19. Imagined alternatives to Let a Big Bang Make Light

(concluded) Chapter 2. Long Evolution: Universe Emerging




OTHER SCIENTIFIC HYPOTHESES on creation of the universe


We have just been through two versions of universal origin – one from widespread belief among the Abrahamic religions that dominate western civilization, the other from an inferred big bang theory that is dominant in worldwide science and much of the world population at large. The bang version is widely popular among scientists and a lot of other people, including believers in various religions, but it goes without saying that this does not include all scientists. Not all scientists agree on anything whatsoever. Before leaving Chapter 1, it will be fun to consider a few of the scientific alternatives.


A relatively small (and possibly growing) minority of scientists argue that some scenario other than a big bang is more likely true. Their various ideas differ drastically from those of big bang proponents, and from each other, not to mention their differences with churchmen. One such theory is a “steady state” universe that is infinite, has no beginning and no end, has always been, and goes on forever. It has ancient appeal, but is currently out of favor by the majority. Another is a “Hartle-Hawking initial state” universe.  This bizarre idea has a “starting point,” sort of, but starts by somehow convoluting around to “emerge without a true beginning,” if one can imagine that – and one probably cannot.


Unless you understand the details – details being the science and related math – certain scientific creation scenarios seem positively silly. Yet behind these scenarios are some of the more eminent scientific names of our day – especially string theorists. Considerable time and brainpower are seriously devoted to technical and popular writings promoting scenarios such as bubble universes, multiverses, “brane inflation,” and not a few other comparably fantastic scenarios of varying unbelievability. And, of course, let us note that not a few people who manage to mentally integrate religion and science just quietly believe in the Let There Be Light version which was long ago written up, peer reviewed and published.


Let’s quickly run through these, that we mutually may be entertained and reminded that there is no end to the corners into which mindsets can lead us – and even scientists too.


The steady state universe

Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) was one of British astronomy’s leading lights of the twentieth century. He made his reputation studying how stars work and was, among other things, a leader in explaining how succeeding generations of stars create the elements (as in the process briefly described above).


Hoyle never accepted the big bang theory of universal origins. It was he in fact who coined the term “big bang,” which he intended disparagingly. In a famous BBC radio interview he called the idea “an irrational process that cannot be described in scientific terms.” Much contrary to his intent, the nickname stuck. A well accepted spokesman, writer and popularizer of science, Hoyle also was unconventional. Like many a brilliant curmudgeon before him, he often challenged the scientific establishment’s accepted dogma. Fred Hoyle’s interest in cosmology, and speaking out for his concept of a steady-state universe, grew increasingly from 1948 on.


Hoyle reportedly detested the big bang theory because it so thoroughly clashed with his intuition – call it his mindset – that the universe was the same everywhere and forever. He and a few supporters maintained that spontaneous creation of new particles out of nothing was sufficient to explain the universe’s observed expansion. He viewed this scenario as being more reasonable than a big bang hypothesis which requires extrapolating back to a theoretical dot of quasi-infinite density. (Actually it’s hard to argue with his point, even though in this late day we know that four big-bang predictions have been verified.) Under Hoyle’s science-based concept, a steady state universe necessarily had no beginning and no end. Ironically, a timeless, unchanging universe has also been central to various mainstream religions from classical times to the present.


In the 1950s Hoyle’s steady state universe was a serious challenger to big bang cosmology. With passing years, however, it failed test after test as real observations produced mounting consistency with the big bang predictions spelled out above. Hoyle never abandoned his certainty of a steady state universe, even after science had moved on and stopped arguing with him. His legacy for lasting contributions today rests on the major new understandings he worked out concerning the origins of elements. Fred Hoyle explained his own Yorkshireman stubbornness in these words:


To achieve anything really worthwhile in research, it is necessary to go against the opinions of one’s fellows.  To do so successfully, not merely becoming a crackpot, requires fine judgment, especially on long-term issues that cannot be settled quickly.


For any proponent of open mindedness, his words ring especially true today. This book may be considered a modest reflection of, and influenced by, Fred Hoyle’s illustrious legacy.


The Hartle-Hawking no-boundary “proposal”

Despite the ambiguity of its several labels, this proposal (theory? suggestion?) posits a way for the universe to begin without being burdened by an actual beginning. It builds on the “sum over histories” ideas of the late celebrated physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman could find humor in anything, and I am sure he’s chortling somewhere over the Hartle-Hawking no-boundary proposal.


According to Feynman’s concept – he called it the Garden of Forking Paths – the universe might constantly subdivide into alternative parallel universes, each representing a slightly different configuration of its infinite components. Every time a choice appears – a potential fork in the path – the entire universe goes in both directions simultaneously. We (or, I should say, the many paths of ourselves) continue to be aware of the universe versions we happen to survive in, unaware of many others in which we do not survive.


It is apparent that the forking of paths may continue to fork infinitely. Each individual fork produces two universes, the path taken and the path not taken. And this further applies to each and every one of us, now well over seven billion humans. Wave your hand: two more universes – one in which your hand waved, another in which it did not. Bat your eyelash: two more different universes. See the wind blow a leaf: two more; and so on. Times seven billion – times all the seconds, minutes, hours and days in infinity.


There are many ways of trying to explain this essentially inexplicable idea. Another way, said to be in terms of quantum theory, would say that quantum particles go from point A to point B by going through every possible path (or “history”) simultaneously. Since quantum physics relies on probability rather than certainty (more on this later), a particle will not take the most direct course from A to B, like the diagonal dirt paths worn by short-cutting students on campus lawns. No, its progress will include every one of the infinite range of possible paths, including even those with low probability. Got that?


However:  the low-probability paths will “cancel each other out,” and this will reveal – somehow – the “expected” path. This seems to imply a measure of what I will call “pre-determinism,” since some self-generating path apparently was already “expected” by somebody. But, helpfully, none of the paths is real – they all are mere mathematical tricks to get to the solution. Thus does the “sum over all possible histories” enable us to understand what is going on. Understand? I recommend you go online to ponder original sources so you can understand it even better still. As Hartle and Hawking apparently do.


Never forget: this forking-path stuff is a theory upon which various folks will base other theories. For example…


…in the Hartle-Hawking version of universal origin, one presupposes (just “assumes,” as if it were true) that Einstein’s general relativity “has been merged” with quantum theory (though in fact, this paramount unmet goal of modern science most certainly has not happened, is not even close to happening). By so presupposing, one is enabled to dispense with the pesky concept of time. One can now imagine a new “reality” that is timeless. Time being, by its nature, temporal, if we simply dispense with time, then there is no need for a “beginning” – which likewise is a temporal sort of notion. See? Thus eliminating the bothersome constraints of time thus clears the way for the remaining three familiar dimensions, which can then begin a beginningless universe under the following analogous terms. Pay attention to Hartle-Hawking reasoning now.


If you think of the universe as “like” the south pole of the earth, and “suppose” that is where the universe “started,” the universe therefore would have to “expand” as you move northward, passing each circle of latitude on your way toward the equator. There would have been no “beginning” because, at the south pole, every direction is north. There is no point further south. That certainly clarifies that.


Moving northward, the circles of latitude – standing in analogously for the size of the universe – would expand in diameter and circumference. It “would be meaningless” to ask what happened before the beginning of this universe because there is nothing south of the south pole. That may sound a lot like asking what happened before the big bang, but Hartle and Hawking manage the distinction. Time, in their view, would have its analogous beginning at the south pole. Like space, time also would have no initial boundaries. For your greater understanding of this remarkable idea, here is fuller explanation in Professor Hawking’s own words:


The picture Jim Hartle and I developed of the spontaneous quantum creation of the universe would be a bit like the formation of bubbles of steam in boiling water.  The idea is that the most probable histories of the universe would be like the surfaces of the bubbles.  Many small bubbles would appear, and then disappear again.  These would correspond to mini universes that would expand but would collapse again while still of microscopic size.  They are possible alternative universes but they are not of much interest since they do not last long enough to develop galaxies and stars, let alone intelligent life.  A few of the bubbles, however, grow to a certain size at which they are safe from recollapse.  They will continue to expand at an ever increasing rate, and will form the bubbles we see.  They will correspond to universes that would start off expanding at an ever increasing rate. …


In the sum over histories, histories that are very slightly irregular will have almost as high probabilities as the completely uniform and regular history.  The theory therefore predicts that the early universe is likely to be slightly non-uniform.  These irregularities would produce small variations in the intensity of the microwave background from different directions.  The microwave background has been observed by the Map [sic] satellite, and was found to have exactly the kind of variations predicted.  So we know we are on the right lines. …  We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe.  God really does play dice.


The universe “bubbles we see?” Universe histories that are “very slightly irregular?” How is this more believable than the shaman’s great turtle? Perhaps it works better if one does the arcane math. Hartle and Hawking are eminent scientists, and Professor Hawking holds Cambridge University’s esteemed Lucasian chair in physics, the same previously held by his illustrious predecessor Isaac Newton. On the basis of credentials alone, should not one conclude there must be meat here?


Not at all. After running such ideas through an open mindset, one might equally conclude they do nothing more than: 1)  imagine up a new and different “no-creation” scenario that avoids the distasteful notion of the universe actually having had a “beginning;” 2) overlay this scenario onto existing facts such as the microwave background – facts already discovered and widely held to consistently support the major predictions of the big bang theory; and 3) then, retrospectively, reinterpret those facts into the imagined non-creationary context. If not bizarre, the Hartle-Hawking no-boundary proposal seems… cumbersome; falsely inevitable. Somehow “predetermined.” And one is led to wonder, what could possibly motivate such bizarre and retrospectively overlaid reinterpretation? How is one to understand the mindsets behind this whole weird scenario?


After reading his published books, I have concluded the eminent astrophysicist Stephen Hawking so viscerally dislikes the science-derived big bang version of universal beginnings because it seems to him so cozily harmonious with the religion-derived Genesis version which he verily cannot abide. He emphatically does not believe in God, a god, or any other god. His aversion to all things the slightest bit religious shows up frequently in his writings, of which the following is not untypical.


In a lecture on universal origins, Hawking referred to a Vatican conference he had attended at which Pope John Paul spoke favorably on delegates studying the universe after its beginning, but advised against inquiring into the beginning itself because “the moment of creation was the work of God.” Hawking then noted how glad he was that the Pope didn’t realize that he, Hawking, had presented a paper at the same conference, because “I didn’t fancy the thought of being turned over to the Inquisition, like Galileo.”


Really? One may reasonably conclude that Professor Hawking, in at least some part or parts of his mind’s broad arena, harbors a closed mindset. Four centuries have elapsed since the brutish still-Medieval church ruled the western world and persecuted people like Galileo for displaying inquiring minds. In those subsequent four hundred years virtually everything in human society has changed by orders of magnitude. Yet Hawking’s snide faux humor reflects real anti-religion sentiment which commonly appears one way or another in most of the many books written by modern scientists.


One may wonder when if ever they will catch up to realization that science long ago won all those silly old arguments, and that this ongoing antagonistic bias – this anti-religion them-versus-us mindset – is a needless divisive wedge against the common interests of all humanity in the modern era. The only way to banish the wedge is to change the mindset. Changing a mindset requires first recognizing that the mindset exists, and that is the hardest part.


The circular Limburger cheese theory

In a way, the Hartle-Hawking version of universal origin is compellingly similar to the Circular Limburger Cheese Theory, for which we are indebted to a good-humored chap named Bert Bigelow. While we’re examining alternatives to the Genesis and big bang versions of  creation, and sacrificing nothing of our faithfulness to Old Turtle, Bigelow’s worthy diversion simply must be shared. Briefly paraphrasing his telling, the story goes something like this.


I’m quietly sitting at a bar enjoying a beer, watching the sun set, when a lithe and winsome young lady slides onto the stool beside me, throws me a smile that would melt a ball-peen hammer and strikes up a spritely conversation. New possibilities not previously considered flit across my seventy-something mind and as quickly retire discreetly away. Trying to be polite, I ask why she seems so excited.


“I just came from my church, where we had a very inspiring service.”


“Oh – what church do you attend?”


“It’s a small denomination called Brevision.”


“New to me,” I say. “What does the name mean?”


“It’s named after Brevibacterium linens, the bacterium used to make Limburger cheese.”


“Um…what is your church’s main doctrine?”


“We believe that Pluto is made of Limburger cheese.” She looks intense and serious.


“Pluto…the former ninth planet?”


“Nobody consulted us on that unauthorized downgrade.” She looks briefly annoyed. “We’re planning to file a formal protest – with somebody, whoever. They don’t realize its importance. We believe Pluto is the center of the universe. ”


“Really! How many members does your church have?”


“Twelve to fifteen; it varies. Twelve at the moment.”


“I have to ask. Why do you think Pluto is made of Limburger cheese?”


“We don’t think it is. We know it is.”


“But how can you know? Nobody’s ever been there.”


“We just know,” she says, flashing that smile again, stirring some forgotten remainder of myself forty years ago.


“But,” I persist despite better judgment, “we know cows can’t live on Pluto. If there’s no cows there, making milk, how could there be any Limburger cheese?”


The condescending look I receive is doubtless the one she reserves for thickly dense children. “You must be a scientist,” she opines. “Limburger cheese is just a bunch of chemicals and stuff, so He could easily make all of it He wanted.”


“He who?”


“God, of course.” She eyes me with an are-you-an-idiot sort of gaze.


“Right. So your church believes in God?”


She stares at me under those gorgeous eyelashes. “How else can you explain all that Limburger cheese?”


The oscillating universe

During the 1920s some theoretical physicists, notably including another good-humored chap named Albert Einstein, discussed the possibility of a cyclic model for the universe. In this concept the universe would oscillate between the extremes of an explosive beginning that blasted things out and a gravity-driven pulling-in that returned all the universe back to its starting point – to begin again. This pushing-out and pulling-in would repeat over and over in an endless cycle. Today this might be described as a big bang causing the universe to expand for a time, until gravitational attraction caused it to slow, reverse, and collapse back inward to a big crunch, leading to a bounce which would start the cycle anew as a next big bang, and so on.


The oscillating model never attained great traction, though some discussion of its possibilities continued into at least the 1960s. Work as early as 1934 by Richard Tolman indicated the oscillating theory would fail because it appeared to violate the second law of thermodynamics, under which entropy can only increase. Tolman maintained that successive cycles would have to grow longer and longer, each cycle losing energy to entropy, until one end or the other simply failed to repeat and the cycle would cease.


The idea of an oscillating universe had philosophical appeal to some whose mindsets intuitively favored a never-ending universe, but no clear cut theory ever appeared to explain what might cause oscillation to start, or to continue. (But then how is that any different from an uncaused big bang?  Or, for that matter, Let There Be Light?)  In any case, the theory has little credibility now that credible scientific findings have confirmed universal expansion is actually accelerating and has been doing so for half the universe’s fourteen-billion year existence.


Still more theoretical models

There’s also bubble universe, multiverses, parallel universes, alternative universes and quantum universes, among others – plus dozens more variations on the concept of multiple universes, endlessly dividing and proliferating, amoeba-like, or spawning new universes which grow out of the side(s) of existing universes like bubbles or perhaps warts. String theorist Brian Greene discusses nine different “types” of parallel universes, with multiples under each type. There in fact are now so many different ideas on alternative universe scenarios that cosmologist Max Tegmark devised a four-level taxonomy to contain them and help bring order to others as they arrive.


They all have behind them quite serious and arcane mathematics that most of us assuredly would not understand. Many in one way or another echo Richard Feynman’s ideas on a splitting universe with the result that, as elaborated over time, two new alternate universes are created with every action, every thought, by every one of earth’s humans, and all other living creatures, and plants, not to mention raindrops and other moving things, on every day of their respective lives or existence, and all ancestors’ lives, back through all of life’s long tenure on the earth – ad infinitum. True infinity. For sheer exponential reproductive exuberance, multiplying universes make rabbits and duckweed look like pikers.


Feynman, one of the most brilliant scientists of the twentieth century, had a deserved reputation as an incorrigible practical joker. His biography leaves you loving the man and laughing at the zany creative ways he invented to pull audacious pranks on his peers. Doesn’t that fact sorta make you wonder about contemporary physics masters who in all deep seriousness build sand castle multiverses as inheritors of Feynman’s Garden of Forking Paths…? His parting joke perhaps…?


All these origin theories have appeared – quite a few hanging around to the present day and occupying major attention by many serious scientists – despite the fact that we don’t even know how big is our one real universe, the one we live in, because we can’t see out to the “real” edge of it. Suffice it to say that the big bang theory has some competition, such as it is, but I personally cannot vouch for how worried the big bang should be.


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…to be continued in one week…


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