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November 7, 2015

Look around you

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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We humans can relate to the great and vast universe around us in many different ways.

One is to focus on its awe-inspiring beauty, turning descriptive words into loving poems. Another is to see it through the clear lens of scientific achievements, such as landing humans on the moon, or creating an International Space Station whose resident astronauts can tell us how wonderful our planet looks as they orbit Earth every 92 minutes.

Yet another way is to view the universe through the Word of its Creator, enlarging the scope of our faith and inspiring us to praise God who has existed before everything we can imagine.

As well, we cannot ignore the urgency of taking better care of our own small pinpoint in this amazing universe – our beautiful home planet, whose diverse biosphere and cultures are threatened by human greed, overconsumption and chronic warfare.

I look at the universe, both immediate and limitless, in all of these ways; and by “Universe” I mean here everything and everyone, from the tiniest living microbe, to the marvels of the human body, to the outer reaches of the most distant galaxies.

It also includes our inner human world of emotions, relationships, life and death experiences, our sense of meaning and our continual striving, individually and collectively, to answer the difficult questions that arise from our unique self-awareness.

My mother had one memorable piece of advice for me, rooted deeply in her Islamic upbringing; it was “look around you, son.”

She shared this ancient wisdom with me not once, but many times, even after I’d received my PhD. Today, looking back on 50 years as a scientist, engineer and university professor, I still treasure her simple but powerful advice.

As someone who is considered one of the world’s leading experts in microchip design, I know when I see a good design I am also seeing a good designer, even if I have never met that person face to face.

Similarly, when I see this universe of ours, I see a good Creator, even if I have never met him face to face.

It would never occur to me to ask who created the Creator – such a question would be as irrelevant as asking who created the individuals who produce a praiseworthy microchip design.

Unlike the process of designing microchips, which requires well-coordinated teams with accumulated knowledge and experience, plus long development time, the creation of our universe is the unique and sole work of the One God, the Almighty and Most Powerful, the One Source of infinite, unlimited knowledge and wisdom. It is inconceivable that more than one such God could exist.

The Qur’an clearly states: “God has not begotten offspring, neither is there any other god, else had each assuredly taken away that which he had created (that is, each would have formed a separate and independent kingdom) and some had assuredly up lifted themselves above others. Glory to the One God.” (Qur’an 23: 91)

I personally enjoy experiencing the artistic expression of the universe in music, literature and paintings.

I recently read You Are Here; Around the World in 92 Minutes by Canadian astronaut Cmdr. Chris Hadfield, who has joined my university, the University of Waterloo. Although considered a science book, it is also a work of photographic art that portrays Earth from space, accompanied by text that is often poetic.

Just as Cmdr. Hadfield was motivated to write You Are Here… by experiencing the creative forces of the universe, I was similarly inspired several years ago to publish a poetry collection called Divine Love and a historical novella, The Son of Zanzibar. I have also studied Western opera and Arabic music and can frequently lose myself in a good vocal recitation of the Qur’an.

I am a founding editor of The Canadian Charger (, an online alternative media magazine that addresses a broad range of issues related to everything from global politics and the environment, to the health risks of cell phones, to how the rich and powerful are destroying our planet. Our publication’s home page even features an online game about climate change, to inform and empower our readers.

For 10 years I studied the human brain, trying to design microchips for devices that would help the blind to see and the deaf to hear. I wrote many books and scientific papers on the subject as well as supervising several generations of young researchers pursuing their PhDs.

In retirement, I am still just as keen to know more about the brain and am currently immersed in colleague Chris Eliasmith’s fascinating new book, How to Build a Brain: A Neural Architecture for Biological Cognition (Oxford, 2015). I’m looking forward to attending his 2016 summer school to learn more.

I know how complex the brain is and how little we still know about it, so I always praise the divine Designer of something so exquisitely and powerfully made, just one of countless wonders found in our universe.

But the Qur’an says: “Certainly the creation of the Heavens and the Earth is greater than the creation of humans, but most people know it not.” (Qur’an 40: 57) And I reply, “Lord, I am trying to know more.”

In fact, the Qur’an says a great deal about the Heavens and the Earth.

Regarding their origins: “God created the Seven Heavens in two days and each Heaven had its own Law. And We [God] furnished the lower Heaven (for planet Earth) with lights and guardians. All these were put in order by the Almighty, the All Knowing.” (Qur’an 41: 12)

On the subject of space exploration, the Qur’an states: “God made all what are in the Heavens and the Earth accessible to humans” (Qur’an 45:13), and “Humans can go beyond the perimeters of the Heavens and the Earth, only with the necessary knowledge.” (Qur’an 55: 33)

One of the earliest major scientific discoveries was that planets are held in their orbits by universal balancing forces, yet long before that discovery we find in the Qur’an: “God created and supported the Heavens on invisible pillars, has set firm mountains on Earth, to hold the ground steady under you, has filled it with every kind of moving creation. We [God] send down rain from the sky. Thus We have caused all lovely things to grow in pairs. This is entirely God’s creation. Can you show me any such creation by other gods? People who reject the Truth are indeed totally misguided.” (Qur’an 31: 10-11)

But one of the most striking verses is this: “God created the seven Heavens and the Earth, and their like.” (Qur’an 65: 12)

Does this mean that there is more than one set of seven Heavens and more than one Earth?

NASA recently reported the discovery of an Earth-like planet, Kepler-452b, orbiting around a G2-type star in the constellation Cygnus.  Just distant enough from its sun to have the right climate for life, Kepler-452b has been dubbed a “Goldilocks planet” — not too hot, not too cold.  Its age is estimated at about 6 billion years, compared with Earth’s 4.54 billion.

But how would we determine if there is intelligent life on Kepler? Here we encounter the perennial interstellar problems of time and distance.  Kepler-452b is 1,400 light years from us.  A light year is the distance that light travels in one year, giving a total of roughly 6,000,000,000,000 or six trillion miles.

That means if we were to send out an "Is any one there?" broadcast, it would take a little under one million years to contact Kepler-452b – and another million to hear back if anyone received the message, understood it, and was in the mood to reply.

Thus we can never know if there is life on Kepler-452b, or if there ever has been; the distance and time are simply too great.  By now, the planet may even have been swallowed up by its own sun. 

Earth is roughly 4.54 billion years old and scientists have estimated our home planet may have another 5 billion years before the sun becomes a red giant and swallows it up.

The huge difference in the scale of our time on Earth and cosmic time across the universe is also referred to in the Qur’an: "God created the Heavens and the Earth and all that is between them in six days. God governs (for example) from the lower Heaven to the Earth and returns back in one day, equal to a thousand earthly years." (Qur’an 32: 4-5)

The certainty that planets will eventually vanish has been stated in the Qur’an this way: “One Day We [God] will roll up the Heaven as one rolls up scrolls. And as We originated the first creation, so will We bring it forth again. This is a promise binding on Us. Indeed, We will do it.”  (Qur’an 21: 104)

At best, we can only know what Kepler-452b was like 1,400 light years ago.  There may or may not still be intelligent life there, but we can never know … at least for now.

So to my mother in heaven I say, “I will keep looking around.”

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