What Does It Mean?

It’s worth taking a pause right now to consider where we’ve come. We started with a brief biography of physics, moving from the earth-centered view of things to a vast universe that might be just one of virtually infinite universes. This view is called the multiverse.  We’ve seen that the Big Bang Theory is currently the predominant theory on how the universe came into being. It is now almost universally (no pun intended) recognized as the accepted theory because it and it alone explains what we observe.

By running the Big Bang backwards we are led to an inescapable conclusion: that everything was all together in one place at one time. That instant in time is the Big Bang itself, the instant when immeasurable energy exploded. Both space and time began at that instant. We’ve speculated on what caused the Big Bang and we’ve run into a knotty problem that occupies physicists today. How do we reconcile General Relativity and String Theory? Is there one unifying theory? This unifying theory is given the name of the Grand Unifying Theory, inelegantly known as GUT. Too bad scientists have fallen prey to the seemingly insatiable desire to create an acronym for everything.  But science is no different than anyone else. We have reduced the Supreme Court of the United States to SCOTUS, which looks an awful lot like scrotum. But I digress.

We have seen that there are three possibilities for why the universe is the way it is. The first is that it is a random event. After the Big Bang there were almost infinite possibilities for how the universe could turn out and it turned out this way. In other words, we won the cosmic lottery; otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask such questions. The second possibility is that of the 10500 universes that exist in the String Theory-predicted multiverse, the odds are that at least one of them would be like ours, that is, capable of sustaining life. The final possibility is that, given how exquisitely fine-tuned our universe is, it must be the product of intelligent design.

We purposely chose this last postulate because it gives us much more room to let our imaginations run wild as to what form this intelligent design takes, is this a Supreme Being in the classical sense of God, does time exist for God, what was God doing before he created the universe and what is He doing now. Along the way we rejected two other possibilities, one suggested by Isaac Asimov that this universe is the creation of a super-computer created by another civilization; and the String Theory variant of that that we are all simulations in a highly evolved Farmville game being run by a seventh-grader somewhere.

So, where we are is with the proposition that a Supreme Being, God, created this universe. The Big Bang is consistent with Genesis. What does that mean for us?

First of all, it gives real problems to the evolutionists. Evolution takes a similar tack as String Theory. Over time, given so many variants in organisms, we evolved. Evolution has no need for God, just as LaPlace had no need in his theory. But if God created this universe for us, doesn’t it make sense that He also placed animals, plants, microbes and all other forms of life here as well? If evolution is going to stand on the proposition that God isn’t necessary for life to have developed on Earth then it better explain the existence of the universe in the first place.

With the almost certainty of further offending anyone other than a physicist, I’ll close this post with one of my favorite quotations

on science. This is from Ernest Rutherford:   File:Ernest Rutherford cropped.jpg

                       All science is either physics or stamp collecting.

By this he meant that every other science is simply concerned with categorizing information.

Back to Creation vs. Science

So the whole novel thing didn’t work out so well. I was taking part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and my last post (from November!) was the first chapter of my erstwhile novel. But November 30 came and went and I didn’t finish. Then the holidays came along and . . .  well we all know what the holidays will do to a routine. So since the whole novel gig didn’t work so well so I think I’ll go back to discussing religion.

The last post on the subject of the beginning of the universe looked at how the account of the creation in Genesis fits with what we know about the Big Bang and what it looked like. Science postulates that there was no “before the Big Bang,” that time and space began at that instant. Yet we’ve considered that God might be outside of the universe since, if He created it, where was He at that time? He couldn’t have been in the universe because it hadn’t been created yet.

Because string theory postulates an enormous number of possible universes, maybe an infinite number, we can speculate that God exists in another universe and that it was from there that this universe was created. Neither science nor scripture sheds any light on what these exo-universes might contain, so rather than engage in rank speculation, let’s limit our discussion to how this creation came about.

Genesis doesn’t offer a lot of detail other than to say God said “let there be light.” However, scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) have a more detailed description, though by no means complete. In the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, Abraham writes that God appeared to him and showed him “those things which his hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof.” From this we can infer that the creation described in Genesis was not just of this earth but involved the entire universe, just as predicted by the Big Bang theory.

This inference is supported by an account given by Moses, also found in the Pearl of Great Price in the Book of Moses. Moses prayed to God and asked “why these things [the world and creation] are so.”  In Moses, Chapter 1:33-38, God responded to Moses in this way:

Worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is my Only Begotten.

                But only an account of this earth and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.

                And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.

                And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.

These scriptures also align nicely, as does Genesis, with the Big Bang theory. “Worlds without number” as observed by Moses or Abraham, could well refer to the innumerable galaxies, stars and planets in the universe. Moses is told that “many worlds have passed away.” We know from physics that stars and galaxies have been created, lived and died. Stars burn out and become cold. We know that eventually the earth will fall into the sun and be burned to a cinder, thereby ceasing to exist, or passing away, in the words of Moses.

What was God Doing before He Made the Universe?

If space and time began with the Big Bang, does it make sense to speak of what came before the Big Bang? Stephen Hawking and other physicists say emphatically “NO!”  Everything started with the Big Bang. To speak of what was before the Big Bang is as ludicrous as to ask what is north of the North Pole.

In the sense of cause and effect within the confines of this universe, science may be right. Scientists and lawyers are always looking for the cause of something. Science is concerned with grander things, like what caused the universe to come into being, while lawyers look at mundane events, like who caused the five car pile-up on the freeway. But both look for a prior event or events that conclude in a certain result. The lawyer might say that the cause of the accident was that the defendant was going too fast for conditions, which caused his car to spin out of control, which in turn caused it to crash into another car, which….. You get the picture. In order to reach this conclusion, the lawyer has to work backward in time from the result, the accident, and piece together a chain of events that are causally related to each other.

Science does the same thing most of the time. Working backwards in time involves a bit more than the lawyer’s task because the scientist has to cover billions of years instead of a few seconds. Furthermore, the journey takes the scientist to the beginning of time, the day without a yesterday. Because there was no yesterday at the time of the Big Bang nothing could have happened that would causally relate to the Big Bang. The Big Bang just happened without anything influencing it because not only was there no time before the Big Bang, there was no space in which anything could act.

This is sound logic as long as we accept the view that the universe is all there is. But string theory argues that there could be series or parallel universes, an infinite number of them if we accept the theory that every time an event occurs the universe splits in two, one for each possible outcome. The theory supposes that nothing in any of those other universes can affect what happens in our universe, but what if it ain’t necessarily so?

Imagine a play is the entire universe. The universe begins with the first notes of the overture and the universe ends when the curtain falls. What happens within the universe is unaffected by anything outside the universe. The audience can conceive of time before the universe began and time after the universe ends. The actors, while in their roles, have no concept of time or events outside of their universe. When the play ends the characters “die” and have no concept of anything because their universe has ended. Time is no more for them and space has ceased to exist.

Now put God in the role of the audience and this universe in the place of the stage. God has a conception of both time and space outside the confines of the universe, though we, the actors in the play, do not. In this context it does make sense to ask, what was God doing before He created the universe.

St. Augustine asked this same question in his Confessions, written in the Fourth Century A.D. It is an apocryphal story that this question was asked of Augustine, to which he replied “He was making Hell for people who ask such questions.” Instead, what Augustine wrote was “I answer not as one is said to have done merrily (eluding the pressure of the question) ‘He was preparing hell (saith he) for pryers into mysteries.’ It is one thing to answer enquiries; another to make sport of enquirers.”

Augustine went on to inquire about a time before the creation. If God was not doing anything for innumerable ages before He created earth, why did He stop doing nothing and start creating? Augustine  answered his own question by saying that there were not innumerable ages for God because He created time as well as the earth. God’s days do not proceed daily. In other words, there is no succession of days, one after the other, for God. Instead His days are today. Everything is present for God.

Return to the play. While the actors are living out their existence in their universe and while time passes for them in their roles, the audience is in its collective present. True, two or more hours of “real” time may pass for the audience but most people would consider themselves to be at the play “in the present” as opposed to in the past or in the future. Meanwhile, in a play like Les Miserables, decades pass for the actors, yet it all takes place in the audience’s present.

This explains how God can hear the prayers of millions of supplicants. When an airplane is crashing and a hundred souls offer up prayers to God, He has not just the few seconds before their lives are snuffed out to consider those prayers. Instead He has eternity. Another crude example may help. A writer has put his heroine in a predicament. She is hanging by her fingertips from a ledge, dangling 100 feet above a raging river. In fact the predicament is so good that neither the author nor his heroine has any idea how to get out of it. The author can leave her hanging there for hours, weeks, months while he does other things and when he comes back to extricate her, no time has passed in her world.

So the answer to the question what came before the Big Bang depends on the view of the questioner. If the question is posed by one who believes that this universe is all there ever was and all there ever will be, the question is nonsensical. But if the questioner accepts string theory and its conclusions, it follows that there can be something outside this universe and therefore we can answer the question.

More Evidence of a Creator?

English: René Descartes, the French philosophe...

English: René Descartes, the French philosopher, by the French engraver Balthasar Moncornot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve already made note of the fact that the big bang looks a lot like the Bible’s description of the formation of the world. We’ve noted that the rate of expansion of the early universe had to be within tolerances on the order of 1 part in 1015 either way. That much more and stars wouldn’t have formed; that much less and everything would have collapsed by now. In the last post we saw the asymmetry between matter and antimatter necessary for the stars and galaxies to form and that that asymmetry is on the order  of one part in 109. As they say in TV commercials, “but wait! There’s more.”

If the asymmetry between matter and antimatter had been smaller, say one part in 1011 there wouldn’t have been enough matter for galaxies to form.  And if it had been greater, on the order of one part in 108 the abundant matter would have congealed into enormous lumps without forming discrete stars.

The same surprises exist in the world of particle physics.  If the strong force that binds atomic nuclei together were a few percentage points greater quarks wouldn’t form protons.  If it were five percent weaker stars couldn’t make heavy elements past hydrogen. If the weak force was much stronger the big bang would have cooked atoms all the way up to iron, leaving no lighter elements. If gravity was stronger stars would be mostly weak red dwarfs; much weaker and they would be fast-burning blue giants.  Either way so-called normal stars like our Sun would be non-existent or rare.

Many have seized on these incredibly improbable coincidences as evidence that some “Cosmic Designer” is at work. It is ironic that cosmology and physics can be conscripted to give evidence of a creator. This notion that the Goldilocks universe in which we live didn’t happen by chance is called the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle can be expressed many ways but the most common is, “the universe is the way it is because we are here to see it. If it weren’t the way it is, we wouldn’t be here.” This is reminiscent of Rene Descartes statement Je pense, donc je suis (I think, therefore I am, or cogito ergo sum in Latin). Descartes, a French philosopher of the 17th Century, set out to develop a set of fundamental principles that one can know without any doubt. As a starting point he had to prove his own existence. This he did by concluding that because he thinks, he exists. “The simple meaning of the phrase,” he wrote, “is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof he does exist.” Similarly, the universe exists as it does because we are here to question its existence.

Does all of this mean there is someone or something behind the big bang? Consider this hypothetical. You have been sentenced to death by a firing squad of 100 trained sharpshooters. You stand blindfolded and hear “ready, aim, FIRE” followed by a volley of shots. Suddenly you realize you are not dead. Under these circumstances the law says you may go free. Is it not realistic to see a higher power behind this? Aren’t the odds against all 100 sharpshooters missing you so astronomical as to be impossible in the absence of divine intervention?

On the other hand, the odds of a bridge player being dealt a particular hand are something like one in six billion. Does the bridge player marvel at the hand she has been dealt or does she simply play the hand she has? Most bridge players play the hand they are dealt rather than wonder why they got that particular hand, since all hands are equally likely.

Many scientists have taken the latter position — that the universe just happened this way. But to bolster their position against the “astronomical odds” argument, they suggest that one view of reality is that there is an enormous number of existing universes, on the order of 10500 (1 followed by 500 zeroes). With so many universes it is virtually certain that one of those is suitable for life. Therefore the Anthropic Principle holds true: the universe is this way because we are here to see it. We need not wonder at this particular state any more than we wonder at any other state. By making the universe non-unique in the sense that this is not the only one there is, the need for a creator is eliminated and replaced by simple laws of probability.

So where did these 10500 universes come from? For that we need to enter the world of string theory.

The Time has Come

The metric expansion of space. The inflationar...

The metric expansion of space. The inflationary epoch is the expansion of the metric tensor at left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The time has come, I tell you now, to speak of many things.

Of matter dark and giant bangs and theories made of strings.

And how the universe began and what the future brings.

Physics has settled on the theory as to how the universe came to be, which it named The Big Bang Theory.  The theory isn’t without warts.  Remember that the Big Bang predicts a universe that is younger than the planets and stars it contains.  Another unanswered question is why was it so hot right after the Big Bang?  A third question is why is the universe so uniform on a large scale?  Even with billions of stars and galaxies clumped together in local regions, on a very large scale the universe is quite uniform.  Another significant question is why is the rate of expansion so finely tuned?  If the rate of expansion of the universe had been smaller by one part in 1015 just one second after the Big Bang, gravity would have overcome expansion and the universe would have collapsed on itself by now.  Had it been about that much greater, gravity wouldn’t have had a chance to accrete matter to form into stars, galaxies and planets.

We’ve noted several times that the Big Bang Theory smacks of a creator, or intelligent design.  The last question, why is the universe so finely tuned, feeds that notion.  We live in a Goldilocks universe, not too big, not too small, but just right.  Why is that so?  What are the odds of that happening in the absence of some benevolent outside influence?

The way science has responded to these questions is interesting, to say the least.  Consider the Big Bang itself.  How did that happen?  Doesn’t the description in an earlier post of what the Big Bang looked like sound an awful lot like Genesis 1:3 in the Bible?  Can science explain what caused the Big Bang so as to eliminate an outside influence?  One explanation that has been posited is one of Alexander Friedman’s models.  Remember that Friedman said that three possibilities exist for an expanding universe.  The first is that it expands continually at a fairly steady rate.  The second is that it expands continually at an ever-decreasing rate, but never actually stops and contracts.  The third is that the universe goes through cycles of expansion and contraction.  The end of each contractive phase ends in a Big Crunch as all matter collapses in on itself.  This in turn causes another Big Bang.  It’s much like a Slinky going down an endless flight of stairs.  The Slinky expands and pulls itself over the first step then contracts as it hits the second step.  Then it bounces and expands itself over the second step.  This explanation only solves the problem for our particular expansive stage of the Slinky universe.  The question still remains, who or what pushed the Slinky off the top step?

Physics describes the universe by means of two partial theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, neither of which can fully explain the current universe that we observe, and each of which, alone, give contradictory predictions.  General relativity breaks down as we work backwards.  With all matter squeezed into what scientists call a singularity, general relativity is inadequate for the task.  At that point we have to look at the opposite spectrum of physics, particle physics, the science of particles, the things that make up atoms .  When we enter that realm, we leave the certainty of the real world behind.  Nothing is at it seems.

Stay with us; things are about to get very weird.

Conclusive Evidence

The fifteen years, from 1951 to about 1965, brought a number of developments that gradually weighed in favor of the Big Bang Theory.  Among these was the confirmation that radio galaxies exist.  Radio galaxies are sources of radio waves.  Astronomers had been aware of a far-away source of radio waves for some years but the debate over whether the source was a star or a galaxy was relevant to the Steady State or Big Bang Theory debate.  The theory was that radio galaxies were assumed to be young galaxies.  Under the Big Bang Theory, young galaxies should be very far away but under the Steady State Theory, young galaxies should be distributed more or less evenly throughout the universe.  Therefore, if the distribution of radio galaxies could be determined, that would provide evidence for one theory or another.

By 1961 over 5,000 radio galaxies had been discovered and their distances determined, some by direct observation and some by statistical methods.  The result clearly favored the Big Bang Theory: radio galaxies tended to be very far from the Milky Way.  Still, there had been no knockout punch one way or the other.  That changed in 1965.

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were working together at Bell Laboratories in 1963 in a new field called radio astronomy.  They both had an interest in radio sources in the universe and convinced Bell to let them use the radio telescope during down time.  In order to understand what the telescope was “seeing,” Penzias and Wilson had to filter out background noise.  This noise is exactly what you hear between stations on a radio dial.  It is electromagnetic radiation that comes from any number of sources: overhead power lines, a power plant, a competing and nearer radio station, for example.  To study distant radio sources, Penzias and Wilson pointed their telescope at an area of the sky where there should be little interference.  To their surprise, there was a persistent background noise.  The two tried everything to account for this but couldn’t.  Most astronomers would have ignored it because, though annoying, it wasn’t very significant.

I took the picture at a conference where Arno ...

I took the picture at a conference where Arno Penzias was a member of the panel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recall that in the 1940s Gamow, Alpher and Herman had predicted cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation as a left-over signal from the Big Bang.  Because at that time there was no way to detect CMB, their theory had languished and now, 20 years later, was all but forgotten.  Certainly Penzias and Wilson weren’t aware of it at the time.  Toward the end of 1964 Penzias attended a conference in Montreal, Canada, where he casually mentioned this phenomenon to Bernard Burke of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  A couple of months later Burke excitedly contacted Penzias to tell him that two theoreticians at Princeton, Robert Dicke and James Peebles, had presented a paper in which they predicted CMB (they, too, were unaware of Gamow’s, Alpher’s and Herman’s work two decades earlier).

Suddenly everything fell into place for Penzias and Wilson.  The background noise had nothing to do with extraneous power sources or even “white dielectric material” (pigeon droppings) left on the horn of the telescope as they had once supposed.  Instead, they had quite unwittingly and unintentionally proved the Big Bang Theory.  Not only did the Big Bang Theory account for CMB but the Steady State Theory had no place for it to exist.  Over the next 13 years a number of astronomers verified CMB, measured it and compared it to the predictions of the Big Bang Theory.  Everything matched.  In 1978 Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery.  This firmly cemented the Big Bang Theory as the explanation for how the universe came to be.  That conclusion, however, only raised another question: what caused the Big Bang?  As Carl Sagan said: “Ten or twenty billion years ago, something happened — the big bang, the event that began our universe.  Why it happened is the greatest mystery we know.  That it happened is reasonably clear.”

WMAP image of the (extremely tiny) anisotropie...

WMAP image of the (extremely tiny) anisotropies in the cosmic background radiation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Religion Weighs In

Most scientific debates take place in coffee houses and scientific conferences.  But with something as fundamental as how the universe began the public got involved.  George Gamow was in large part responsible for the publicity by writing articles for popular magazines.  Eventually even the Catholic Church got involved.  In 1951 Pope Pius XII gave an address in which he praised the Big Bang Theory as proof  of the existence of a creator:

“Thus everything seems to indicate that the material universe had a mighty beginning in time, endowed as it was with vast reserves of energy, in virtue of which, at first rapidly and then ever more slowly, it evolved into its present state. . . . In fact it would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to that primordial Fiat lux uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies. . . . Therefore there is a Creator.  Therefore God exists!”

image of pope Pius xii

image of pope Pius xii (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The atheist and jokester Gamow seized on this and mischievously quoted the Pope in a research paper he published in 1952, knowing it would annoy many of his colleagues who were anxious to avoid any overlap between science and religion.  The large majority of physicists believed that the validity of the Big Bang Theory had nothing to do with God and that the Pope’s endorsement of it should not be used in a serious debate.  Supporters of the Steady State Theory began to use the Pope’s address as a way of mocking the Big Bang Theory.  British physicist William Bonner suggested that the Big Bang Theory was part of a religious conspiracy to shore up Christianity.  “The underlying motive,” he said, “is of course to bring in God as a creator.  It seems like the opportunity Christian theology has been waiting for ever since science began to depose religion from the minds of rational men in the seventeenth century.”

Bonner was clearly referring to Galileo’s experience.  Since that unfortunate encounter between religion and science, science had portrayed a religious person as someone who checked his intellect at the door of the church when he entered.  This wariness toward religion sometimes bordered on paranoia.  English Nobel laureate George Thomson observed: “Probably every physicist would believe in creation if the Bible had not unfortunately said something about it many years ago and made it seem old-fashioned.”

English: George Gamow (1904—1968) — Russian-bo...

English: George Gamow (1904—1968) — Russian-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. Русский: Георгий Гамов (1904—1968) — советский и американский физик-теоретик, астрофизик и популяризатор науки. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the end of the decade of the 1950s, scientists were fairly equally divided between the two theories.  Both models had established themselves as serious contenders but neither had proven conclusive.  Both were based on observations that were made at the limits of science’s technology, so the “facts” deduced from those observations had to be taken not lightly but with critical examination.  Furthermore there were a number of highly intricate connections between the facts that were necessary in order to arrive at the final version of each theory.