbon-based Buckminster Fuller and the carbon-based buckyball share the same mother—the belly of a star. And it’s even more wonderful to think that the stars, which make both us and buckyballs possible, may themselves be the products of an even deeper and more unifying symmetry—a supersymmetry.
Here’s Leonardo’s man revealed in symmetry:
And here’s a buckyball profiling its symmetry:
If you’re an atheist (or an agnostic, as I am), isn’t it nevertheless tempting to ask of the fullerene molecule questions similar to those that Blake asked of his tiger?:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
This past week, I’ve been reading an exceptionally well written book by a Catholic physicist, Stephen Barr. The book is titled Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame 2003), and on page 87 Barr writes this about the universe’s layered symmetries:
The fact that the electron field has uniform properties throughout all of space is itself a statement that the electron field possesses a very large degree of symmetry, in fact a much greater degree of symmetry than is enjoyed by any specific set of electron particles or carbon atoms.
Thus we see the same result repeated again and again as we trace phenomena down through layer after layer to the deeper levels of the world’s structure. The symmetries and patterns found at one level are manifestations of greater symmetries and more comprehensive patterns lying concealed at the more fundamental levels.
Some think that symmetry chasing on the part of physicists, though historically beneficial to science, has arrived at a dead-end. In other words, supersymmetry and the so-called “M theory” of string theorists, are phantoms. Surely, a contingent and godless universe does not, at its most fundamental level, hang together in so tidy a fashion. And it would actually be quite a shock to discover that, yes, indeed, it does.
If you are an atheist, and you discovered that the universe does hold together in a supersymmetry, would that be enough for you to reconsider your atheism?
Is supersymmetry the last refuge of God?