Posts Tagged ‘universe’

Exploding starAt the moment the consensus in the scientific community is that the universe originated in a “Big Bang.” While that may be hotly contested by the religious community, there are certain facts that make the theory hard to easily dispell. One of those facts is that astronomers can observe the visible universe moving further and further away at increasing speed in all directions (and no we are not at the center of the universe.)

Some of the questions raised by those opposed to the theory are “what happened to cause the Big Bang, and where did all that stuff come from?” Just such a question was mentioned by John, a 15 year old also struggling with matters of faith and reason, who recently commented on my post “Branding an Adolescent Mind” at de-conversion.com:

Although, i speak to anyone willing to try to convert me but i have never heard anything that really made me wonder about the truthfullness of their beliefs. The one line that i really couldn’t answer was, ‘despite from the big bang and any of those scientific beliefs, where did all that matter come from?’ My only answer i could give to that christian crusader was, ‘Who are you to say that it all began from a superior being or entity, for some reason, deciding this should be and made it happen?’

Before I make an amateur attempt to answer that question, I want to say that science isn’t about having the one right answer. The thing I that I have come to admire most about science is the pursuit to ask better questions and find better answers. Many times throughout history science operated based on the best answers they had to work from at the time. When better evidence came along, those answers were set aside in light of what they later learned to be true. Nothing is sacred. Even what we consider to be scientific fact is really the best possible answer to a given problem at the moment. Although there are “laws” of physics, there are places where those basic laws break down and do not hold to be true, such as extreme environments like super massive black holes or the very early stages of expansion immediately after the Big Bang. I believe that whenever scientists hold their answers to be “infallible and inerrant,” they cease to be scientists and become religious zealots. I say all of that to say that I don’t have the definative answers to these big questions either. However, I do have better answers that I used to have, and I’m learning to ask better questions.

The simple answer to “where did all that stuff come from?” is a theory which says it came from a singularity, in which all of the matter in the universe was compressed into a space smaller than an atom. The better question that we are asking now is “what happened before the Big Bang?” Truthfully, no one knows. That’s why they call it theoretical physics, but as you would expect there are a number of evolving theories.

I tend to think that the answer to where it came from is the same as where it is going. The problem we have as humans is that we think of time as a linear concept, starting at point A in the past and moving toward point B in the future at a constant rate. Einstein’s theories show that time is indeed a relative thing. I wonder if time isn’t more circular. Can you find the beginning of a circle? Can you show me it’s end? It’s a senseless question. For us to keep asking where it all came from and where is it going may be just as senseless, because it may be that there was no beginning and there will be no end. Sounds strangely divine doesn’t it?

There are two prevailing theories as to how the universe will end that help us to answer how it began. One is that it will end in “fire and brimstone,” known as the Big Crunch. The other is that it will end in ice, known as the Big Chill. Again, this is my best amateur explanation of these ideas. The Big Crunch says that at some point the attractional force of gravity will slow down the expansion of the universe until a point that it begins to collapse back onto itself, eventually all the way back to a singularity once more. In this theory of the end of everything you also have the beginning of everything. This expanding/collapsing pattern repeats itself literally to “worlds without end.” On the other hand, the Big Chill says that the universe will continue expanding at an ever increasing rate of speed such that gravity is not strong enough to overcome the expansion. As matter in the universe continues to move further and further apart, stars will eventually die from a lack of fuel. The fate of this universe is a cold, dark and silent death. You can almost see how religious fundamentalists would appreciate the Big Crunch theory, if not for the the circular pattern of unlimited worlds and lives without end part. However, more of the scientific community is leaning towards the Big Chill theory as being more plausible.

I have enjoyed Stephen Hawking’s books immensely, especially his work on super massive black holes and Parallel Universes. My simple understanding of them is that it’s possible that an immense amount of gravity is compressed within a super massive black hole into a singularity, similar to what originated the Big Bang. At those extremes the fundamental laws of physics break down and theoretical physics steps in to fill in the gaps. In the theory of parallel universes it is possible that the compressed matter and energy of super massive black holes may actually result in a Big Bang of its own, resulting in a completely new and different universe from our own. If in fact it’s possible that super massive black holes result in a parallel universe, there would be an infinite number of parallel universes possible, not of all of which operate under the same laws of physics as ours. After 30 years of research Hawking reversed his theory on parallel universes and says now that after an immense amount of time super massive black holes die and eject their matter/energy back into the universe in an unrecognizable form from the original. Proving yet again that science like ourselves is a work in progress.

I share all of that to say that there is no one answer, at least not yet. We just have better answers and better questions than we used to have. The reality is that our average human lifetime is infinitely small in comparison to the life cycle of even this one known universe that we are in. No amount of science or religion will change the fact that each of us, everyone of us, will one day die. We will cease to be, at least in the linear concept of time that we live with. We are the children of stardust. Our bodies are literally comprised of elements derived from the stars. Given enough time, we will return to our source, whenever and wherever that may be. With those thoughts in mind I am far more inclined to believe in past lifetimes and future lifetimes than I am the Rapture. I am far more inclined to believe in the interconnectedness of all life. I am far more inclined to want to take care of the world we live in, and I am far more inclined to appreciate life, every life, for the wonderful rare and beautiful gift that it is. Good luck on your journey.

I’ve been enthralled by Brian Swimme’s book The Universe is a Green Dragon. I trust that you already know that we are children of the stars, literally. The planets, comets, moons, and even life on earth are all products of star dust. For that reason Swimme describes the universe observing itself through us:

We are the self-reflexion of the universe. We allow the universe to know and feel itself. So the universe is aware of itself through self-reflexive mind, which unfurls in the human. We were brought forth so that these experiences of beauty could enter awareness. The primeval fireball existed for twenty billion years without self-awareness. The creative work of the supernovas existed for billions of years without self-reflexive awareness. That star could not, by itself, become aware of its own beauty or sacrifice. But the star can, through us, reflect back on itself. In a sense, you are the star.

This got me to thinking. Often we live our lives trying to discover where it is we came from and wondering where it is we are going, not knowing either for certain. What happens to the world around us once we’re gone? Did our lives really count for something? Make an impact on others? All of those billions of stars had no idea of their own significance until we came along, formed from the leftover dust of their death. Just because we don’t know what will happen in the future doesn’t mean we won’t make a difference. One day we will become dust again, and in time we will return to our source, another star in another time that will one day too explode into a world of new possibilities. It really isn’t such a small world after all, is it?