Fine-Tuning of the Hoyle State

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This article was originally posted on my previous blog,, on March 19, 2013.

Life as we know it is made up of carbon. We really have no knowledge or even strong speculation about how life could be formed without it. Unfortunately for a wildly chaotic universe, carbon is not the easiest thing to form. Famous scientist Fred Hoyle first predicted the outrageous requirements necessary to produce the carbon-friendly environment that leads to the potential for life, now called the Hoyle state. As Morten Hjorth-Jensen, professor of theoretical nuclear physics, explains:1

“The carbon-oxygen-nitrogen cycle is simply crucial for the formation of almost all the other elements, and for understanding how stars live and how stars decay and fade away … And, of course, without the Hoyle state we wouldn’t be here.”

The more he worked over the possible avenues for element development (called stellar nucleosynthesis), the more he discovered that the existence of carbon was only possible under the most narrow parameters. It was as if the universe had been finely tuned to allow for such a possibility. Reflecting on this observation, Hoyle would write one of the last century’s most controversial scientific articles, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections.” In the article, Hoyle discusses the incredible unlikelihood of something as complex as life arising from chance in the cosmos. He ends the article with these haunting words:

Would you not say to yourself, “Some super-calculating 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.2

The state that allows for this possibility was for decades out of the reach of human calculation. Recently, an international team of researchers including a physicist from North Carolina State did the math to see what this Hoyle state would really look like. Only in the age of the supercomputer was the simulation even possible. By comparison, “The calculation, performed by Germany’s JUGENE supercomputer, would have taken a typical laptop more than two centuries to complete.”3 The result of this grand calculation has confirmed Hoyle’s prediction about the extreme unlikelihood of the state existing through random processes. As Martin Freer, an experimental nuclear physicist at the University of Birmingham, explains, “If the Hoyle state were not to exist, neither would we, and even if its energy were slightly different, life would have had to have found an alternate route.”4 Likewise, ScienceDaily reports:

In new lattice calculations done at the Juelich Supercomputer Centre the physicists found that just a slight variation in the light quark mass will change the energy of the Hoyle state, and this in turn would affect the production of carbon and oxygen in such a way that life as we know it wouldn’t exist. “The Hoyle state of carbon is key,” [NC State Physicist Dean] Lee says. “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,” he adds. “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.”5

The quandary that science is left to explain is how the universe could be so finely tuned to produce precisely the conditions that allow for the existence of life. One option being floated about is that there are an infinite number of diverse universes and the one that we are in just happens to be the life producing one. That conclusion may satisfy someone, but I’m not impressed. It isn’t the natural conclusion. The fine-tuning of the universe points in a different direction, one hinted at by Fred Hoyle decades ago:

In thinking about this question I was constantly plagued by the thought that the number of ways in which even a single enzyme could be wrongly constructed was greater than the number of all the atoms in the universe. So try as I would, I couldn’t convince myself that even the whole universe would be sufficient to find life by random processes – by what are called the blind forces of nature. The thought occurred to me one day that the human chemical industry doesn’t chance on its products by throwing chemicals at random into a stewpot. To suggest to the research department at DuPont that it should proceed in such a fashion would be thought ridiculous.

Wasn’t it even more ridiculous to suppose that the vastly more complicated systems of biology had been obtained by throwing chemicals at random into a wildly chaotic astronomical stewpot? By far the simplest way to arrive at the correct sequences of amino acids in the enzymes would be by thought, not by random processes. … Rather than accept the fantastically small probability of life having arisen through the blind forces of nature, it seemed better to suppose that the origin of life was a deliberate intellectual act. By “better” I mean less likely to be wrong.6

Those looking the furthest into the raw, material world still come face to face with the presence of thought and the actions of the Great Intellect.

Psalm 92:4-5 (ESV) For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. How great are your works, O LORD! Your thoughts are very deep!

  1. Natalie Wolchover, “The Hoyle State: A Primordial Nucleus behind the Elements of Life.” Scientific American. Web. Accessed 3/19/13. 

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

  3. Natalie Wolchover, “The Hoyle State: A Primordial Nucleus behind the Elements of Life.” Scientific American. Web. Accessed 3/19/13. 

  4. Natalie Wolchover, “The Hoyle State: A Primordial Nucleus behind the Elements of Life.” Scientific American. Web. Accessed 3/19/13. 

  5. “Life in the Universe: Foundations of Carbon-Based Life Leave Little Room for Error,” ScienceDaily. Web. Accessed 3/19/13. 

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

Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

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