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2009-09-18 — 4:11 p.m.

Origin of the Universe, Part 1

This is part 1 of the Origin of the Universe paper that Bill and I decided on as a followup to the Source of Morality paper from a few years ago. Bill went first again, mostly because I didn't have the time to get it started.

Part 2 is forthcoming, so stay tuned...

The Origin of The Universe

When we first decided to tackle this subject I figured it would involve a few weeks of study and a few hours of putting my thoughts down on paper. From what I understood there were a couple different theories about the universe’s origin and I thought it would be rather easy to sort through them. Piece of cake, right? Well, that was 8 months ago and my head is in a tail spin from all the theories that fill the academic hallways of the universities and institutions of the world. I have read books and various articles on The Big Bang theory, the Multiverse theory, Steady State theory, the Oscillating Universe theory and Creation theory just to name a few. I found that there are as many ideas about the origin of space and time as there are people to conceive of them. The fact that there are so many theories out there is not a bad thing. The abundance of theories has prompted some scientists to search beyond popular thinking and try to uncover truth.

But there is another side to this. When it comes to addressing the really deep subjects such as the meaning of our existence or the origin of the universe, there is the temptation to retreat into unreasoned belief. And from all the books and articles I have read I can tell you that even scientists are not immune to this. They have their beliefs and prejudices just like the rest of us. In the realm of origins there seems to be a fine line between what is reasonable and what is unreasonable to believe. Many of these theories are based on facts AND assumptions and therefore reasoning is required to finish the theory. After all, if there were no assumptions and only facts involved, then the theory wouldn’t really be a theory, it would be fact. So, this begs the question: Just how far can reasoned argument take us? Can we really hope to answer the ultimate question of the origin of the universe or will we, at some point, have to rely on faith to see our way through? As a matter of fact, what you will find in all of these theories is both, faith and reason. So, in order to sort through some of theses theories we will need to apply common sense, logical reasoning and faith.

I was recently talking to a co-worker of mine named Sean about this topic. I was explaining some of the theories I had been reading, many of which he had heard before. As we were discussing it all he reminded me about one of Einstein’s lesser known quotes. Albert Einstein, one of the most influential and respected scientists of modern times said this:

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity,
and I’m not sure about the first one.”

Needless to say we laughed. But what it really said to me is that even the smartest minds can’t grasp it all. All we can do is sort through the theories and try to pick the ones that seem to be supported by the evidence at hand. So, in this discussion about the origin of the universe, that is what I will try to do. I will attempt to present a couple of the popular theories that are out there and reason my way through them as best I can.

For those of you who know me or have read The Source of Morality discussion Tim and I wrote, you know that I am a Christian. So, it should be no surprise that I believe God is responsible for all there is. But my beliefs, as I hope you will see, are based not on faith alone but on scientific evidence as well. Unlike some people, I don’t believe that science and religion are incompatible or that the two are mutually exclusive. They both rely on a degree of faith. I believe one can draw from the other to produce sound evidence for the formulation of theories such as the origin of the universe. A physicist and theologian by the name of John Polkinghorne summed up how I feel about science and religion. He said:

“Science and religion are friends, not foes, in the common quest for knowledge. Some people may find this surprising, for there’s a feeling throughout our society that religious belief is outmoded or downright impossible in a scientific age. I don’t agree. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that if people in this so-called scientific age knew a bit more about science then many of them actually do, they’d find it easier to share my view.”

Now at this point I would like to try to explain the two possibilities for the existence of the universe and then go into a couple of the theories that came about as a result. I’m not going to cover all the theories I’ve studied because this paper would be hundreds of pages long and it would only be good for helping people to fall asleep (although some of you will do that anyway, I’m sure). So, if you’re one of those people who has wondered about some of this stuff then I think you’ll find it an interesting topic. And if you’re not one of those people, then I’m sure you’ll find some of Tim’s other blog entries quite entertaining.

Ok, you may have noticed in the last paragraph that I said I will explain the “two possibilities” for the existence of the universe. “Two possibilities” means exactly what it says; there are only two possibilities for the universes’ existence. Those two possibilities are stated here: either the universe has always existed OR it has not. In other words, either the universe has been in existence for an infinite amount of time (eternal) OR it had a beginning. There are no other choices to consider. And both of them cannot be true. It’s one or the other.

So, let’s start with the idea that the universe is eternal and had no beginning.

It is definitely possible to conceive of a universe that has existed for an infinite amount of time. After all, this was the thinking of much of the scientific era. Copernicus, Galileo and Newton all generally believed in a cosmos that was infinite (in time and spatially). However, with Newton’s theory of gravitation came some problems for an eternal universe. Newton’s laws of gravity told him that all of the matter in the universe attracts all other matter. He was puzzled about why the whole universe doesn’t collapse together in one big mass of matter. He wondered how all the stars could just hang out there forever in space and not be pulled together by each others gravity. If the universe was infinitely old then why hasn’t this happened yet? It didn’t make sense to him. He wrestled with this for years and proposed a couple different theories that ended up being wrong (but ingenious none the less). So the mystery of why the universe avoids collapse was left unsolved. Even Albert Einstein was perplexed at this. So much so that he attempted to alter his Theory of Relativity to make up for the fact that the universe was so stable and not collapsing in on itself. He called it the Cosmological Constant. Einstein later stated that this alteration was his greatest blunder. So, the fact that matter has not collapsed together in one big heap doesn’t jive with the theory of an eternal universe.

There are other reasons why an eternal universe doesn’t make sense. If the universe were infinite in time and size then the light from an infinite amount of stars would be pouring down on the Earth from all directions. If this were the case, we would never experience a night sky that was dark. An infinite amount of light would cause the earth to be in constant daylight. Physicists use simple equations that show this to be the case. They call it Olbers’ Paradox.

The problems with an eternal universe really hit a peak in the mid nineteenth century. This is when the Laws of Thermodynamics were being formulated and studied vigorously. At the heart of Thermodynamics lies the Second Law which states: Heat cannot spontaneously flow from a material at lower temperature to a material at higher temperature. Basically, heat doesn't flow from cold to hot (without work input), it flows from hot to cold. This law is not reversible and puts sort of an “arrow of time” on the universe. Scientists believe that the universe is on a one-way slide to Thermodynamic Equilibrium (or Heat Death). This is where temperature in the universe evens out and becomes uniform across the entire cosmos. This is known as entropy (maximum disorder). The fact that the universe has not yet reached heat death (maximum entropy) implies that it has not endured for all eternity.

There are more reasons why most physicists don’t believe in an eternal universe but I’m going to stick with the ones stated above for now. But there is, however, one interesting point I’d like to make about infinity and the universe. When we are dealing with infinity in things like mathematics we find contradictory results. The same applies to the universe and an infinite amount of time. Infinity is a concept and, as most scientists would agree, it doesn’t really work in mathematics. Here is an example: Let’s say that I have an infinite amount of marbles. And let’s say I wanted to give you an infinite amount of them also. I can give you all of my marbles so that I am left with zero marbles for myself. Or, I could do it another way. I could give you all of the odd numbered marbles and keep the even numbered ones for myself. Now, you have an infinite amount of marbles (all the odd ones) and I have an infinite amount also (all the even ones).

What these illustrations show are contradictory results. In the first case infinity minus infinity equals zero. In the second case infinity minus infinity equals infinity. For this reason, mathematicians are only allowed to use infinite numbers in conceptual math, not in math that deals with reality. Why? Because it’s not descriptive of what can happen in the real world.

Now, in the illustration above, replace the marbles with “past events”. You will soon see that this is absurd and leads to nonsense. In reality it is impossible to have an infinite amount of past events (or yesterdays). If you have an infinite amount of “past events” you would never arrive at today. See what I mean? Infinity and an eternal universe just don’t add up. And because of that, it seems to me that the idea of an infinite universe is not very realistic. Well, if that’s the case then there should be evidence to support the other option; that the universe had a beginning. So, let’s take a look at what the evidence has to say.

The scientific evidence for a cosmic beginning was first observed in 1913 by a man named Vesto Melvin Slipher. In short, he had taken hundreds of pictures (slides) of distant clusters of stars through his telescope and noticed one peculiar thing about them. When these slides were closely examined, they showed that the light from these stars were all shifted to the RED end of the light spectrum. In other words, the light from these stars appeared redder than normal. To the trained eye this discovery has significant implications. Let me quickly explain: Light is a train of waves in space. Scientists know that when a light source moves away from an observer, the waves are stretched (or lengthened) by the receding motion. The length of a light wave is perceived by the human eye as color. Short waves appear blue while longer wavelengths appear red. So, as a light source recedes from the observer its wavelengths stretch and appear redder then a stationary light source. So, in essence, this discovery by Slipher showed that these distant star clusters were moving away from the earth at high speeds.

This discovery by Slipher was the basis for what we now call the expanding universe. Later, Edwin Hubble observed what is now known as Hubble’s Law. It states that the further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving away from us. This law coupled with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity paints an interesting picture. Here’s why: Einstein’s theory, in a nutshell, said that the universe was either expanding or contracting (it allows for both) and Hubble’s Law proved that it was expanding. Now, it is important at this juncture to get a clear view of the picture that these discoveries are painting. The discovery that the universe is expanding doesn’t mean that these distant galaxies are moving away from us through space. It means that space, itself, is expanding and the expansion is carrying galaxies away from us. Distant galaxies are moving away from us faster then galaxies close to us. Here is an analogy that helped me understand it better; Picture a large room, say an auditorium, where seats are spaced uniformly so that everyone is separated from his neighbor in front, back and to either side by three feet. Now suppose the room expands rapidly, doubling its size in a short time. If you were sitting in the center you would notice that your closest neighbors have moved away from you and are now about six feet away. However, a person sitting across the room from you who was originally 200 feet away is now 400 feet away. In the same amount of time it took your close neighbor to travel 3 feet, someone else further away traveled 200 feet. Clearly, the person further away from you is traveling at a much faster rate. This is exactly what was observed by Hubble when he looked at distant galaxies. This is Hubble’s Law.

So, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Hubble’s Law, together or separate, are very strong evidence that the universe is expanding. Well, if that’s the case then this means that if you went backward in time (reversing the expansion), then the universe would shrink down to a single point before which it didn’t exist. Ok then, if there was a point at which the universe didn’t exist, then it must have had a beginning. And the idea that the universe had a beginning is the predominant thinking among most scientists and astrophysicists today. The question now is; “What started it all?”

There are many different theories about what started it all, with The Big Bang being the front runner in terms of support. Others, such as The Steady State theory and The Oscillating theory are derivatives of The Big Bang (more or less). Support for these theories has waned over the last few decades so for the sake of time (and my sanity) I’m not going to go into them unless it becomes relevant to do so. So for now I’ll briefly discuss the claims of The Big Bang theory.

According to the standard Big Bang model, our universe sprang into existence as a "singularity" around 13 billion years ago. What is a "singularity"? Well, to be honest, we don't know for sure. Singularities are zones which defy our current understanding of physics. They are thought to exist at the core of black holes. The pressure is thought to be so intense that matter is compressed into infinite density (a mathematical concept which truly boggles the mind). Our universe is thought to have begun as a small, infinitely hot, infinitely dense, something (singularity). Where did this “singularity” come from? We don't know. Why did it appear? We don't know. What caused it to expand? We don’t know that either. After its initial appearance, it apparently inflated (the "Big Bang") and hurled space, time, matter and energy in all directions. Everything, the whole universe, came from it. In fact, space, time, matter and energy did not exist prior to the expansion. As it expanded it cooled, going from very small and very hot, to the size and temperature of our current universe. It continues to expand and cool to this day. This singularity which appeared out of nowhere for reasons unknown is the Big Bang theory. That’s it, in all its glory.

Remember earlier in this discussion I said that science and religion are friends, not foes, and that they both rely on faith? Well here it is in action. The Big Bang theory has so many unknowns that it relies on faith and conjecture. With so many unknown variables, is the Big Bang our best guess as to how everything started? Yes, according to most scientists out there. This is because predictions made about the Big Bang have been consistently verified by scientific data. And the data supports a universe that had a beginning.

The discovery that the universe had a beginning was a shock to many people in the scientific world. The shock was not only scientific in nature; it was religious in nature as well. Why do I say religious? Because the idea that the universe had a beginning carries with it the idea of a Creator, or a Prime Mover. To many, the evidence for a beginning points directly to God. For others, they don’t have enough evidence for a verdict. And for others still, the idea of a Creator is repugnant. Now, there’s no question that science teaches us many things about the natural world. But the real question is “Do these things point to anything beyond ourselves?”

For hundreds of years theologians have believed in a beginning to all that we know. Now the evidence seems to point in that direction. St. Thomas Aquinas was one of the first to start putting Scripture and Greek philosophy together. He took the view of Aristotle, who believed the universe was eternal, and decided to try to prove God exists from that point. He did it this way because he said that if we presupposed a beginning, proof of God’s existence would be easy. He figured that it was obvious that if there was a beginning, something had to bring the universe into existence. And now, modern astrophysics and astronomy has thrust upon us the premise that, according to Aquinas, makes God’s existence very plausible. This reminds me of a quote by Robert Jastrow, an astronomer, physicist and cosmologist. In the final chapter of his book “God and the Astronomers”, he said,
"For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."

I know the idea of God and Creation doesn’t sit well with some of you. And to some it is just down right nonsense. So, in the next segment of this discussion I will attempt to show sound evidence that supports Creation Theory. I’m not asking for, or expecting, complete agreement from anyone, just understanding. Understanding that idea of a Creator is not just based on faith but scientific evidence as well.

Tim’s Reply:

Bill, let me start by saying that you did a wonderful introduction into this paper and put a lot of things down in a well-explained, cogent fashion. Good work! I have to admit that your paper is a lot more scientific than I expected – probably more than mine will be – and I’m really impressed. Moving on.

The Origin of the Universe is one of the biggest quandaries of the Human Race. It is something that each of us has pondered at one point or another, because I think it is Human nature to wonder why. Furthermore, there is some propensity in many Humans to feel like they are a part of some larger purpose; like their existence has a meaning. I believe that it is this same desire that led to the invention of the Gods, and ultimately to those gods being killed off one by one, being pooh-poohed, and finally the One true God being chosen/blamed/given credit for everything that is or was.

That being said, I’m going to dig right into the meat of this paper. The “Universe is eternal” argument I believe has no merit and is not worth discussing since we all know better. It’s a supposition that is hundreds of years old, and I won’t give it any further talk. That is to say the eternal Universe as this Universe.

Since the Universe is expanding and pretty much everyone will agree with the Big Bang theory in one incarnation or another, considering a static Universe is equally absurd. We know and can prove that everything around us is moving at obscene velocities throughout the night sky, both in relation to us and in relation to one other. It may not feel like it, but to think about the speeds that we are hurtling through the cosmos right now is hard to comprehend. We can’t feel it, right? Feels like we’re standing still! The only speeds that we can really wrap our heads round are the speeds that we have experienced, which is in a car or in a plane.

One of the theories that I have always liked, in fact, until researching this paper I didn’t even know that it had a name, was the Oscillating theory. The gist of this theory is that the universe starts as the singularity that we all know and love, explodes and fragments into the stars, galaxies, nebulae, pulsars, quasars, black holes, and all the other wondrous things that make the sky worth looking into, then after umpteen billion years the expansion slows, changes course, the black holes devour, and the whole thing reverses.

The Universe collapses back in on itself, which would take who knows how many more billions of years, then reach a point of infinite density and at that point seed a new Universe. I always liked this theory, because it forced me to open my mind to new possibilities of time, which I think Humans, being so very finite, have trouble with.

Up to when I first pondered this idea a few years back, I had never considered anything other than that this was the Universe and that time began 14ish billion years ago with the Big Bang. I’d never thought of it as the first Universe. Time, like distance, and speed is something that is a really abstract concept for simple, finite creatures like me. When you get into even millions, that’s a REALLY long time, so multiplying that by a thousand then stacking it is really beyond what our 75-year average life span can relate to. Anyway, it’s a tangent, I know. If the Universe were cyclic, then which Universe was this? How many times had this happened before? Was this the 3rd Universe? The 50th? The 700th? More? Then considering our Universe was still expanding, how many years would each of the others have lasted?

Extrapolating out that time line added up to A LOT of years, which is why thinking along these lines was such an interesting mental exercise for me. Unfortunately, it turns out that Science discredits the Oscillating theory, and it looks like there is nothing that will cause our Universe to put the brakes on and start slowing or changing course. Unless, of course, Space itself runs out and the galaxies just start crashing into each other again because they ran out of existence. Cool! There is something to ponder!

I have to say that finding out this theory was not embraced by science and was even disproven actually disappointed me. Why? Well the obvious and vain reason was that I wanted to be right, of course, but it’s more than that. I like this theory from a philosophical point of view and from a mind-expanding point of view. If the Universe did behave this way, then we would be safe in saying, not necessarily that our Universe is eternal, (since we would clearly know that it had a very long, but limited life span), but that existence, Universality, if you’ll excuse me making up a word, is eternal.

Of course, there would still be the whole “who made the first Universe” argument, but it would become a moot point by then, because we wouldn’t even be able to quantify how many had come before, how many would follow, and the concept of “forever” would actually mean something. There are some other theories other than the Oscillating theory which I will explore later though, so maybe I wasn’t completely wrong after all.

Another reason that I like a cyclic theory is that I’ve never been satisfied with the spontaneity of the Big Bang. The whole “it just began from a point of infinite density” isn’t good enough for me. It just stinks of faith and a lot of religious people hiding smiles behind their hand saying “I told you so”. I have a real problem with that. The bottom line is that no one was there, and it was a really long time ago, but the one immutable truth of the religion vs. science debate is this: When there is something that science cannot explain, then it must be god. And the beginning of the Big Bang takes the cake and eats it too.

Part of the reason that this theory is so plausible is because of the research done by Dr. George Smoot, a Nobel Laureate at the University of California at Berkeley, who has done a lot of research into the background radiation of the universe using the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite, or COBE. Dr. Smoot looked into the Universe’s past, back to the time when it was about 12 hours old (somehow) and through his research mapped the background radiation of the whole Universe, and the temperature of that radiation at 2.73K. It’s cold, but it’s still a heat.

His research also talked about the as-yet unknown Dark Energy that comprises 70% of the Universe, and whether or not it will continue to expand or move backward to the Big Crunch at some point. His research did, however, support the Big Bang theory and throw the Steady State theory out the window. It still doesn’t answer the crucial question of the moment though; the singularity.

There is no doubt in anyone that has two brain cells to rub together that the Universe itself is really old, was born (somehow), has evolved, and is expanding. The real crux of the problem to me, beyond the whole debate of Creation vs. Evolution, which is so tiny in comparison to this argument, is the question: “Why?” I think that the reason many Christians don’t want to or won’t believe in Human Evolution is that they can’t stand the fact that they are not God’s special creatures and that the Bible might not be true. If God did create the Universe, then it’s a slap in the face to Christians.

It’s pretty much irrefutable that there are 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe. The size of the Universe and number of stars and worlds in that much space is also irrefutable. I don’t even want to hear the “well do you know the odds of the same conditions for life starting on another planet?” Yes, I do, and they’re not that slim in all that space.

As of right now, September 2009, in our nearby stars we have spotted 358 extra-solar planets already, and the argument against those chances of life starting elsewhere drops pretty significantly with every new one that’s discovered. Why did God make all of that? Just knowing that there are 358 other planets around 348 other stars (since 10 of them are triple systems) SO FAR already diminishes our individuality; our uniqueness. And this is just in one tiny speck of one tiny galaxy, ours. Why?

I think that just the thought of not having been created by God is so appalling to most people that they won’t even consider it. They won’t consider life on other planets, not really, because that life would also have to have been created by God, and therefore it diminishes their fables about Adam and Eve, that God made the heavens and the Earth in 6 days then rested on the 7th, and so many other stories in the Bible. It makes them less special, less unique, and that’s anathema to true believers. The thought of death without an afterlife is equally appalling, and therefore rejected.

If we are the only life even in our galaxy though, if God made 100 billion Adams and 100 billion Eves, then we are not His special creatures, we are a sociological experiment. “Ooh, I wonder how many different ways they will think of to destroy themselves in my name…”

Why? Why would God make other planets around other stars? Why do we even have more than 1 planet in our own solar system? What the hell is Mercury for? And what about Venus? Do you know that the surface temperature on Venus is 900 degrees F, the atmosphere is 86 times denser than ours, and it rains sulfuric acid? Why did God make Venus? Why does Saturn have 34 moons and we only get 1? Were the other planets just to give us something to look at once we developed the optical technology to appreciate how pretty they are?

So really then, to say that God created the Universe, you have to agree that it’s a study in imperfections and mistakes. There are comets large enough to destroy most of the life on Earth crashing into Jupiter (within the last decade), stars exploding, entire galaxies crashing into one another, leaving their sparkling entrails strewn like shiny beads of blood across millions of light years, and I would ask again the simple question: Why?

To see undeniably through the eyes of the telescope, X-rays, and other ways that we have to observe the Universe that it is there, evolving, real, and ancient is to believe in science. I don’t see how a person could look at the Universe and say with any conviction that evolution never happened. It’s disingenuous.

“ Well, what happened is, He made all that 14 billion years ago, but then he went on a really long vacation before he made Adam, and some shit fell apart while he was gone. It all makes perfect sense if you think about it.” Really?

Back to the beginning, and there was one, I know that modern scientists agree that there was a beginning. All the evidence points to it, and I’m not sure how we could get around it. I don’t understand any of the quantum physics and quantum gravity behind it, but even if I did, I’d likely still have to throw my lot in with the scientific community since the expansion is undeniable, there has to be a reverse, and the simple reverse goes back to a starting point.

At the beginning though, that’s where I get a little queasy, as I mentioned earlier. I want to be able to explain it away with Almighty Science, just as you want to be able to explain it with the Almighty. What happened at that moment 14.6 billion years ago? Ultimately, I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

It is interesting to note, however, that George Lemaître, who first proposed the Big Bang Theory, was not only a notable Belgian physicist, but also a Roman Catholic priest. Although this is a scientific theory, the religious implications are sort of inherent in its very origins, not to overuse a term. So where do we go from here?

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Want to comment? Speak up! 5 Quips to Date

stepfordtart - 2009-09-19 14:52:51
I need to read this again when I havent been drinking. I might even comment again if I can find anything more sentient to say than "coooool"! s x
Frank J - 2009-10-04 14:02:41
Very interesting! Can't wait for part 2. It's rare that you find a civil discussion on topics such as this. I think you guys need a bigger forum.
For-Tart - 2009-10-21 19:13:07
Don't forget the question "If God created the universe who created God?"
Bill - 2009-10-24 18:35:27
That question is addressed in part 2, coming soon.
Mercury - 2010-02-23 02:06:14
It seems religion had this one right before the scientist.

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