A Deep Dive into the Big Bang
Eight books about The Big Bang
Four Patterns in Cosmic Creation: Big Bang to
Birth and Death of Stars
By Dee Wilson
No tribe, culture, society or mythological tradition has ever had a creation story as fantastic as the one endorsed by modern scientific cosmology: a dimensionless point of infinite density – a singularity to which no known scientific laws apply – out of which a tiny quantum fluctuation appeared, followed a tiny split second later by the Big Bang and an inconceivably rapid inflation of the cosmos which led to temperatures of trillions of degrees, hot enough to eventually create 200 billion galaxies and trillions of stars and everything in galactic systems and stars through the conversion of energy into matter. In other words, most modern cosmologists endorse a story in which the cosmos originated from a particle many billions of times smaller than a proton, which is far tinier than a grain of sand!
Viewed as science, the Big Bang is a theory (with strong evidence) because it is impossible to observe events that occurred during the 380,000 years of cosmic history when photons could not escape the energy field created by the Big Bang. In What’s Eating the Universe(2021) Paul Davies states,” …astronomers can directly see the birth of the universe through the fossilized light of the cosmic background radiation (CMB), which however, is “what’s left of the glow present at about 380,000 years after the big bang, an epoch about 0.003 percent of the present age of the universe. Expressed differently, we can look back99.997 percent of the way to the beginning.” (Davies, p. 104)
Viewed as story, the Big Bang resonates with the Vedic myth of Prajapati, God of Creation, who allowed himself to be torn apart to create the universe, as described by Roberto Calasso in his book about Vedic India, Ardor(2010).
The most provocative recent book I’ve found regarding modern science’s story of cosmic creation is Guido Tonelli’s Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began (2019). Tonelli is an Italian particle physicist at the University of Pisa and a visiting scientist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). He was involved in the discovery of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle. In Tonelli’s account of creation, the Big Bang is preceded by an unimaginably brief quantum fluctuation that removes the need for a singularity regarding which current cosmology has no understanding. The Big Bang is a brief period of cosmic inflation (see below) which follows a quantum fluctuation that is mysteriously “stalled” in its “descent to zero energy.”
In What’s Eating the Universe? Paul Davies provides a less speculative account of the Big Bang than Tonelli’s, and is skeptical regarding key elements of Tonelli’s story, e.g., ‘inflation’ field regarding which Davies comments: “…nobody is sure what it is – it’s just a made-up answer beyond the reach of known physics.” (p. 48). The contrast between Tonelli’s bold theory of cosmic creation and Davies’ cautious reminder regarding the limits of current knowledge regarding quantum processes in the cosmos’ first split second reflects theoretical and temperamental differences among cosmologists, along with an impressive level of agreement regarding some key elements of Big Bang theory.
Tonelli tells the story of creation in seven chapters. The chapter titles suggest the themes of the book:
In the Beginning Was the Void
Day One: An Irresistible Breath Produce the First Wonder
Day Two: The Delicate Touch of a Boson Changes Everything, Forever
Day Three: The Birth of the Immortals
Day Four: And then, at Last, There Was Light
Day Five: The First Star Lights Up
Day Six: And Chaos Disguised Itself as Order
Day Seven: A Swarming of Complex Forms, and
The Human Factor
Four patterns in cosmic creation
Tonelli’s account of cosmic creation identifies four patterns
that appear in the first split second and recur many times
in the early universe:
the indissoluble union of creation and destruction
the opposition of polarized forces
broken symmetries that make creation possible
Phase transitions, i.e., dramatic changes in the characteristics of the universe, resulting from changes in boundary conditions such as temperature.
Cosmic creation is like a symphony that announces its major themes in its first notes, and then does endless creative variations on those themes.
In the Beginning was the Void
Tonelli asserts: “That the whole universe comes from a void … that it is still now simply a void that has undergone a metamorphosis, seems to be the most convincing hypothesis offered by modern cosmology… ” ( p. 36) Tonelli comments:
“This should come as no surprise given the role that emptiness occupies in Indian cosmogony, and in the myths of creation. Shiva is the creator deity but also the destroyer of the universe. When he dances, the whole earth trembles and the entire universe falls to pieces … Everything dissolves until it is concentrated into the bindu, the metaphysical point outside space and time, the colored emblem of which is worn on the foreheads of many Hindu women. Then the dot itself slowly dissolves and everything is dispersed into the cosmic void. The cycle is reprised when Shiva decides to create a new universe … Once again, the divine rhythm produces vibrations always larger than the void that ends up swelling spasmodically, giving birth to a new universe … in the infinite cycle of creations and destructions.” (pp. 37-38)
Modern cosmology arguably has no more understanding of a “metaphysical point outside space and time” than Hindu myth, perhaps less, given physicists who insist there is nothing outside space and time, which is itself a metaphysical assumption, an implausible one in my view.
Tonelli asks: “if the universe is born from a point into which a tremendous amount of energy and mass are concentrated, producing an extremely dense and hot system that expands at a furious rate, what physical phenomena had managed to concentrate everything into that point in the first place?... what mechanism could have brought everything to such a exceptional condition, to a dimensionless point with infinite density and curvature – what physicist call a singularity?” (pp. 30-31)
Tonelli asserts that the void from which the universe was created “is not a philosophical system, it is a particular material system, one in which matter and energy are null. (p. 39) And “The state of the void has strictly zero energy If observed on a very long time-scale – in theory an infinite
one – but in very brief time spans it fluctuates like all things, crossing through all its possible states, however improbable, including those characterized by energy levels significantly different than zero. … the uncertainty principle allows for the temporary formation in the vacuum of microscopic bubbles of energy as long as they then quickly disappear. … the fine web of the void seethes in a myriad of microscopic fluctuations. … The quantum vacuum fluctuations can take the form of the spontaneous generation of particle – anti-particle pairs. The void … may be seen as an inexhaustible deposit of matter and anti-matter.” (p.40)
I have quoted this remarkable passage at length to describe the creation of the universe from the same quantum processes that occur throughout the cosmos, suggesting either (a) quantum processes were present in the singularity of a dimensionless point of infant density and in some unimaginable way created space and time as well as matter/anti matter in the first instant of creation, or (b) our universe was born from a quantum fluctuation created in another universe, for example from a black hole as hypothesized by Lee Smolin in Life in the Cosmos (1997).
Tonelli’s view is that the physics of the early universe from which the cosmos was created is“ a material process verified daily in particle accelerators. By bombarding the vacuum with the energy of colliding beams …large quantities of particles can be extracted from the vacuum. … revealing that “the void is a living thing … full of potential, pregnant with (particle/antiparticle) opposites. It is not nothingness … it is a system overflowing with unlimited quantities of matter and antimatter.” (pp. 41-42) However, Tonelli acknowledges that the void described by quantum mechanics is not the singularity of a dimensionless point of infinite density, the physics of which are unknown. Rather, “The universe with zero total energy constitutes an important alternative to the traditional theory of the Big Bang and renders superfluous the presence of an initial singularity”(p. 42), which is fortunate as aquantum fluctuation in a particle accelerator is one thing, while the idea of a quantum fluctuation arising out of a dimensionless point outside time and space seems incomprehensible.
Tonelli endorses a compromise between the Big Bang as usually described, i.e., the instant of cosmic creation, and creation through a quantum fluctuation:
“There is no more strictly ordered, regulated and symmetrical system than the void. … every particle of matter goes hand in hand with its corresponding antiparticle. … But somehow this perfect mechanism is interrupted, something suddenly breaks in and takes over the scene, then initiates abruptly the process that will produce an expanding space-time and the mass and energy which bend it. The extreme order that governs everything shatters in a fraction of a second, and the tiny quantum fluctuation inflates disproportionately, pushed by a process we call cosmic inflation.” (p. 43)
In Tonelli’s story of creation, cosmic inflation is the Big Bang. “But still no one can imagine what is about to occur. Only 10 seconds have elapsed since the moment it (quantum fluctuation) formed; such an insignificant amount of time it is impossible to even conceive of it. … But the intervention of an unstoppable breath makes it grow out of all proportion. … the infinitesimal object …begins to inflate uncontrollably in paroxysms. … We have just been present at the birth of a universe – our own. The first day is at an end, and a universe has come into being that has everything it will need to evolve during the next 13.8 billion years. Yet only 10-32 seconds have passed.” (pp. 45-46)
Tonelli’s creation story combines science (e.g., quantum fluctuations in a void, cosmic inflation) with myth,(i.e., (un-stoppable breath). Other mythological elements come to mind, for example quantum fluctuation equals “water breaking” in a void pregnant with a new creation. The “uncontrollable paroxysms” of inflation, i.e., Big Bang, may be described as birth pangs, given thatin Vedic myth and some other creation stories cosmic creation is a tearing asunder of a god. The birth of the cosmos is the death of a symmetrical ordered void in Tonelli’s account. In the initial tiny split second, the cosmos reveals its major themes: union of creation/destruction, dependence on
broken symmetries and polarities and phase transitions at the tipping point.
Davies asserts that the theory of cosmic inflation is the “party line” among cosmologists. Tonelli’s story on inflation is as follows:
“In an instant, the unimaginable occurs. That minuscule object, billions of times smaller than a proton, undergoes an exponential growth … In the blink of an eye, it becomes macroscopic. After emerging from this violent phase, it is roughly the size of a football, and already contains all the matter and energy it will need to evolve over the course of billions of years to come.” (p. 53)
To summarize what has to be the most fantastic creation story in human history: in a tiny split-second inflation created all the energy needed to create 200 billion galaxies and trillions of stars which (following inflation) was contained in an entity the size of a football. For years, I searched for a concise explanation of how all the energy and matter in the universe could have been created in an instant. I recently found the answer in Paul Davies’, The Goldilocks Enigma(2006):
“Where, then, did all the matter – the electrons, protons, neutrons and so on -- come from once inflation had ceased? The theory has a ready answer. The enormous energy stored in the inflation field during the inflationary phase must go somewhere when the field decays, and that somewhere is into heat … in effect the dizzying energy of expansion during the inflation phase is converted into the heat energy of the big bang, energy that now bathes the universe. The next step is to turn heat into matter. Einstein’s formula, E =mc2 tells us so long as there is enough energy, E, to pay for the m of a particle, the way lies open for matter to be created.
Putting into the formula a value for the speed of light
C, and translating from energy into temperature, we find that a billion degrees – the temperature of the universe at about one second – is hot enough to create electrons. At earlier times, when the temperature was higher still, heavier particles such as protons would have been created. At the end of inflation, the intense energy released would have heated the universe to around a thousand trillion trillion degrees – more than sufficient to create all 10 tons of matter in the observable universe.” (pp. 60-61)
Cosmologists have adopted inflation as a key element of Big Bang theory for two main reasons:
The homogeneity of temperature in all regions of space. Tonelli states that “The universe behaves like a giant microwave oven, the heat source of which ceased at some remote time in the past; since then, it has cooled in a uniform way as it has gradually expanded. Regions separated by billions of light years have exactly the same temperature, measured with an absurd precision: 2.72548 degrees above absolute zero.” (p. 55)
2. “The radiation is isotropic, … it is the same in all directions, to better than one part in over a hundred thousand,”(p. 55), Tonelli asserts.
Furthermore, the cosmic microwave background (CMB) was predicted by Big Bang theorists before its discovery by two scientists at Bell Laboratories in 1965.
Regarding the homogeneity and isotropy of the CMB, Tonelli comments: “Only cosmic inflation enables us to understand how this could have happened.” (p. 55) He continues: “Before inflation … all parts were in contact with each other. … Being able to exchange information, they all possessed the same properties, and temperature … was the same. Inflationary expansion propagates this homogeneity at a cosmic level and makes it become a general property of the universe.” (p. 56)
To be cogent, critics of Big Bang theory must explain what caused the CMB to be present across the universe if there was no Big Bang. Critics of inflation theory must also explain why the temperature of the CMB is almost the same in regions billions of light years apart. No theory has been able to meet either of these requirements in recent decades, according to Tonelli and Davies.
Still, important differences regarding the cause(s) of inflation remain among cosmologists. Tonelli speculates at length regarding “a scalar field” that emerges from the void with its unstable potential” and the “inflation”, the particle that is associated with this field.” However, he acknowledges that the “inflation” has not been discovered. Nevertheless, this does not stop Tonelli from imagining how “That stealthy awakening which blocks the field of the false void for a fraction of a second produces a repulsive force …It assumes an immense scale in the period during which the field is blocked …” (p. 51)
Tonelli’s explanation of inflation seems delivered with excessive confidence given current knowledge. In Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality (2021), Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, comments:
“Inflation is not a consequence of the fundamental laws we know today. It requires something more – additional forces and fields, presumably. Andre Linde and Paul Steinhardt proposed some forces and fields that could do it, but there is no independent evidence for them.” (p. 157)
I have already quoted Davies’ view that no one knows what an “inflation” field is – “it’s just a made-up answer beyond the reach of known physics.” (p. 48) Regarding the cause of inflation, Davies states:
“A burst of anti-gravity propelled expansion in the first split second creates precisely that almost, though not quite perfect, uniformity. But that’s still not the end of the trail, because the universe has to get itself into an inflationary state at the outset. How did that come about? The scientific community is still very far from reaching a consensus of these thorny issues.”(p. 87)
Polarities in cosmic creation and the early universe
The cause of inflation continues to be a subject of debate among cosmologists, but the connection of inflation with gravity-antigravity polarity is clear. Tonelli states:
“In an object of insignificant dimensions that may be produced by purely random mechanisms, the force that choreographs the dance is gravity, acting as force of attraction. In order to expand and initiate the Big Bang we would need an extremely strong gravitational repulsion, an antigravity, something akin to the cosmological constant that Einstein had introduced in his equation … but something more awesomely powerful even than this.” ( p. 47)
An inconceivably dense state of gravity could only be overcome by an inconceivably powerful anti-gravitational force that appears to have been a one-time event that lasted a tiny split second. This juxtaposition of powerful gravity- antigravity forces in cosmic creation suggests a pattern characteristic of polarities in nature, i.e. each part of a polarity gains power from the strength of its opposite. Furthermore, inflation was sui generis, as was the singularity or the gravitational forces that preceded it. It is difficult to study conditions so extreme that they occur only once in the history of the cosmos!
Patterns are not causes, but they often suggest meaning or purpose. If the universe has a purpose (and I believe it does), that purpose (in part) was announced in the first split second of cosmic history: to explore the creative possibilities of polarities at all scales and in diverse ways in the early universe and thereafter.
According to Tonelli, the brief period of inflation ends at 10 seconds. “But everything has changed utterly. As soon as this phase has ended … the energy that has been accumulating in the object … turns into a huge quantity of matter-antimatter, pairs of particles with their respective partners that are extracted from the void in great numbers and interact with each other and with the residue of the field until the whole reaches a state of thermal equilibrium.” …The newly born universe now contains all current matter and energy … (p. 53)
How opposed fundamental forces interact is suggested by the birth, life, and death of stars in the early universe. Stars are born from vast concentrations of gas, “spherical bodies of truly enormous mass, at least a hundred times heavier than the sun. The force of gravity that develops from them is immensely strong, it compresses the gas, pushing it violently toward the center of the system which gets hotter and ionizes the hydrogen. …The relentless grip of the force of gravity pushes the temperature of material to tens of millions of degrees, triggering nuclear fusion… The reaction produces a titanic outpouring of heat … A blinding flash of light flares up in the deepest darkness.” (Tonelli, p. 135)
Extreme gravitational pressure leads to nuclear fusion. Then the heat output of stars which may continue for billions of years is maintained through a balance between gravity and nuclear fusion. Tonelli states: “An equilibrium is created, though one that is intrinsically unstable because sooner or later the hydrogen will be exhausted,” (p. 139)at which point there will be “a struggle to the death between gravity and the strong nuclear force.” (p. 140) And “a terrible pressure crushes matter and seeks to shatter it into its elementary components.” (p. 139)
In heavy stars with a mass ten times greater than the Sun Tonelli writes:
“Beneath the unrelenting pressure of gravity, the central nucleus suddenly contracts to become hundreds of times smaller – and the star explodes.” The “fierce power of gravity” leads to nuclear reactions that “scatter all of the material outwards in every direction. … The clouds of gas, rich in heavy elements and chemically diverse, will cover vast distances and supply the foundational material for new aggregations.” (p. 146)
Three ways that polarities create new worlds are displayed in the birth, life and death of stars: (1) extreme gravity leads to its opposite, i.e., thermonuclear explosions; (2) opposed forces – gravity and electromagnetism -are balanced to produce a stable source of heat and light for billions of years; and (3) gravity crushes the strong nuclear force in a star that has run out of hydrogen leading to gravitational collapse and a supernova in massive stars.
Regarding the death of stars, Tonelli waxes eloquent with mythological language:
“Just as the power of Zeus flings the Titans into the abyss, so the force of gravity, infuriated by all the time lost spent opposing nuclear force, … takes its revenge and celebrates its victory with a horrifying silent scream that tears the star to pieces… “ (p. 146)
Cosmic creation is not for the faint hearted; it invites myths of the dismemberment of a god, or titanic struggles to the death between opposed fundamental forces.
Tonelli acknowledges that “None of the current physical theories can correctly describe what happened during the Plank era,” (10-43 seconds) … No one has yet managed to get a glimpse of periods so close to the initial state … We can only devise reasonable hypotheses about the phenomena that wee dominant in that interval of time … Fundamental forces are unified into a single field; a unique primeval super-force governs the governs the insignificant foam that will become our universe.” (pp. 62-63) And “The early period in the evolution of the universe is called the Planck era, and is dominated by a super-force that unifies the four fundamental
forces,” (p. 64)the strong force “that holds quarks together to form protons and neutrons and assembles them into the nuclei of various elements, the weak force from which “comes the energy that is released by nuclear weapons, and which keeps the stars sparkling, the electromagnetic force (which) keeps atoms and molecules together and which regulates … the propagation of light, and gravity, by far the weakest force but which pervades the entire cosmos and regulates the movement “of the smallest asteroids (and) the most gigantic clusters of galaxies.” (p. 63)
Tonelli maintains: “In the extremely small and heat- dominated early universe, there are elegant and perfect symmetries that break down one after another as everything cools.” (p. 65) “… gravity dissociates itself from the other forces. Immediately after that … the strong force separate(s) from the electroweak force. Tonelli adds another astonishing touch: “the field of a super-force gradually goes through transformational phase, breaking the symmetries that separate the various interactions from each other” and occurs “before inflation produces the Big Bang.” And “the subsequent crystallization of the primordial field will fill our void with four fundamental interactions and change everything at a stroke.” According to this theory, the laws that describe the behavior of forces predated the Big Bang in the Planck era which is beyond the reach of particle accelerators or any other human technology, a hypothesis that has important implications for the fine tuning of forces required to produce stars.
According to Tonelli, following inflation, “one hundredth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang,” (p. 67) the universe was homogenous and isotropic, “the same at every point and from every angle” … governed by symmetry and characterized by a combination of simplicity and elegance. … Nothing could have been born from this perfect object.” (p.66)
Tonelli compares the idea of symmetry in art with the modern scientific understanding of symmetry “that has made possible a mathematical formalization that “is a real tool of investigation that has enabled the construction of new laws of nature.” (p. 70)
Tonelli asserts that “the initial incandescent state had a high level of symmetry but it was unstable; as it cools down, it loses symmetry, but acquires stability.” (p. 78) In a discussion that may be too technical for most non-physicists (such as myself), Tonelli discusses how symmetry breaking explains “how the electro-magnetic force and its weak counterpart behave in such different ways …” The W and Z bosons that “propagate the weak interaction acquire mass because they remain heavily entangled with the field that hold them captive, while the photon continues to wander everywhere, without mass.” (p. 79)
The electroweak force that is responsible for radiation is transmitted by three particles, photons which no mass and can therefore travel across the universe, and by the massive W and Z bosons that limit the power of the weak force to “infinitesimal sub-nuclear distances.” (p. 73)
The electroweak force is transmitted by particles with radically different potentials. How could this happen in the first miniscule split second of creation? Tonelli states:
“If the equations of the two interactions are the same, the symmetry can only be broken by the same medium in which it was propagated. That is, the void … it is the void that is responsible for ‘breaking the symmetry’ because the void is not … void.” (pp. 78-79) It contains the Higgs field, i.e., “the greater its interaction with the field, the larger the mass of the particle.” (p. 79)
What broke the symmetry between matter and anti-matter?
The asymmetry in the early universe that has received the most attention among cosmologists in recent years is the ratio of matter to antimatter. Tonelli comments: “The idea that the elementary components of an anti-world actually existed was so bizarre that, from the outset, no one took it seriously.” This changed with the discovery of positrons, particles with the same mass as the electron but with a positive charge. Tonelli asserts that “Antimatter has now become quite common, it is produced to use, or … to study its properties, in many particle accelerators, but is also used in routine clinical procedures in many hospitals.(p. 85) Charged particles and anti-particles that come into
contact which generate enormous energy through “the process of annihilation.”(p.86)
Tonelli asserts: “Since its earliest formulation, the concept of antimatter has always been accompanied by an issue for which physics has not been able to find an answer: if the equations are symmetrical and describe the behavior of matter and antimatter in an equivalent way, why is our world so dominated by matter? He adds: “Thousands of scientists are busy looking for an answer right now … (p. 86)
One line of inquiry “conjectures that everything may be due to a subtle difference in behavior between matter and antimatter, a small anomaly which breaks the original symmetry, and is the key to everything.” (p. 87) Tonelli states that detailed studies have found ”a very slight prevalence for matter in the processes of decay of particles and antiparticles,” … but the preference (for matter) turns out to be too small to explain the excess we see all around us. Various theories have proposed different mechanisms, for example “That the asymmetry may have been born … from the modalities of the electroweak phase transition,”(p. 87) in which case symmetry breaking (it would appear) was a major feature of the Planck era. Tonelli acknowledges that “We are completely in the dark as to the mechanisms that led to the disappearance of antimatter …” (p. 91)Nevertheless, the creation of matter/antimatter during inflation suggests how polarities function in the early universe: they generate tremendous energy through mutual annihilation.
Phase transitions in the early universe
Different “epochs” of the early universe have vastly different
creative potential, according to Tonelli. Epochs are a function of temperature as the universe cools down from trillions of degrees during the big bang to billions of degrees:
Planck era – unification of forces
Inflation – rapid expansion, creation of energy and matter
Post-inflation expansion, creation of various particles
“Protons and neutrons form continuously, together with related antiparticles. When the two opposites meet, they immediately annihilate each other to produce photons, but the environment is so hot, that it continues to extract from the void particle-antiparticle pairs to replace those that have just disappeared. … In this fleeting cycle of extremely rapid birth and death, the small initial asymmetry between matter and antimatter is amplified. … Slowly, but inexorably, that infinitesimal difference in population results in all the antiprotons and all the antineutrinos disappearing from subsequent generations.” (p. 107)
As the temperature drops it becomes impossible to “extract pairs of protons and neutrons from the void … There will still be enough energy to produce electron/ positron pairs that will begin to populate the universe. … Unlike protons and neutrons electrons are extremely light … they weigh almost two thousand times less than the quark triplets they would like to accompany … there are no charged particles lighter than they are. Combining conservation of energy - whereby an object can only decay into a lighter particle - with that of charge, whereby an electron may not decay into a neutral particle, we conclude that electrons must be stable. After a few instants have elapsed since the Big Bang, the universe fills with the lightest of charged particles. Now it contains all of the essential ingredients that allow it to form stable matter.” (pp. 107-108).
At this point, the age of the cosmos is one second.
According to Tonelli, one minute after cosmic creation, “the density of energy has lowered to the point at which they (protons and neutrons) can aggregate among themselves and form the nuclei of the lighter elements.” And “there will only be three minutes for the formation of all the nuclei in the universe,” because “At the end of three minutes the temperature and density will no longer be high enough to sustain nuclear reactions.” Tonelli comments: “The abundance of helium in the universe is a further confirmation of the Big Bang theory. … Not even with all the stars … burning hydrogen for 14 billion years would it be possible to produce the abundance of helium that has been measured. (p. 112)
And then there was light.
“After the formation of the nuclei of the lighter elements, nothing major will happen for hundreds of thousands of years. Except … everything that everything continues to be subject to expansion and cooling.… the universe is filled with a dark fog. This is an opaque world, made up of elementary particles and nuclei, all intermingled and immersed in a sea of photons and electrons. … Not a single ray of light manages to penetrate this dark and disturbing plasma.” (pp. 114-5)
As the temperature approaches 3000 degrees, “everything changes.” … the kinetic energy of electrons diminishes, and they can no longer break the electromagnetic attraction that binds them to protons. Electromagnetic prevails … They (electrons) … will orbit in stable fashion around a charged nucleus. The first atoms are formed, above all those made of hydrogen and helium. They emerge everywhere … Matter begins to assume a neutral form.”
As electrons become trapped in atomic orbits, photons “can now run free … At a stroke the universe becomes glaringly lit and transparent. From now onwards, photons will shoot everywhere, bouncing off everything.” (p. 116) The universe becomes transparent 380,000 years after the Big Bang.
The ratio of radiation to matter alters drastically at this point in the early universe. Tonelli asserts:“
Radiation that until this moment had dominated the world assumes an increasingly minor significance, until it becomes an irrelevant component of the total mass of the universe. …. An immense and rarefied cloud of hydrogen and helium will occupy the whole universe, and its evolution will determine the rest of our story …The new epoch will lead to the formation of galaxies, stars and planets …” (pp. 123-24)
The first star lights up
The strongest evidence for the Big Bang is the CMB that pervades the entire universe at a temperature of 2.72 degrees above absolute zero. Big Bang theory utilizes small differences in local temperature of the CMB to explain differences “in density of the materials at the point photons were subject diffusion, an instant before separating forever. This allows us to visualize the vast cosmic spiderweb around which the first seeds of galaxies were constructed,” Tonelli asserts.
Tonelli maintains that “the universe is entering a very interesting phase; a sequence from which the first star will emerge.” (p. 132) There is a slow but inexorable growth in the density of gas in regions of the CMB with slightly higher density as indicated by tiny differences in temperature. “ … while this is happening, the distribution of matter acquires a marked spherical symmetry.” (p. 135) And: “Around the irregularities (i.e., density and temperature) vast concentrations of gas begin to thicken … The force of gravity that develops from them is immensely strong; it compresses the gas pushing it violently toward the center of the system which gets hotter and ionizes the hydrogen. … The relentless … force of gravity pushes the temperature of the material to tens of millions of degrees, triggering nuclear fusion …The reaction produces a titanic outpouring of heat … in the form of an irresistible flow of photons and neutrinos, a blinding flash of visible light flares up in the deepest darkness.”(p. 137) 200 million years have passed since the Big Bang.
In epochs of cosmic creation prior to the ignition of stars phase transitions were the result of large declines in temperature. Star formation reverses this pattern but continues to depend on temperature as the key boundary condition leading to transformational change. It’s as if a complex recipe of particles and forces and of spatial distribution of matter has been assembled, and then at a critical temperature, the show begins.
Tonelli describes how nuclear fusion in the interior of stars is possible only because extreme temperatures resulting from gravity overcomes “the repulsive force of electromagnetism.”… hydrogen nuclei and their isotopes, deuterium and tritium fuse together to form helium nuclei. The energy liberated by the reaction appears in the form of high energy neutrinos and photons.” (p. 138) Stars are born, sustain nuclear reactions for possibly billions of years and are destroyed through polarities that interact in different ways:
One force leads to another, its opposite.
Opposed forces maintain a “precarious equilibrium.”
One fundamental force overwhelms another, as when “A terrible pressure crushes matter and seeks to shatter it into elementary components.” (p. 139)
When one part of a polarity leads to processes that generate its opposite, or when one fundamental force crushes its opposite as in the collapse of stars, the cosmos is trans- formed dramatically and forever. Time’s arrow in phase transitions is not a straight line, but rather a discontinuous fork in the road from which there is no return. From the first moment of transition, it’s as if a “Road Closed/No Return” sign is posted which quickly fades into insignificance as the fork widens into a new world with myriad possibilities.
The evidence for design
In The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life (2006), Paul Davies states:
“On the face of it, the universe does look as if it has been designed by an intelligent creator expressly for the purpose of spawning sentient beings. Like the porridge in the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, the universe seems “just right” for life in many intriguing ways.” (p. 3)… “If almost any of the basic features of the universe from the properties of atoms to the distribution of galaxies,were different, life would probably be impossible.” (p. 2)
In What’s Eating the Universe? Davies comments:
“I haven’t taken a straw poll, but there is a list of very distinguished physicists and cosmologists who are totally persuaded that we do indeed live in a universe delicately poised in the Goldilocks zone, and that – theological explanations being anathema – there must be a multiverse,”(p. 126) i.e., “countless universes churned out by the multiverse’s creative mechanism, surely some fraction of which will have life- encouraging laws replete with happy coincidences …” Davies states: “An explanation of this type is unusual in science, and it sparked heated debate.”( p. 125)
Davies asserts that different groups of scientists have different reasons for disliking the multiverse explanation for the apparent “fine tuning” of so many elements of physics:
Some theorists aspire to find physical laws that explain why this universe has to be just as it is, with neither design nor the multiverse required to explain the fine tuning of the strength of forces and their ratios, or the masses of particles and their ratios.
Some theorists with religious beliefs view the multiverse as “an untestable cop-out.” (p. 125)
However, there is a famous example of a cosmologist who does not fit in either of these categories, Fred Hoyle, a proponent of the Steady State theory of cosmic origins. Hoyle did groundbreaking work in understanding how heavy elements such as carbon were created in the interior of stars. Hoyle understood that “there was no way a carbon nucleus could form from the fusion of two lighter nuclei … Hoyle guessed there must exist a happy coincidence in the arrangement of nuclear states that enabled carbon to form from rare simultaneous encounters of three helium nuclei. Experiment proved him right.” (Davies. p. 124)
Hoyle concluded that the physics of carbon must be jerry-rigged within the interior of stars, given that the normal processes for producing heavy elements from the nuclei lighter ones was blocked. Hoyle later wrote: “It seemed as if a super-intellect had been monkeying with the laws of physics.” (p. 124) For Hoyle, this was not a religious affirmation, but the plain recognition of what seemed obvious: a super-intelligence had organized the physics with elegant simplicity until running into a glitch, at which point jerry-rigging was required. In one conversation, Hoyle added to the description of the universe as a “put up job” with the comment “though for what purpose no one knows.”
As Davies comments, it is unusual in science to appeal to an explanation that makes every unlikely event unremarkable.
Absent testable hypotheses, the idea of a multiverse is arguably metaphysics, not science. Proponents of the multiverse do not have to explain the fine tuning of the strengths of forces or the masses of particles:
Tonelli asserts: “
Theoretical calculations have estimated that if the difference between the proton and neutron mass had only been a little greater, the outcome would have been disastrous. … The difference in mass would have significantly altered the proportions of protons to neutrons, and we would have a great deal more helium and much less hydrogen. … there would not have been enough hydrogen to unleash the nuclear reactions in the first stars.”(pp. 112-3)
In Just Six Numbers (1999), the cosmologist Martin Rees explains why the strength of the strong force “that ‘glues together the ingredients in an atomic nucleus” must be fine-tuned within a narrow range to produce E, the rate at which “the Sun - the hydrogen gas in its core –converts 0.007 of its mass into energy when it fuses into helium. It is essentially this number, E, that determines how long stars can live.” (p. 47) “If the nuclear ‘glue’ were weaker so that E were 0.006 … a proton could not be bonded to a neutron and deuterium would not be stable. Then the path to helium formation would be closed off. We would have a simple universe composed of hydrogen …. and no chemistry. And “we couldn’t have existed if E had been more than 0.008 because no hydrogen would have survived from the Big Bang. … any universe with complex chemistry requires E to bein the range 0.006 – 0.008.”(p. 49)
In Return of the God Hypothesis (2021), Stephen Meyer asserts that “Physicists have determined that the value of G (gravitational force constant)is finely tuned to one part in 10-35 in relation to a “natural” range of values that G could have (in possible alternate universes).” (p. 138)
This is a small sample of examples of fine tuning of the parameters of fundamental forces and particle masses. Meyers maintains that “… cosmologists and physicists have found that the existence of life depends on a dozen or so of these highly improbably finely tuned parameters.” (p. 139)
Some readers may assume that the laws of physics determine the value of finely tuned parameters in particle physics, but this is false. In Life in the Cosmos, Lee Smolin writes:
“… in spite of tremendous progress in the understanding of the elementary particles and interactions, we lack a workable scientific theory that explains why nature must choose the masses and properties of the elementary particles as we find them …” Furthermore, “we have learned that the actual values of these parameters seem to be very unlikely, and in more than one sense. … in spite all the beautiful results that have come out of string theory and other attempts at a unified theory we have so far no evidence to support the conjecture that the laws of nature be mathematically consistent, or agree with quantum theory and relativity, (or) constrains significantly the possible masses of the elementary particles or the strengths of the different forces.” (p. 76)
Smolin has proposed an ingenious theory for fine tuning that explains “why the parameters of elementary particle physics take values that fall into the narrow range that allows stars to exist” … without appealing to final causes such as teleology or the anthropic principle.” (p. 76) Smolin hypothesizes that new universes are created from black holes in which the parameters of particle physics depend on idiosyncratic histories set during the first instant of a Big Bang. A large percentage of these universes will be short lived, vanishing perhaps during the Plank era, but a tiny percentage will produce stars which end in black holes, which create unlimited numbers of new universes.
Smolin’s theory depends on the assumption that the parameters of particle physics in new universes created from black holes will be close to the parameters of the universe from which they sprang. Smolin writes: “The assumption that the changes are small is the crucial idea that makes it possible to rest a scientific theory on the idea that new universes are created from black holes.” (p. 103)Through a process of natural selection, the multiverse comes to contain a limitless number of universes fine-tuned to create stars that end in black holes or black
created by other processes. In Smolin’s theory, the fitness standard for universes is their capacity to create large number of black holes. Smolin asserts that our universe is estimated to contain 1018black holes, but what if a universe was unable to create black holes, or only create small numbers of them? Through a process of natural selection, these universes would become less common.
Smolin asserts that his theory is testable by exploring the parameters in particle physics that would maximize the production of black holes, for example though the creation of massive stars that ultimately become black holes. The highly unlikely parameters of particle physics support a theory of natural selection of universes rather than undermining the idea that the universe was created through random processes. The same evidence that Stephen Meyer and others appeal to as overwhelming evidence for design, Smolin uses as evidence for
cosmological natural selection.
Smolin assumes that the laws of physics as set forth in the Standard Model are consistent across limitless numbers of universes, but what would explain such astonishing uniformity?
Paul Davies states: “The origin of those laws remains unexplained. You could cook up any number of different multiverse models with different overarching laws and different bubble universe generators. So, the problem is just shifted up a level: instead of “why this universe?” one can ask, “Why this multiverse?” There may be no end to the cosmological paper trail.” ( p. 126)
Can myth inform science?
Smolin asserts: “ … in both science and ordinary life, the first idea that comes to mind of an explanation of some new fact is often only a temporary measure, which serves to distract us from the possibility that we are facing a true mystery …(p. 203) It is possible that clues to the mystery of cosmic creation are contained in some mythological traditions because myth may free the imagination from facts. The Big Bang is not a fact, it’s a theory with highly speculative elements that lie outside the understanding of current science, e.g., inflation. Myths employ stories which have an emotional component, which may also unexpected perspectives on scientific understanding, as Tonelli understands but which most cosmologists reject.
The Vedic myth of Prajapati offers one perspective on cosmic creation which, in my view, is more accurate than Big Bang theory: Prajapati’s dismemberment – his sacrifice – which creates the cosmos is not a one-time event; it is renewed at every instant. Regarding Prajapati, Roberto Calasso says:
“Prajapati, the creator god who is not entirely sure he exists, … the god who has no identity …All identities arise from him (p. 68)… Creation, for Prajapati, was not a single act, but a succession of acts. … a lonely god, the source of all things, is certainly not an omniscient god…(At the moment of creation) Prajapati then gave out that sound: ‘savaha,’ the quintessential auspicious invocation that has accompanied countless offerings, up to today.” (pp. 73-75)
In Vedic myth, “Death is not an intrinsic part of divinity, but is an intrinsic part of creation … There is no creation without death.” (p. 81)In the Big Bang and throughout the cosmos, creation/ destruction occurs at every instant through particle collisions, 600 million events a second in particle accelerators approaching the speed of light. (Clegg, p.70)The cosmos is renewed at every instant, a pattern revealed in the Big Bang’s first instant(less than a billionth of a second). Prajapati delights in creative activity, not just in the products of those acts.
Prajapati was referred to by another name, Ka: “This was the indefinite, limitless outpouring that was the very nature of Prajapati. … Little was known about Prajapati, as regards his boundless immensity … what stood out was the suffering, the long torment of his dismembered and ulcerated body. What else? Pure desire … And here the unexpected was revealed. Ka also means happiness. … He who was the image of agony became the path to happiness. …one began to see a boundless extension of desire, over and above which was a happiness that came before all existence, in a space that came before everything …( pp. 87-89) In Vedic myth, Prajapati’s polarity, i.e. agony/perfect happiness, is a story about self-loss and Self found at every instant of creation, and which requires perpetual sacrifice in human communities to ensure that Prajapati’s sacrifice is renewed at every moment.
One idea I take from this ancient myth is that the underlying basis for the patterns of cosmic creation discussed in this article concerns the requirements of creativity in a cosmos that is first and foremost creative:
indissoluble union of creation and destruction
combination of structure with uncertainty
impatience with frozen symmetries; use of symmetry breaking in phase transitions
tension between unity and fragmentation, and experimentation with polarities
Possibly the best concrete embodiment of this vision of creation is Tibetan sand art in which a group of Tibetan monks create an intricate mandala with painstaking effort over a period of weeks or months. Every detail of the mandala is precious and filled with meaning. Nevertheless, upon completion the mandalais quickly destroyed, sometimes in stages, to reflect the impermanence of creation. The artist(s) seek perfection, but do not cling to what they have created. Destruction completes the sacred act and clears the field for a new creation. This is Prajapati, “the background noise of existence, the steady hum that goes before every sound graph … it is the id of what happens, a fifth column that spies on and sustains every event.” (p. 94)
Calasso, R., Ardor (2010), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York City.
Clegg, B. Ten Patterns That Explain the Universe (2021), The MIT Press Cambridge, Mass.
Davies, P., The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? (2006), Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Davies, P., What’s Eating the Universe? and Other Cosmic Questions (2021), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.
Meyer, S., Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe (2021), Harper Collins Books, New York.
Rees, M., Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (1999), Basic Books, New York.
Smolin, l., The Life of the Cosmos (1997), Oxford University Press, New York /Oxford.
Tonelli, G., Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began (2019), Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.
Wilczek, F., Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality (2021), Penguin Press, New York.
-- Dee Wilson