Showing posts with label origin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label origin. Show all posts

11 January 2013

In the beginning

The universe, Part 3
< How does science work?Series index | From the beginning to atoms >

The beginning of the universe is hidden from us although we know it's about 13.75 billion years old. We can theorise about it using mathematical tools, but we can't see it and we can't measure it. Everything began at that point - space, energy, even time itself.

Maths is an essential tool
We can't see the beginning itself. People sometimes talk about the Big Bang and they imagine a huge explosion crashing out into an empty expanse of endless space.

But that's not right. If you see it in that way you are really not seeing it at all!

Nothing existed before the Big Bang. At least no physical thing that we can see or know inside this universe existed.

There was a singularity, though it's difficult to imagine one of those or what it implies.

  • Time began at the beginning, so before the beginning is meaningless.
  • Space began at the beginning, until then there had been no room in which anything could have existed. There was nowhere to explode into.
  • Energy began then too, beforehand there was no energy.
  • And there was no matter because matter is just condensed energy.
  • Even the laws of physics began at the beginning

Time, space, energy and physics all had their origins at the beginning, and we can't investigate that extraordinary phenomenon - the beginning. We can't see it, we can't visit it, we can't measure it, we can't really imagine it. Not only is it far more extraordinary than we think, it is far more extraordinary than we are able to think.

And perhaps the most amazing thing about the beginning is that eventually we came from it; we are here and are able to think about how extraordinary it all is.

Theoretical problems - It's almost as if the universe doesn't want us to understand its origin. Our best models for the earliest moments of the universe are mathematical. OK, really our only models for this are mathematical.

However there's a serious issue, even with that. If at the beginning the universe was infinitely small then some of the numbers in the models become zero, or they become infinite. Not only does the universe seem to explode, so does the maths.

Maths doesn't always handle zeros and infinities especially well, they can be a problem. It makes mathematical models difficult as we try to apply them closer and closer to the beginning. This is driving some mathematicians and cosmologists to think that there may not be a beginning at all, just a certain minimum size and maximum density before which the universe was larger and, perhaps, time ran the other way. Or something.

Is there room for intelligence? - We can only think about it because we are here. There are no other animals on this planet that even know there was a beginning. We are unique on Earth.

I imagine there must be many other intelligent minds in the universe and it's likely that all of them give some thought to the beginning. Each in their own, unique way no doubt. The fact that there is a beginning is one of the reasons I believe in an even greater intelligence that caused the universe to begin. What is certain is that intelligence is almost inevitable given the properties of the universe, but it couldn't appear until a lot of other things were in place.

But for a moment, let's consider the alternative that the universe has always existed and will always exist with new energy and matter appearing to 'fill the gaps' as it expands. In the 1950s and 60s many cosmologists argued this was the case, it was called the 'Steady State Theory'. But it's since been shown to be incorrect.

But if it was correct I would still feel the need for a first cause, a greater power and intelligence to make it exist. So whether there was a beginning or not, I will still believe in a Creator.

What is the alternative? It's all just causeless?

After the beginning? - But there was a beginning, and we can understand some of the things that happened soon afterwards when the universe, time, space, energy and physics were all very new. And you'll be astounded to learn that we understand some things about it even a tiny fraction of a second after the beginning. A much tinier fraction than you think (unless you're a cosmologist).

It all began roughly 13.75 billion years ago. Our Solar System and this Earth are around 4.5 billion years old or about a third of the age of the universe. The universe was smaller then too.

If you made it this far, congratulations! After this things get easier as the universe grows bigger, older and more familiar. Next time we'll pick up the story at that point where we think we know something, and we'll find out just how awesomely near the beginning that is.


Questions:

  • How comfy are you with the idea of a creative intelligence causing this universe?
  • How comfy are you with the idea of the absence of any such creative intelligence?
  • Does your head hurt yet? Go and get a cup of tea, or coffee, or a glass of wine.

See also:


< How does science work?Series index | From the beginning to atoms >

03 January 2013

The universe - INDEX

(See indexes on other topics)

This is the index page for a major series on the story of the universe. I'll be adding sections from time to time and provide links to all the parts below.

Where does it begin and end?I would like to attempt a major project in which I'll do my best to describe and explain the universe as we understand it in 2012 and 2013. The first part of the series is an introduction and explains why and how I am doing this.

The list below will expand as fresh parts are written. It's a story with no beginning as we cannot currently investigate the state of the universe right at the start (assuming 'the start' has any rational meaning for the universe). And it's a story with no end because it seems unlikely that the universe will have an ending in the sense of ceasing to exist.

Besides, time itself might be seen as part of the universe. In that case we would be talking about the beginning and end of time. What would that mean?

One of the truly astonishing things about the universe is that it contains tiny blobs of matter (us) that are capable, in some sense, of comprehending it. This should seem far more extraordinary than it does to most people most of the time.

Here's the list of parts so far.
  1. Introducing the universe - Why am I attempting this project?
  2. How does science work? - So, why should we accept the claims of science?
  3. In the beginning - Even time and space began at the beginning.
  4. From the beginning to atoms - Forces and particles condense from energy
  5. Penzias, Wilson and some noise - How the cosmic background was found.

Questions:

  • Do 'beginning' and 'end' in science and in religion refer to the same thing?
  • Scientific and religious - do they overlap or conflict or are they distinct?
  • What lies beyond the universe? How could we know?

See also:

03 May 2010

Science and faith - a view from Nature

I've just spotted a piece by Philip Ball in the journal 'Nature'. The cosmic microwave background radiationHe makes some very good points and supports my own views about the awesome behaviour of the natural world. He states,
Were I inclined to believe in an omnipotent God, I should be far more impressed by one who had intuited that a world in which natural selection operates autonomously will lead to beings that function as well as humans (for all our flaws) than by one who was constantly having to make adjustments.

Quite! Unlike Philip Ball, perhaps, I do believe in an omnipotent Prime Cause. I have often thought that the power behind the universe would have to be exceptionally clever to design physical laws that would require energy to bundle itself up in tiny packets that would interact in just the right way to form atoms of hydrogen and helium on the tiniest scales which would then coalesce gravitationally on very large scales to produce galaxies and stars.

These same physical laws ensure that stars will create all the elements up to iron and supernova explosions will synthesise the rest. Simple sugars, amino acids, and nucleotides will form in conditions that are not uncommon in the dusty discs around later populations of young stars, planets will form in these discs and life will arise almost inevitably. Once self-replicating systems are present Darwinian evolution is certain to begin its work and more and more complex life forms will appear as the millions and billions of years pass. Intelligence seems to be pretty much inevitable too.

So much from so little - indeed so much from absolutely nothing! This is one of the reasons I find it impossible not to believe in a power behind the universe. And somehow, though he might not agree, I don't think Philip Ball will hold that against me. Our positions are at the same time only slightly different yet fundamentally opposite. I believe in a Creator, he doesn't, yet we both see the same mechanisms operating and bringing about the rich universe we live in.

Truly, faith and science have no reason to argue. It saddens me greatly to see disagreements about the origin of the universe, evolution, palaeontology and the rest. It particularly saddens me as a trained scientist to see that most of the arguments against science are based on misunderstandings or false assumptions. It alarms me that matters like anthropogenic global climate change are dismissed. And it angers me when scientists' motives and morals are questioned. Scientists are not immune to mistakes or even (rarely) deliberate fraud, but the overwhelming majority are seeking for truth - verifiable, testable, truth.

(See also my previous post.)

25 April 2010

Science and faith - war or peace?

The origin of the universe, the origin of life, evolution - these are some of the topics that seem to be endlessly debated across the science/faith divide. Molecules of lifeWhy does this happen, what are the root causes of the sometimes strongly-worded arguments? Perhaps it's time to take a fresh look.

Science is based on such things as reason, deduction, inference, and testing by experiment. At the most fundamental level science is simply a formal way of observing how things are. And it has an excellent track-record. We depend daily on the technologies that science has made possible. We drive our cars, watch TV, depend on medical help when we are sick or injured. All of these things and many more are rooted in generations of observation, hypothesis, and testing.

On the other hand faith is not based on observation and experiment but on assertion, often about matters that are untestable and are unknowable in the scientific sense. The existence of a powerful personality outside the universe and this personality's influence within it are not things science can investigate. Science doesn't reject faith (indeed it might investigate faith as a phenomenon) but it does not (and cannot) investigate the claims of faith.

There is therefore no reason for science and faith to do battle with one another, but historically this has happened repeatedly. An example of past 'warfare' concerns whether the earth or the sun is the centre of the solar system, one current skirmish centres on the origin of life and on evolution, another one on theories about the origin of the universe.

The usual pattern is that science draws a conclusion that offends people of faith in some way. Instead of understanding the scientific arguments and accommodating them within the framework of faith, believers often try to find holes in the science. Scientists continually refine our understanding in a formal way, believers sometimes lash out at new ideas they don't like.

How can we take this forward? Here is some advice for scientists and believers who have become embroiled in debates of this sort.

Scientists - Don't become angry, recognise that if the science is sound you have demonstrable facts on your side. State these straightforwardly and point detractors to the evidence calmly. If you are vilified and your integrity is questioned, recognise that these are the actions of desperate people who have not yet understood that facts are a form of truth. The battle will rarely centre on those facts, instead it will usually focus on attempts to discredit the people involved. Don't engage with these attempts.

Believers - Don't interpret statements from scientists as provocation, they are simply sharing factual information. Respect the people even if you don't like their thinking. Christ called you to love so speak in love, not in anger. Look at the scientific claims calmly, facts about the world cannot possibly contradict truth. Look for ways of accepting the science within your framework of faith. Remember the battles about the place of the earth in astronomy, why is that no longer an issue? Understand that if the Almighty exists, scientific and spiritual truth will be able to coexist, because he is the author of both.

Where there appear to be contradictions there is an opportunity for mutual understanding. Science deals with the realm of materials and energy, faith deals with the realm of the spirit. There is no overlap in subject matter and there is no clash of ideas that can't be accommodated.

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