Crikey’s writer-at-large takes an umbrella view of the origins of the universe — and why it matters to American politics now more than ever.
Last year, followers of United States politics were surprised — and we’re a tough crowd to surprise — when Georgia congressman Paul Broun announced we had to reject “ideas from hell” such as “evolution” (of course) and “the Big Bang [theory]”. Say what? The theory of the origin of the universe, of time and space. Was that a thing now? Well, of course. If you’re going to question the fact of evolution by reference to the Bible, then materialist cosmology has to go too.
God created the universe, some days after creating the earth, by looking down on the “face of the waters”. Ah, but where did the waters come from? Shut up, heathen. Geocentrism is the new thing on the American religious Right — the idea that the earth is in fact the centre of the universe, and that the appearance that it is not is simply a vast optical illusion put in place by God. In that respect, it bears a resemblance to the omphalos theory of Gosse, a 19th century religious fundamentalist and leading paleontologist, who suggested that God had buried prefabricated fossils in the earth in order to give the earth a “before”.
Such theism can be excised simply enough with Occam’s razor — the simplest explanation is the best — and the Big Bang remains a better theory than Genesis. But as with all science, it’s provisional. Now it is increasingly looking like the Big Bang itself will have to be retired, at least in its singular form. This is partly due to new results from the Hubble telescope, but it’s also to do with some better reasoning about the nature of time and space. In the process, the universe is getting weirder, not simpler.
The Big Bang, as any fool knows, is the theory that the universe began about 13.8 billion years ago, with a sudden expansion of an infinitely dense singularity, thus creating both space and time in its present form. There was no “before” the Big Bang, for us at least, and there was nothing here, not even nothingness.
The theory replaced the previous theory of an infinite “steady state” universe, which threw up anomalies (if the universe was infinite in time and space, and uniform, then every point of vision should end in a star, and the night would be as bright as the day). Once proposed — the name was a derisive nickname, applied by Fred Hoyle, the last “steady state” theorist — the Big Bang amassed a wealth of evidence to show that the universe was expanding from a central point (although, of course, the central point is everywhere), from the wavelength shift of light, to a uniform background radiation, detected in 1968, and which dates from around 380,000 years into the life of the universe, when the hot soup of sub-atomic particles cooled sufficiently to form atoms, giving off a vast burst of radiation in all directions at once.
However, as the theory progressed, it began to throw up some problems. For if the universe had been born in the explosion of a singularity, which created a series of particles and their anti-particles, why did they not cancel each other out perfectly? At a certain scale, the universe is extremely patterned and uniform — stars and galaxies are everywhere — but why are there lumpy bits, i.e. matter, at all? The theory then developed that the universe underwent a vast process of inflation at a very early stage — very, very early, i.e. between 10 (-38) and 10 (-30) seconds of its existence — in which it expanded in size between 1025 and 1078 times — an area of space the size of a full stop expanding to a million light years (six quintillion miles) across.
This vastly expanded form had thus occurred at a point when there was a slight excess of matter over anti-matter, thus leaving the 6% or so of the universe we can detect. The full theory of course was filled out by general relativity and quantum mechanics. The Big Bang was thus not merely an explosion of dense matter into space over time, it was the coming-into-being of space and time, the four dimensional universe (three space plus one time), which we experience as a three dimensional universe, traversed in time. The universe is thus finite overall, but infinite to us, just as two dimensional creatures would experience the surface of a sphere as an infinite universe that they could never find the edge of.
“From this process emerged various ideas that steadily repositioned the Big Bang as an event within a metaverse.”
However, that theoretical fusion, together with increasingly sophisticated and predictive quantum mechanics poses two questions:
If the universe is infinite to us, but finite in a meta-sense, can there not, must there not, be a meta-realm within which the universe is set?
Furthermore given the “goldilocks” character of our universe — its settings are “just right” for complex matter to emerge in such a way that beings with consciousness can also emerge — is it not more likely that this is one of innumerable universes existing in meta-space and meta-time? Most of them would go unobserved, never yielding conditions of emergent consciousness. Ours, and perhaps others do.
From this process emerged various ideas that steadily repositioned the Big Bang as an event within a metaverse. Various theories now see the Big Bang as one of a number of events. One theory suggests that inflation — which can travel faster than the speed of light because it is not, per se, travelling — creates a series of universe/regions, with wildly different physical laws. Another suggests the Big Bang is one among innumerable events in a foam of quantum possibility. But a third, using string theory — - or more exactly, “brane” (multidimensional objects) theory, which poses that our 3/4 dimensional universe is really the visible part of a universe with 10, 11 or 26 dimensions — suggests that the Big Bang is the product of a collision between two unimaginably vast brane forms in a metaspace.
The last of these — one of a number of “cyclic” theories of the universe — suggest the Big Bang was one of an unending chain of events, and that inflation is not required to explain the given features of the universe. Even more weirdly, some information may survive from one universe to the next. Indeed, it may be that the Higgs field — the recently confirmed sort of gluey layer of the universe which gives mass its mass, its positor rewarded today with a Nobel prize — somehow goes through this process.
Now champions of the M-brane version of cyclic theories are arguing that recent data from the Planck telescope suggests that a cyclic theory is preferable to an inflation theory, since its ever more fine tuned analysis of the universe’s background radiation suggests that inflation alone cannot solve the problem of the universe’s extraordinary smoothness — it would have to be a billion times smoother (i.e. evenness of energy spread) before inflation to account for current conditions. Furthermore, the rate of inflation and its continuation must themselves be smoothed out, in such a way that leads to other anomalies. Eventually, the only viable graph of inflation creates a rollercoaster rise and fall, which, as M-brane champion Paul Steinhardt remarks, “ceases to be predictive”. Inflation’s champions aren’t taking this lying down, arguing that the smoothness of the obeservable universe is merely a measure of how vast the entire inflated universe is.
Philosophically, of course, a cyclic universe gets around the condundrum of an event like the Big Bang “starting” time — for the very notion that time can have a beginning denies the very nature of an event, which is a process of “presence” creating a division between past and future, i.e. you can’t have an event without time, or a meta-time. Philosopher such as Husserl and Heidegger have long argued the Einsteinian model of dimensional time takes the specific nature of clock time — in which time is divided like space — and imputes it to the physical world, ignoring the idea of time as duration. The physicist-philosopher Lee Smolin has taken this up in his books The End of Physics and Time Reborn, suggesting the multiple impasses of physics — string theory with 10500 viable solutions, stop-start inflation — are all due to this misunderstanding about the fundamentally different nature of time to space.
All very mysterious, and gratifying perhaps to Paul Broun, who undoubtably keeps an eye on such things. For the geocentrist congressman is of course on the congressional subcommittee for science. Understand the shutdown now?