Getting Past the Big Bang

Part One: Why Beginnings Matter

As a starting-point I have taken it for granted, simply, that the Beginning had nothing behind it or before it, that it was a Beginning in fact. . . .

. . . Are we not, indeed, more than justified in entertaining a belief . . . that the processes we have here ventured to contemplate will be renewed forever, and forever, and forever; a novel Universe swelling into existence, and then subsiding into nothingness, at every throb of the Heart Divine?”

Edgar Allan Poe, “Eureka: A Prose Poem” (1848)

There is not a much bigger question than “Where did the universe come from?” Since 1929, when Edwin Hubble’s calculations showed that galaxies beyond our Milky Way are receding from us at speeds proportional to their distance, the theory of origins called the “big bang” has become the dominant answer to that most fundamental question. From the highest levels of astronomical science to the deepest discussions of the book of Genesis, the theory pops up in almost any modern account of our beginnings. But giving the event a name simply frames a new question: What happened before the big bang?

Is an answer to that question even possible? Perhaps the ancients’ ideas of beginnings—that the goddess Eurynome created order out of Chaos; that a golden egg was split to become heaven and earth; or that civilization simply rides on the back of a great turtle—will have to suffice. Maybe the infinite regression of “turtles all the way down” (to borrow a phrase from astronomer Stephen Hawking) is the best we can do. After all, though cosmologists continue to propose answers, their solutions tend to be not only surprising but contradictory, and they can appear just as absurd as the ancient myths. Their hypotheses run the spectrum, from quantum fluctuations and vibrating, multidimensional strings, to multiple universes that are even now spontaneously forming. According to the mathematics of the latter idea, there is undoubtedly another identical you reading this same paragraph in another universe right now—but we will never be able to detect it.

If that is not challenging enough, there are theories that do away with a beginning altogether and exchange our current view of an expanding, finite universe for one of infinite, renewing constancy.

One thing is certain in all of this uncertainty: the answer cannot be found without first getting past the big bang. In this two-part article, Vision explores the human quest to understand our beginnings.

Part 1: Why Beginnings Matter

For millennia we have been drawn to the majesty of the night sky with the ultimate hope of finding revealed there a reason for our being here. In our searching, we have conjured countless myths and explanations. And in our common stories, told in ancient religions, pagan rites, and even the extraordinary musings of Edgar Allan Poe, we have attempted to conjure meaning and comfort from an apparently arbitrary, dangerous and purposeless world.

Unfortunately, stories that were momentarily compelling ultimately became unsatisfying. As time passed, new tools of observing brought new configurations, new explanations that gave new insight. As new theories supplanted old, the hamper labeled “Quaint Beliefs” became a bit more jam-packed, one discarded myth compacted down upon another.

Strangely prescient, however, Poe’s prose poem “Eureka,” written a century before the modern era of cosmology, presents a surprisingly contemporary view of cosmic history. The fact that none of the evidence used to support our modern origin/expansion view was known in Poe’s time is intriguing. Where did he get the ideas of a “primordial Particle,” of an ultimate “Simplicity” to the structure of matter, and of a “succession of Universes,” which are so similar to today’s big bang, particle physics and multiple universe theories?

The juxtaposition of spiritual underpinnings that Poe embedded in the structure of the universe might not be appreciated by all. Nonetheless, his description of a universe expanding from a singular beginning out of a mysterious nothingness, ex nihilo, is remarkable in its essential equivalence to the big bang scenario first scientifically proposed in the 1920s. At that time, and for the next 40 years, evidence first gathered by Edwin Hubble and then by other astronomers has buttressed, if not the “throb of a Heart Divine,” then at least the concept of a cosmic sequence of events from which the universe appeared.

One must wonder about the source of our insights: Is science truly objective? Is art merely fantasy?

At the unveiling of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field photograph in 2004, Space Telescope Science Institute director Steven Beckwith gave a modern perspective to this task of creating insight: “All great cultures have creation stories. We have a deep need to understand our past—where we came from and where we will go. We are very fortunate to live in a time when we can address some of life’s most profound questions of science. When this image is fully studied by the astronomical community, we expect it to reveal the secrets to the origins of stars and galaxies, and ultimately to ourselves.”

The Word

Over the last century there has been a rapid overturning of theories concerning the universe. Modern astronomers and cosmologists, like their predecessors—Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo—have spun a new mythology. Because light is not instantly conveyed across the depths of space, each new generation of telescope not only sees deeper into space but deeper into time as well. The light we collect now has taken vast amounts of time to reach the eyes of our instruments. From an analysis of that light, we cobble our modern view of the history of the universe. But, like hoping to trace one’s family genealogy, there is always more out there, another step back to be taken.

Not surprisingly, our perspectives are honed and colored by the scientific process and the physics with which we decode the data. Our theories, and the physical laws and mathematics that describe them, often delineate the range of our beliefs. Nevertheless, there is no denying a spiritual overlay to these insights as well.

Modern cosmology was developed and essentially conceptually frozen in 1930. Scientists have become so accustomed to the classical ideas that it is hardly surprising that most presume they have the right answer.”

W.G. Tifft, “What Is the Cosmic Redshift?” (2000)

Those who shepherd our path of discovery and enlightenment are nouveau high priests, able in a sense to enter the sacred temple of the observatory and bring back “the Word”: a cosmology of time, space, matter and evolution. It is surely easy to apply an ecumenical wash to science and scripture in this case and thus interlock the two, as our sense of being is tightly tied to beginnings. Our modern view of the Genesis event is called the big bang—a moment billions of years ago when it is believed the substance of the universe came into being.

Physicist George Smoot recognizes this interplay of physical knowledge and metaphysical meaning: “Society hungers for both science and mythology,” he writes in his 1993 book Wrinkles in Time, “and the big bang theory is where the two mingle most intimately.” He later adds, “In cosmology there is a confluence of physics, metaphysics and philosophy—when inquiry approaches the ultimate questions of our existence, the lines between them inevitably become blurred.” Smoot and colleague John Mather received the 2006 Nobel Prize for their work concerning the cosmic background radiation, a phenomenon associated with the origin of the universe.

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a well-known popularizer of astronomy, notes with headlong enthusiasm the sense of place we have created through our methods of investigation: “To understand the behavior of space, time, matter, and energy from the big bang to the present day is one of the greatest triumphs of human thought” (Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, 2004).

But such enthusiasm may be overblown. As theoretical physicist Lee Smolin warns in The Trouble With Physics, the theories massaged and framed from the data—what one would call the triumphs of human thought—are always circumspect. At least, they should be. “Science moves forward when we are forced to agree with something unexpected,” he writes. “If we think we know the answer, we will try to make every result fit that preconceived idea.”

Consciously Curious

It is wise to remember that we are always at the mercy of our current ignorance: we don’t know that we don’t know what we don’t know. “Always bear in mind,” remarked emeritus astronomy professor William Tifft at a 2000 seminar on the cosmic redshift, “that theory does not tell you what reality is. It models the way things behave, it describes relationships, it is not an explanation.”

We do know, however, that we desire to know. Such self-knowledge is a powerful and incredibly interesting drive in itself, a will to explore and create that appears to be uniquely human. Why are we aware of this desire? Our explorations seek more than just the history of the cosmos; they seek a “first cause” for the questions we conjure. After all, what we really want to know is what it all means.

Both Smolin’s and Tifft’s warnings are especially important when considering theories of origins. How we think about beginnings has an effect that spans both backward and forward in time—backward because we desire to know what has brought us to where we are today, and forward because we seek purpose to motivate our decisions. The ancient Hebrew king Solomon seemed to sense the dilemma we face when he wrote that God “has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” Ecclesiastes 3:11).

The Power of Origins

A misguided sense of origins creates an unsteady foundation on which an individual builds a life or, collectively, a culture builds a civilization. Whether we find identity as humanist or theist, we each participate in our arc of life based on our understanding of the past. From the former perspective, we trumpet our newly discovered, conscious control of the reins of our evolution. From the latter, we contemplate an interface with our Creator in order to seek something beyond our own imagination and the physical limitations of the universe we perceive.

An exploration of the universe is ultimately a voyage of discovery into the microcosm of our own selves—who we are, why we exist, and the source of such questions. This conscious sense of our curiosity compels us to push our explorations forward. Ultimately hoping to give context to our consciousness, we have pushed our technical skill and range of scientific observation ever outward. Thus we have amassed the most fantastic data set ever compiled in human history. But all this information must be more than simply stocked up and filed away; it must help us understand what, in Tifft’s words, “reality is.” We want to know the “out there” in order to understand the “in here.”

Clearly our sense of origins holds great power. Because we are physical beings living in a physical universe, science has a legitimate place in seeking an explanation, a first cause for the existence of the material world. For several decades, many a naturalist and supernaturalist have found common ground in the big bang—a material explanation for an event beyond human comprehension. Many have been satisfied with the idea of a Creator somehow “lighting the fuse” of the big bang.

But what if the big bang never happened? What if there was no beginning, no origin event at all? Where then is the need for a first cause, a fuse to light, or a Lighter? If the universe is simply an infinite set of falling dominoes creating an untraceable chain of cause and effect, where do we fit? A growing number of credible physicists are warning that our most well-known scientific theory of the origin of the universe is an idol, a superstition on the cusp of being exposed and, as with those found wanting in the past, discarded.

Science in many ways has indeed led us on an exodus out of an “Egypt” of ignorance and myth. Is the big bang theory—one of science’s greatest triumphs, as Tyson notes—merely a golden calf, a poor substitute that obscures rather than enlightens? If the big bang proved to be a fiction, how would that affect our greater quest for closure to our questions of origins?

In Part Two we will examine what Edwin Hubble called the “unrecognized” principles that are leading a cohort of physicists to silence the big bang.