Who am I to discuss such a profound question? Well, I am just expressing
my surprise; I am not offering an answer. Besides, it would be just
as surprising if there were Nothing rather than Something, wouldn't
it? No energy, no matter, no space, no time, no laws of nature —
Besides, I am not entirely convinced that the question even has a meaning.
Could it be that the cause-effect relationship we seek is just a human
construct and that there is no logical necessity for a cause?
Steady State vs. Big Bang
The classical Big Bang model
The observer-friendly universe
Consciousness and other loose ends
viewing and reading
Most cultures have developed a cosmology to explain how things got
started. Not surprisingly, they tend to emphasize the superiority of
the storyteller's own people and culture, and their special relationship
with their god or gods. They are all highly anthropocentric: man is
the purpose and culmination of creation.
cosmologies seem quite bizarre, such as stories that a tortoise
supports the world (or supports an elephant that supports the world),
which recur on several continents. This may be the inspiration for this
An anthropologist visited a remote village. He explained
how modern science had established that the earth orbits the sun, and
that the sun orbits the center of the galaxy. Then he asked about the
world model of the people he was visiting. An old woman told him: "The
world is supported by a giant turtle, which prevents it from falling
down." The anthropologist asked: "But what supports
the turtle?" - "Very clever, young man! But it's turtles
all the way."
Actually, it is only in the last few centuries that our world view
has progressed substantially from that level. In the early 17th century
Galilei was forced by the Church to renounce his view that the Earth
orbits the sun. Later in that century Newton's theory of gravity explained
the mechanics of the solar system. Well into the 19th century, many
people believed that the world had literally been created in six days.
(Some still do.) The distances to the closest stars were measured only
in the mid-19th century, and less than a century has passed since the
distance to our nearest neighboring galaxy became known (some 2.5 million
It is noteworthy that modern science has demoted mankind from being
the masters of the world, created in God's own image, to a zoological
oddity on a small planet of one of some 1022 stars in the
observable universe. If the Universe does have a purpose, it would perhaps
seem more reasonable to see that as the rise of life and consciousness
than specifically the evolution of man?
State vs. Big Bang
When I grew up in the 1950s, a great debate was in progress about the
origin of the universe. It was known that the universe is expanding.
One school of thought, championed by British astronomer Fred Hoyle,
held that the universe was eternal, that it had always existed, and
that it was continuously being replenished with new matter to compensate
for its expansion, so that it was in fact in a steady state. A competing
theory, advocated by George
Gamow, proposed that the universe had been created in a vast explosion
(called "a big bang" by Hoyle) some 10 billion years ago and
had been expanding ever since.
Initially, I rooted for a steady-state universe. Sudden creation out
of Nothing in a gigantic "explosion" seemed less appealing.
The Big Bang theory also seemed to lead to a bleak future: either expansion
would stop and the universe would contract and collapse, or it would
expand forever and progressively become a very cold and dark environment
indeed, until the last subatomic event occurred in 10100
years or so. But gradually I became less convinced that an eternal universe
was any more satisfying as an answer to the question "Why Something?"
than a universe with a definite beginning.
The matter was settled in the 1960s, when two key predictions of the
Big Bang theory were borne out: The abundance of light elements (hydrogen
and helium) was in accordance with the model, and the background microwave
radiation created by the Big Bang was detected (by accident).
Besides, the expansion of the universe was more naturally explained
by the Big Bang theory than by the Steady State theory. There were attempts
to "save" the Steady-State theory. As usual, the leading proponents
of a theory losing support did not switch sides; what happened was that
the next generation of scientists tended to join the "band wagon".
classical Big Bang model
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, great strides were made in astronomy
and high energy physics. Singularities and black holes were found to
be real and became mainstream areas of research. (It is expected that
a theory of quantum gravity yet to be developed will remove singularities
in the sense of "division by zero".) Quasars were shown to
be cosmologically distant objects receding at substantial fractions
of the speed of light. (The record is now about 96 percent
of the speed of light.) In laboratories on Earth literally hundreds
of new particles were being discovered in accordance with predictions
by theorists such as Steven Weinberg, who won the Nobel prize for unifying
two of the four known forces in nature, i.e. the "weak" and
the electromagnetic forces.
In 1977, Weinberg published The First Three Minutes which opened
the eyes of many of us laymen to the progress that had been made in
understanding how the Universe was formed. For the first time a credible
scenario was offered for the history of our universe from as early as
10-43 seconds after the instant of creation up to the present
time (some 13.7 billion years later). It also discussed the probable
fate of the universe: either an end to expansion and a collapse into
an inverted "big bang" (the "big crunch") or eternal
The scenario offered in The
First Three Minutes was roughly this:
When the universe was 10-43 seconds old, its temperature
was about 1032 K and the four forces (Gravity, the Strong
force, the Weak force and Electromagnetism) were unified, but just 0.01
seconds later, the temperature had dropped to 1011 K, and
the four forces had separated. "The universe is simpler and
easier to describe than it ever will be again. It is filled with an
undifferentiated soup of matter and radiation, each particle of which
collides very rapidly with the other particles." The only particles
present in large numbers were photons, electrons, neutrinos and their
corresponding antiparticles. Complex nuclei were destroyed as fast as
they formed. He then gives an additional five "snapshots"
explaining how particles were formed and interacted during the first
3 minutes. ("It sounded better than The First
Three and Three-quarter Minutes.") Atomic nuclei began
to form at the end of this period. After another 700,000 years (the
present estimate is ~ 370,000 years), the universe had been cleared
of free electrons and become transparent to light. Atom formation (mostly
hydrogen and helium) had been completed. From now on, gravity began
to dominate, ultimately causing atoms and molecules to form galaxies
and stars. All the heavy elements were created in the interior of the
then goes back to speculate about events during the first one hundredth
of a second, when there was an abundance of exotic particles known from
high energy physics. Calculations become difficult because of the dominant
role of the Strong force at high temperatures. Hundreds of hadron varieties,
made up of "quarks", would have been present. Also, according
to theory, phase transitions would take place at 1015 K,
triggered by a loss of symmetry between the weak and the electromagnetic
interactions. As we move further back in time, gravity becomes increasingly
important. Gravitational waves may create particles out of empty space,
although the very term "particle" may not yet have had any
meaning. "We do not know enough about the quantum nature of
gravitation even to speculate intelligently about the history of the
universe before this time."
He then goes on to offer some thoughts on the instant of creation itself:
"One possibility is that there never really was a state of
infinite density. The present expansion of the universe may have begun
at the end of a previous age of contraction, when the density of the
universe had reached some very high but finite value. —
However, although we do not know that it is true, it is at least logically
possible that there was a beginning, and that time itself has no meaning
before that moment."
Although a third of a century has passed since Weinberg's book was
published, it is still considered an accurate account of the evolution
of the universe from about 10-32 seconds. The main advances
since then have been inflation theory and the development of string
theory, and the discovery of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.
The temperature of the cosmic microwave background,
measured by two satellites launched in 1989 and 2001, is isotropic
to within ± 0.0002 K.
In his book, Weinberg pointed out one difficulty in particular with
the Big Bang theory: the great homogeneity and isotropy of the Universe,
which remained unexplained. Throughout the observable universe, conditions
are remarkably similar: there are galaxies everywhere we look, with
similar properties. The background microwave radiation from the Big
Bang is homogeneous to better than one part in ten thousand. According
to theory, there would simply not have been enough time to even out
the inhomogeneities caused by quantum fluctuations before the different
parts of the universe had already been separated beyond the event horizon
defined by the speed of light.
Sometime in the early 1980s, I came across an article on cosmology
in Scientific American, written by Andrei Linde, a Russian professor
who was unknown to me. It made a deep impression on me for a number
of reasons. First, it introduced me to the idea of cosmic inflation,
i. e. that there had been a brief instant in time (~ 10-32
sec) when the Universe expanded by an incredibly large factor (at least
1050). Cosmic inflation had recently been proposed by Alan
Guth, and Andrei Linde had refined the idea. It solved the problem of
the Universe's homogeneity and isotropy and flatness. By reducing the
size of the Universe in its earliest moments, there would have been
sufficient time to even out quantum fluctuations before they passed
beyond the event horizon. But the old problem was replaced with a new
one: What had caused the universe to inflate? Unfortunately, the explanation
was beyond my understanding.
Even if I could not understand the physics and the mathematics (although
this Linde presentation
gives me a cozy feeling), the article was inspiring at another level.
Just coming across sentences such as "At this time the diameter
of the Universe was 1 meter" was thrilling to me. I naively
tried to imagine our Milky Way the size where I could hold it in my
hands, realizing of course that there was no Milky Way and that the
Universe was still unimaginably compressed and hot at that time. Besides,
there was no space external to the Universe. Contrary to my intuitive
image, the Universe did not expand into space; space itself expanded
along with the Universe. (No credit for thinking "outside the box"
in this case!)
GUT = Grand Unified Theory = the
standard model for high energy physics.
Zirbel, Tufts Univ.
Another point that struck me about the article was the sheer "chutzpah"
of its author in presuming to know what occurred in the time frame 10-35
to 10-32 secs after the creation of the universe, and in
speculating about conditions in the unobservable part of the universe.
After all, scientists in general, and physicists in particular, take
great pride in abstaining from speculation about matters that by definition
are inaccessible to the scientific method, such as philosophy and supernatural
intervention. That is how they have achieved their position at the top
of the scientific totem pole. Weinberg, for instance, writes defensively:
"I cannot deny a feeling of unreality in writing about the first
three minutes as if we really know what we are talking about."
Linde is less apologetic, clearly enjoying occasional forays across
the border line between science and pure speculation.
According to inflation theory, the Universe expanded by at least 50
or 60 orders of magnitude (perhaps much more, see Linde presentation
above) in just 10-32 sec. It is unclear to me if this refers
to an expansion to a billion lightyears, as the diagram seems to imply,
or to the size of a grapefruit, as another source suggests. Perhaps
the latter refers to just that region of the universe which corresponds
to our presently observable universe. The main point is that
inflation must have been sufficient to ensure a strongly homogeneous,
isotropic and flat universe in accordance with observations. (Inflation
also offers a solution to another puzzle: the absence of magnetic monopoles.)
Andrei Linde, b. 1948.
As early as 1982, Linde noted that the equations describing inflation
arising from quantum fluctuations in scalar fields allow the creation
of many inflating regions in different parts of the universe, each with
its own set of constants of nature. These regions would be separated
and have no influence on each other. He described the process as an
infinite chain reaction which has no end and which may have no beginning.
One may picture the model as a boiling soup, where bubbles form and
expand, each bubble corresponding to a separate "universe".
In fact, it would no longer make sense to call our universe by that
name, as there would be an exponentially increasing numer of universes.
(The term "multiverse" is sometimes used to describe an aggregate
of independent universes.)
This concept strongly resembles the many-universes model in quantum
mechanics, where every single event at the quantum level would cause
the universe to split into a large number of parallel universes! The
question "Did God have a choice in the creation of the Universe"
is answered in the negative: all choices have been realised. The
concept also appears to resurrect the steady-state universe: The universe
could once more be seen as existing for all eternity, constantly rejuvenating
itself (even if the sub-universes, such as the one we live in, could
be doomed to a "big crunch" or a drawn-out cold and lonely
some, a virtue of the model is that there would not necessarily have
been a moment of creation. The universe may have existed forever, regardless
of the Big Bang. —
It also makes life easier for scientists, who would not have to search
for an answer to why the laws of nature and the associated constants
of nature happen to be as they are. "We just live in a universe
where it happened by chance."
If you ask me, I find the theory less than satisfying. Just as I had
gotten used to the idea that there is no time and no space outside our
universe, and that its age is 13.7 billion years, I am told that each
universe out of an infinite number has its own dimensions, which may
or may not have some resemblance to our spacetime, and that the universe
and its predecessors (!) may have existed forever. On top of that, the
diagram seems to suggest that there is some form of time external to
the universe(s). I fail to see why the hypothesis of eternal existence
makes the universe any easier to understand than a first moment. Since
Einstein, we have understood spacetime as a single entity intimately
interwoven with the observable universe. (St. Augustine agreed: Time
was created together with the universe.) Are we now being asked to revert
to a model with time as an eternal flow, independent from physical reality?
Linde has likened the efforts of cosmologists and particle physicists
to two teams of tunnelers working from opposite ends of the tunnel.
Cosmologists work on the grandest scale imaginable, while particle physicists
explore the smallest components of the universe. To make progress, both
approaches are necessary. —
In particle physics, great strides have been made in the last decades.
Hundreds of subatomic particles have been discovered. Most of them are
unstable and decay within 10-10 to 10-20 sec.
They are built up of even more fundamental particles, quarks, which
come in six different flavors. Theories are keeping pace with experimental
results, so that physicists are on the lookout for particles predicted
by theory to exist, such as the Higgs boson, with properties that are
roughly predictable by theory. Currently, there is great excitement
surrounding the recently completed Large Hadron Collider at CERN in
Geneva, which should provide answers to some of the most burning questions
in particle physics.
In the last 10 years astronomers have found that the expansion of
the universe is actually accelerating, rather than decelerating.
Even if the universe is going to expand forever, it was expected that
the rate of expansion should decrease due to gravity. This has led cosmologists
to invoke "dark matter" and "dark energy" to explain
observations, but these phenomena remain mysterious at the present time.
It is now believed that atoms make up less than 5 percent of the mass
of the universe.
On the theoretical side, progress is being made in understanding subatomic
particles as manifestations of vibrations of more fundamental 1-dimensional
objects called strings. Theoreticians also work with more generalized
objects called "branes" (derived from "membranes"),
which is why you may run into speculations such as "The Big Bang
may have been caused by two colliding branes." The mathematics
involved requires that our universe have 11 dimensions: the familiar
4 dimensions of spacetime and an additional 7 space dimensions curled
up at the Planck size (~
A. Linde, B. Greene, A. Guth,
N. Bostrom and R. Krulwich contemplating a 2-dimensional projection
of a 3-dimensional representation of one model of a 6-dimensional
universe. (See ref. 1)
It is of course impossible
to subject such theories to experiment, and some skepticism may be in
order. In addition, the theories can accommodate almost any physical
realization of the universe. Linde mentions that the underlying equations
may well have 10500 solutions. However, physicists claim
that the mathematics is "beautiful", and they hope that further
high-energy experiments will soon drastically reduce the number of possible
descriptions of our observable universe. Still, string theory as such
is about 18 orders of magnitude beyond our present capabilities of experimental
verification, and the mathematics is said to be complex enough to require
years of training before original contributions can be made.
In this context it is tempting
to point out, that only in cosmological literature do you run into statements
such as: "Most Kaluza-Klein theories based on supergravity in
an 11-dimensional space lead to vacuum energies of order -MP4
~ -1094 g • cm3,
which differs from the cosmological data by approximately 125 orders
of magnitude. . ." [ref. 5]. This reminds me of 19th century
attempts to reconcile the sun's energy output with what was known about
chemical energy. "We seem to be off by a factor 107..."
It would be nice if our universe could be shown to be the expected
outcome of some simple basic assumptions about the laws of nature, just
as the law of gravity explains planetary motion or Maxwell's equations
explain the whole range of electromagnetic phenomena. Unfortunately,
this does not appear to be the case. There are a number of constants
of nature that seem to have been picked out of a hat —
at least scientists have thus far failed to derive them from first principles.
On the other hand it is becoming increasingly clear that almost any
combination of those constants other than the one that rules our universe
would have extremely unfortunate consequences from the perspective of
a human observer. They would result in universes that were extremely
short-lived or completely chaotic. There might be no atoms or no stars
or planets. Molecular biology might be impossible. The vast majority
of possible universes would be lifeless. Our universe seems fine-tuned
to allow the development of life (and ultimately ourselves).
King of Gods. I have known the dreadful dissolution of the
universe. I have seen all perish, again and again, at the
end of every cycle. At that terrible time, every single
atom dissolves into the primal pure waters of eternity,
whence originally all arose. Everything then goes back into
the fathomless, wild infinity of the ocean, which is covered
with utter darkness and is empty of every sign of animate
who will count the universes that have passed away, or the
creations that have risen afresh, again and again, from
the formless abyss of the vast waters? Who will number the
passing ages of the world, as they follow each other endlessly?
And who will search through the wide infinities of space
to count the universes side by side, each containing its
Brahma, its Vishnu, and its Shiva?
in the Brahmavaivarta Purana from H. Zimmer, Myths and Symbols
in Indian Art and Civilization
The fact that we find ourselves in a "benevolent" universe
is not in itself surprising. We could not exist in any other type of
universe! But the improbability of our particular universe raises three
1. Our universe was designed to allow our existence (or we could be
the byproduct of a universe designed with a purpose).
2. We are just very, very lucky that the one and only universe happened
to suit us just by chance.
3. A lot of universes have been created randomly. We should not be
surprised to live in one of the few that suit us.
Nobody really believes in the second alternative. That leaves creation
by design (not necessarily by God!), or random creation of a multiverse.
The first alternative, of
course, is the position of most religions. The third alternative is
the one advocated by most scientists.
And that is where it stands. We should not expect science to find proof
one way or the other, as there can be no way for us to confirm the existence
of other universes than our own (barring speculations about "wormholes"
or past collisions between "branes").
and other loose ends
Among the many interesting speculations by Andrei Linde, one is that
the phenomenon of consciousness may have a role to play in cosmology.
The Copenhagen school of quantum
mechanics accords a fundamental role to the observer of an experiment.
The observation itself triggers the outcome. In inflation theory, quantum
fluctuations have a central role, and the question arises whether any
description of reality can be complete without including an observer.
"... the thrust of research in quantum cosmology
has taught us that the mere statement of a problem which might at first
glance seem entirely metaphysical can sometimes, upon further reflection,
take on real meaning and become highly significant for the further development
of science. We would like to take a certain risk and formulate several
questions to which we do not yet have the answers. Is it not possible
that consciousness, like space-time, has its own intrinsic degrees of
freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the
universe that is fundamentally incomplete? What if our perceptions are
as real (or maybe, in a certain sense, are even more real) than material
objects? What if my red, my blue, my pain, are really existing objects,
not merely reflections of the really existing material world? [Cf.
my thoughts on color perception.
/SZ] Is it possible to introduce a "space of elements of consciousness,"
and investigate a possibility that consciousness may exist by itself,
even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, excitations
of space, may exist in the absence of protons and electrons? Will it
not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study
of the universe and the study of consciousness will be inseparably linked,
and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress
in the other?"
This certainly qualifies as "sticking your neck out". Regardless
of how this will be judged (and Linde's reputation prevents us from
dismissing such thoughts out of hand), it may revive the discussion
of the role of the observer in quantum physics.
Stephen Hawking (b. 1942).
The feeling that something is missing has been expressed by Stephen
Hawking: "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and
makes a universe for them to describe?" And Ludwig Wittgenstein,
who wrote "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world"
and "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence",
also wrote "It is not how things are in the world that is mystical,
but that it exists" and "There are, indeed, things
that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are
what is mystical."
Even if everything can be explained in terms of quantum fluctuations,
the question arises: Was there a pre-existing law of quantum physics?
When Linde describes a multiverse with a different set of laws of nature
in each "universe", doesn't he assume the existence of more
general principles? Physicists like to define a Hamiltonian or a Lagrangian
to describe the nature of a physical system and to derive laws governing
its development, but these concepts build on our observations of how
the world works. How can we be confident that similar concepts would
apply at the very beginning of the universe, or even "before"?
I have a feeling that when cosmologists use the word "before"
(the Big Bang), they are not speaking of time in the conventional sense,
but perhaps in the sense of an ordered sequence, just as 72 comes "before"
73, or the moves in a chess game come in a certain sequence; this has
nothing to do with minutes or seconds. But the equations describe change
with respect to conventional time?
Among Linde's "outrageous" speculations, the possibility
is mentioned that we might be able to trigger an inflation event in
the laboratory, i.e. to create a universe. He addresses the problem
of communicating with future inhabitants of such a universe and concludes
that the only message that could get through would be the set of constants
of the laws of nature. In an interview, he said: "You might
take this all as a joke, but perhaps it is not entirely absurd. It may
be the explanation for why the world we live in is so weird. On the
evidence, our universe was created not by a divine being, but by a physicist
Which raises the question: Could it be hackers all the way?