Origins of Universe Research Paper

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Origin stories of all cultures face one fundamental question: how can something come from nothing? They then attempt to explain the complexity of our universe: which things came first, which came later? But unlike stories of myth, the modern theory of the origins of everything—the big bang—rests on a colossal body of carefully tested information and is powerful enough to have achieved the respect of scientists throughout the world.

In all cultures that we know of, accounts of the histories of particular communities are embedded in accounts of the history of landscapes, animals, the Earth, the stars, and the universe as a whole. All cultures understand that history begins with the origins of the universe. To understand what we are and where we have come from, we need to understand the history of the entire universe. Cosmologies offer the largest possible framework within which to think about our place in time and space.

Traditional Origin Stories

On the surface, origin stories often seem utterly different from each other. But all are attempts to grapple with the same fundamental questions. At the very beginning, they have to explain how something can come out of nothing. Some origin stories (including the Genesis story) claim that a god or gods created the universe and ignore the nagging question of how the gods were created. Many origin stories begin with a sort of nothingness out of which something appears without any clear explanation of how and why. In this way they confront the most basic duality of all: between nothing and something. Many origin stories posit an initial state of chaos that is not quite existence and not quite nonexistence; then, out of this state arise both existence and nonexistence. Often, this mysterious process is compared to sexual reproduction, another strange form of creation in which the coming together of two people creates a third person. Robert Graves, a British author and poet renowned for his writings on mythology, summarizes an ancient Greek myth in which chaos is at the beginning, and is in some sense the creator and ground of reality. The following excerpt from Barbara Sproul’s book Primal Myths illustrates how origin stories use richly symbolic narratives to deal with problems that still challenge us today.

In the beginning, Eurynome, the Goddess of All Things, rose naked from Chaos, but found nothing substantial for her feet to rest upon, and therefore divided the sea from the sky, dancing lonely upon its waves. She danced towards the south, and the wind set in motion behind her seemed something new and apart with which to begin a work of creation. Wheeling about, she caught hold of this north wind, rubbed it between her hands, and behold! The great serpent Ophion. Eurynome danced to warm herself, wildly and more wildly, until Ophion, grown lustful, coiled about those divine limbs and was moved to couple with her. Now, the North Wind, who is also called Boreas, fertilizes: which is why mares often turn their hind-quarters to the wind and breed foals without aid of a stallion. So Eurynome was likewise got with child. Next she assumed the form of a dove, brooding on the waves and in due process of time, laid the Universal Egg. At her bidding, Ophion coiled seven times about this egg, until it hatched and split in two. Out tumbled all the things that exist, her children: sun, moon, planets, stars, the Earth with its mountains and rivers, its trees, herbs and living creatures. (Sproul 1991, 157)

As this story suggests, once they have explained the origins of the universe, origin stories face many other complex questions. Can they explain the great variety and complexity of our universe? Which things came first, and which came later? Was there always conflict between different parts of the universe, or was the universe once a place of harmony? A Californian creation myth from the Cupeno tribe offers its own symbolic answers to these questions: “In the Beginning all was dark and void. A bag hung in space. In time it opened out into two halves. From one half came coyote (isil), from the other came wild cat (tukut). They immediately fell to arguing as to which was older” (Sproul 1991, 242). Primeval chaos, gods, fertilized eggs, sexuality, and a primordial division into two—these elements weave their way through many traditional creation myths.

Early Scientific Theories

Modern scientific origin stories face the same questions and paradoxes, but they try to deal with them without supposing the existence of gods or even of intentionality. Can the origins of everything be explained purely by the operation of blind natural laws? The question remains open even today for, despite the spectacular achievements of modern cosmology, we still don’t know how best to explain the moment of the universe’s origin. The origin myths of medieval Europe, from which modern cosmology evolved, described how God created a universe whose shape and movements could be described rationally within the cosmological models of the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (second century CE). In Ptolemy’s system, the Earth lay at the center of the universe, surrounded by a series of transparent, revolving spheres to which were attached the planets, the sun, and the stars. Ptolemy’s model worked extremely well for a long time, and proved quite accurate at predicting astronomical phenomena such as the movements of planets and stars. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, however, other models supplanted it. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1533) argued that the Earth and planets revolved around the sun, while the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) argued that many of the stars were themselves suns, each perhaps with its own solar system. The new models generated during the early years of modern astronomy envisaged a universe much larger than Ptolemy’s, in which the place of the Earth and human beings became increasingly insignificant. By the end of the seventeenth century, many accepted that the universe might be both eternal and infinite.

An Expanding Universe

The idea of an eternal universe created new problems. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) pointed out that in an infinite universe there ought to be an infinite number of stars and an infinite amount of light pouring down on the Earth both by day and by night. The development of the theory of thermodynamics in the nineteenth century suggested another problem: in an infinitely old universe all useful energy ought to have dissipated into heat, leaving no free energy to create or sustain complex objects such as stars, planets, and living beings.

Solutions to these problems, along with a new view of the universe itself, emerged early in the twentieth century. Studies of the structure of the universe revealed, first, that it consisted of many galaxies, not just the Milky Way, for many remote objects turned out to be galaxies in their own right. Then, in the late 1920s, Edwin Hubble (1889–1953) used the Mount Wilson telescope outside of Los Angeles to show that most distant galaxies seemed to be moving away from Earth-bound observers. Technically, he found that the light from distant galaxies was “red-shifted,” or moved to lower frequencies, which seemed to be the result of a Doppler shift. (The same effect accounts for the drop in pitch of a siren as an ambulance moves away from us.) Even more astonishingly, he found that the farther away they were, the more “red-shifted” their light was, and the faster they seemed to be moving away from the Earth. Assuming that the Earth’s position in the universe is not in any way special, so that observers elsewhere in the universe must be seeing the same thing, Hubble concluded that the entire universe must be expanding. If it was expanding now, it followed that it must have been smaller in the past, and that at some time in the past, it must have been infinitely small. Hubble’s observations might have seemed little more than a curiosity if it had not been for the fact that Albert Einstein (1879–1955), in his General Theory of Relativity (1916), had also posited that the universe might be either expanding or contracting. At first, Einstein resisted this conclusion, but by the late 1920s, he had been persuaded by the work of a young Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedmann (1888–1925) that the universe, like a pin standing on end, was unlikely to be entirely stable. In reality, it was much more likely to be either expanding or contracting, and Hubble’s evidence suggested it was expanding.

Big Bang Theory

Despite both observational and theoretical findings, the idea of an expanding universe remained little more than an intriguing hypothesis until after World War II. Theorists such as the Russian-American physicist and astronomer Arthur Gamow (1904–1968) and the British astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915–2001) worked on the implications of an expanding universe and found that it was possible to construct a surprisingly coherent picture of how matter might have behaved under the extreme heat and pressure at the very beginning of the universe’s history. Nevertheless, for a time, the big bang theory had to compete with an alternative theory, the so-called steady state theory, developed by Hoyle and others in the 1950s. (Indeed, it was Hoyle, one of the fiercest critics of the big bang theory, who coined the phrase “big bang,” in a lecture in 1950.) In an attempt to preserve the idea of an eternal, and essentially unchanging, universe, the steady state theory suggested that matter was continually being created throughout the universe at just the rate needed to counteract the apparent rate of expansion. The steady state theory implied that the universe had always been much as it is today, a hypothesis that was soon tested. By the early 1960s, improvements in radio astronomy enabled astronomers to make more careful studies of remote galaxies. Because light takes a finite time to travel, such studies were, in effect, examining the universe in its youth, and what soon became apparent was that the early universe was very different from the universe of today. Clearly, the universe had changed over time, as the big bang theory implied.

Even more important was the discovery, in 1965, of cosmic background radiation, by two American scientists, Arno Penzias (b. 1933) and Robert Wilson (b. 1936). In trying to construct an extremely sensitive radio antenna, they found a persistent hum of weak energy coming from all directions in space. Energy coming from a particular place in space made sense, but they could imagine no force that could generate energy from all parts of the universe, until someone told them that this was exactly what the big bang theory predicted. Attempts to model the early history of the universe had suggested that as the universe cooled there would come a point when protons and electrons could combine to form atoms. Atoms, unlike naked protons and electrons, are electrically neutral, so as atoms formed most of the matter in the universe lost its electric charge. At that point, matter and energy would in effect become disentangled, and energy would be free for the first time to travel at will through the universe. Early big bang theorists had suggested that this sudden release of energy ought to be observable even today, and it was soon clear that this was exactly what Penzias and Wilson had detected. The steady state theory had no explanation for cosmic background radiation, but the big bang theory seemed to explain it naturally. The discovery of cosmic background radiation was a knockout blow to the steady state theory; ever since, the big bang theory has provided the core idea, or paradigm, of modern cosmology.

Big Bang Cosmology

Working out the details of big bang cosmology remains a complex task, but no other theory comes close to explaining as much, so few cosmologists doubt that it is essentially right, even if some of its details may need to be modified in the future. One reason for this confidence is that new evidence for the theory has emerged since the 1960s. As the power of telescopes has increased, astronomers have found that the most remote parts of the universe are indeed very different from those closest to us, and those differences fit very well with what big bang cosmology suggests about the nature of the early universe. Measurements of the age of materials in the solar system have also failed to come up with anything more than about 13 billion years old, which corresponds to the most recent estimates of the age of the universe. Furthermore, big bang theories suggest that most of the matter in the early universe would have consisted of hydrogen and helium, with other elements being created within stars or in the violent explosions of giant stars known as supernovae. This is consistent with what we observe: almost three-quarters of all atoms are hydrogen, almost one-quarter are helium, and the rest include all other elements.

In its general outlines, the origin story of big bang cosmology is simple, even though many of its details are too complex to be understood by any but physicists and cosmologists. The most recent estimates of the speed of expansion of the universe suggest that the universe appeared about 13.7 billion years ago. Before that time we have no idea what there was. We don’t even know if time and space existed, and the conventional wisdom is that they, along with energy and matter, were probably created at the moment of the big bang. We also have no idea why the big bang occurred when it did. Modern science is as powerless as traditional creation stories to explain the moment of origin. But from a tiny fraction of a second after the appearance of the universe we can describe what happened with great precision. Something appeared within the primordial emptiness. This early universe was almost infinitely small, and almost infinitely hot. At temperatures of billions of degrees, time, space, energy, and matter would hardly have been distinguishable. The pressure of this concentrated energy drove the early universe apart; indeed, for a moment within the first second of its existence, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light. From the size of an atom it blew up to many times the size of our solar system. Soon after this phase of rapid expansion (known as “inflation”), particles of matter and antimatter collided and annihilated each other, leaving a huge amount of energy and a tiny residue of matter. As the universe expanded, it cooled, and as it cooled different forms of energy and matter separated out from the initial fl ux. Gravity appeared, then electromagnetism, together with the strong and weak forces that shape the behavior of atomic nuclei. Quarks appeared and, within two or three minutes, the first protons and electrons.

For almost 400,000 years, the universe was still too hot for protons and electrons to combine into atoms, so that the entire universe crackled with electrical energy. Then, about 380,000 years after the big bang, the universe cooled sufficiently for protons and electrons to come together to form the first atoms, of hydrogen and helium. Matter became electrically neutral, and energy and matter went their separate ways, releasing the flash of energy that is detected today as cosmic background radiation. The next significant event occurred some 200 million years after the big bang, when clouds of hydrogen and helium began to collapse, drawn together by gravity, until their centers heated up to about 10 million C. At that point hydrogen atoms started fusing to form helium atoms, releasing a colossal amount of energy in the process (in nuclear reactions identical to those within a hydrogen bomb). The first stars were born. The release of energy at the center of a star checks the gravitational collapse of the cloud of matter from which it is formed and creates a more or less stable structure that can pump out huge amounts of energy for billions of years. Stars play a vital role within the modern creation story because they supply the energy that sustains life on Earth. Furthermore, in their dying stages some of them, particularly the very largest, can generate temperatures high enough to fuse nuclei together into more and more complicated elements. When the very largest stars die in violent explosions known as supernovae, all the remaining elements of the periodic table are created. It is from these elements that newer and more complex structures, such as planets and living organisms, can eventually be constructed, using the energy of gravity and the heat energy pouring out of stars.

Is this story true? It is by far the best story available at present, but it is far from complete. Cosmologists wrestle with the problem of the very earliest moments, frustrated that they seem to have no way of even testing hypotheses about the moment of origin. And even the tiny fraction of a second after the beginning of the universe presents some complex puzzles. Above all, physicists and cosmologists wrestle with the problem of the relationship between gravity and the other fundamental forces of modern physics. The relationship between electromagnetism and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces is now largely understood, but how gravity fits in remains unclear. New observational techniques (including the use of satellite-based observatories) and new computational techniques have generated a mass of new data about the early universe, and some of this torrent of new information has forced cosmologists to rethink parts of the story. In the late 1990s, for example, evidence from the study of very remote galaxies showed that the rate of expansion of the universe is not slowing under the gravitational pull of the matter in the universe, as most cosmologists had assumed. On the contrary, it is speeding up. What this means remains uncertain, though most cosmologists believe it may be evidence for the existence of an antigravitational force that had already been anticipated in some of Einstein’s work. Even more disturbing is the slow realization, from studies of the movement of galaxies, that there exists a lot more “stuff” out there than we can detect. Currently, it seems likely that the matter we can observe accounts for no more than about 5 percent of the mass of the universe, while some 25 percent of its mass probably consists of matter (known, appropriately, as “dark matter”) that we cannot yet detect or explain, and perhaps as much as 70 percent is accounted for by forms of energy (known as “dark energy”) that we cannot yet detect or fully explain. To be uncertain about almost 95 percent of the contents of the universe is a serious embarrassment to modern cosmology.

Like traditional creation stories, the modern account of the origins of the universe remains a work in progress. But unlike those stories, the modern story of the origins of everything rests on a colossal body of carefully tested information and is powerful enough to have achieved the respect of scientists not just within a single culture, but throughout the world. It is the first account of the origins of the universe to have achieved near universal respect.


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