- The Big Bang happened everywhere. The Big Bang happened here and everywhere else because the whole universe was crammed into a tiny space in that moment, 13.7 billion earth-years ago. We don’t know what caused the Big Bang, but we do know that the laws of physics allow for something to arise out of nothing. The laws of physics were also created out of nothing during the Big Bang.
- Muhammad was almost never born. His Meccan grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, who owned the freshwater spring closest to the Kaaba Sanctuary and who took in the profits from selling water to pilgrims, had promised in his earlier years to sacrifice one of his sons—if he had ten of them living into adulthood. Having ten living sons was improbable, but was also a sign of great divine grace. His terrifying vow silenced the Meccan leaders who wanted to challenge al-Muttalib over his water rights. When the time came to fulfill that vow, the sacred stone of Hubal picked Abdullah, Muhammad’s future father.
- We are all stardust. Every atom in our bodies was forged inside a star, the place where atoms collide and fuse into new, heavier atoms, releasing or absorbing energy in the process. For the molecules of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, or nitrogen to take their places inside our bodies, scores of stars had to die off in tremendous explosions called supernovae that sent their atoms flying across the universe.
- Muhammad was an orphan. Childhood mortality was so high in Mecca during the seventh century AD, that well-off families sent their babies away from the foul, smoky air of the city to be nursed and cared for by Bedouin women on the Arabian steppes. Muhammad was taken out of Mecca after his birth and returned only when he was five. His father had died before he was born and his mother would die when he was six, leaving him an orphan at the mercy of his wealthy relatives who put him to work as a camel boy on caravans.
- Iron is a star killer. A star goes through shorter and shorter and hotter and hotter nuclear fusion stages. Hydrogen fusion, helium fusion, carbon fusion, oxygen fusion, and silicon fusion are all exothermic. But a star cannot fuse elements past iron because that kind of nuclear reaction takes in energy instead of releasing it. Up to that point there is a balance between the forces of gravity pulling inwards, and the fusion-released energy directed outwards from the star. Once iron gets created, gravity wins, the star collapses in an instant, the energy at its core grows so big and so fast that the star explodes into a supernova. During the explosion, chemical elements heavier than iron are created: gold, platinum, uranium—those called “rare.”
- The Satanic Verses brought peace to Mecca for a day. When Meccan leaders rejected the idea of a unique supreme being as revealed by Muhammad and continued to worship their local divinities Lat, Uzza and Manat, Muhammad longed for a divine message that would reconcile him with his own people. Then God revealed to him Sura 53 that acknowledged the three Meccan divinities as His daughters. They were, the revelation said, giant birds that flew over the earth and intervened on behalf of those who worshipped them. The Meccans were happy with a revelation that acknowledged the faith of their ancestors, but not so the angel Gabriel, who visited the prophet and scolded him for listening to Satan’s false revelations. Muhammad was overcome with fear and the next day rejected the local Meccan divinities as imaginary beings. His message of “There is no god but God” soon drove him out of Mecca, and into exile to Medina.
- There is a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. It is 4 million times the mass of our sun, 26,000 light-years away from our solar system, in the constellation Sagittarius A*. There are dozens of smaller black holes in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. In fact black holes are everywhere, as they are left behind by massive stars that collapse when they run out of fuel.
- The third Jewish tribe of Medina never saw it coming. After expelling two of the three Jewish tribes of Medina for rejecting the Quranic message and refusing to acknowledge him as a prophet, Muhammad designated a militant hardliner and a dying war hero to decide what to do with the third tribe, the Qureyz, in the aftermath of Meccan army’s siege of Medina of 627 CE. The Qureyz had been loyal to Muhammad, defended Medina together with everybody else, but had been set up to look like traitors, enough to warrant their public punishment. The verdict was death for men, slavery for women and children, and confiscation of all property. Muhammad personally oversaw the massacre during the three days it took the believers, working in shifts, to behead and throw the bodies of all the Qureyz men (400 to 900 people) in common graves.
- Our solar system used to be a violent place. In the beginning, 4 billion years ago, our solar system had over 100 planetoids that kept crashing into each other until only eight were left orbiting the sun. The first four planets of our solar system are rocky planets, the other four are gaseous planets, with rings of gas and dust around them. Saturn and Jupiter have over 60 moons each, and every moon is different in make and size. Jupiter’s huge magnetic field reaches all the way to Saturn and keeps its neighboring Earth safe from most asteroids, meteors and comets.
- Muhammad’s dying wish was lost to his followers. In his crowded sickroom, Muhammad asked for writing materials to make his last wishes known. Instead of bringing a scribe, his nine wives and the other people close to the prophet began arguing amongst themselves, afraid of finding out whom the prophet wanted as his successor. For Muhammad, who might have suffered from bacterial meningitis, the clamor of their angry voices became unbearable. He asked them all to leave. Omar, one of his closest advisers, said then: “We have the Quran, the book of God, and that is sufficient for us.” Soon after Muhammad’s death, and in the absence of his will, two main factions formed—Sunni and Shia—who are arguing to this day about the right way of practicing Islam. (See Lesley Hazleton’s After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam.)
- We are at the beginning of a cosmic renaissance. During the past decade strange notions such as dark matter and dark energy became mainstream. Every year new and exciting discoveries allow us to see further and further into the past, well into the dark ages of our universe, a billion or so years after the Big Bang, before the stars began igniting, before there was light.
- Muhammad was buried where he had died. The prophet died on June 8, 632 CE. His funeral was delayed as the council of elders decided his successor. Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the obvious candidate to become the first caliph, kept vigil over the prophet’s body and didn’t join the council. When the elders chose abu-Bakr as Muhammad’s successor, Ali denied him the funeral that would have consecrated his election. Instead, Ali and his kinsmen dug a grave right there in the sickroom. In the dead of night, they buried the prophet’s body at the foot of the platform serving as bed, and marked the spot with a simple stone slab.
Last week I read the profile of Alexander Vilenkin written by Steve Nadis for the September 2013 issue of Discover Magazine. Vilenkin is a cosmologist at Tufts University near Boston, and he proposes that “the Big Bang was not a one-off event, but merely one of a series of big bangs creating an endless number of bubble universes.”