WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT AS YOU TURN 100? WHY NOT THE UNIVERSE, AND WHERE IT COMES FROM?

By Paul

It happens that this is the 100th posting on our Two Old Liberals blog, and I was wondering what topic might be worthy of such an iconic number. By chance, it is also just over a year now (we began on Feb. 14, 2012) since Kevin and I first embarked on this endeavor.

During that time, and between the two of us, we have written about everything from art and culture (painting, writing, film, theater etc.), to family and personal histories, gay issues, global warming (including fracking, recycling, over population etc.), language, money and economics, mysticism, mythology, politics of all sorts, philosophy and values, popular culture, religion and faith, science, spirituality, the nature of consciousness, and work and what that means. And in this listing, I’ve no doubt left out several other topics that one or the other of us has delved into.

So I began thinking, what subject might be a proper one to mark this milestone, and I could come up with nothing grander than the universe itself. I suppose you could argue that all of the things mentioned above might simply be thought of as part of that universe, and no doubt you would be correct. But what I have in mind is more the nature of what we mean when we say the universe, or the cosmos if you prefer. I am thinking of such questions as: where does the universe come from, how could it appear from nothing, and are there other universes out there?

It goes without saying that I cannot claim to know the answers to the above questions, if there is in fact anything even remotely like a single answer to each of them. Far greater minds than mine have grappled with them, and they, too, have come up short. Still, I believe that such queries are quite legitimate ones, and in fact all human beings ought to ask them of themselves. They are, indeed, the most basic questions that we can possibly grapple with.

It is also true that these kinds of queries bring us to that mysterious borderland that exists somewhere between science and religion, or if you prefer (as I do), between science and spirituality. There was a time when science would not touch such questions, would not even contemplate them, inasmuch as they were considered to be outside its boundaries. But those borders no long pertain. Nowadays, science does not shy away from them, because tools have been developed which bring us to the very heart of such queries. Telescopes have been made which can peer back into the past and see the very beginnings of the formation of the first stars. And there are other tools, too, such as the Large Hadron Collider, which open up to us the smallest of worlds, and which search out the answer to what matter is and where it comes from.

Within the parameters of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, for example (which states that you can never be certain of both the position and the velocity of a particle, and the more accurately you know the one, the less you know about the other), some physicists now theorize that fluctuations of quantum particles, which spontaneously appear and disappear out of nothing, along with something called “an inflation” (a sort of hyper-rapid boiling of space), may have been the cause of the Big Bang. As of now, of course, this remains merely an interesting theory, not a proven fact. But still, if some day such a theory – or something like it – is proven to be correct, we could then posit that this caused the Big Bang, and therefore, it was the cause of the universe itself. And if that were to be so, does it then follow that there is no longer any need for God, or at least for a God in the sense that Thomas Aquinas meant, when he spoke about his concept of the Prime Mover?

Another fascinating fact, which science now knows, is that the physical universe, or the way we think of it in normal terms anyway, that is, the visible cosmos, the world, all matter, the stars, the planets etc., all this forms only about 1% of the actual universe. Personally, I find that astounding! And what this means is that 99% of the universe, our universe, yours and mine, the one we live and breathe in, is made up of something else. What is that something else? Well, we know that approximately 29% of that very same universe consists of dark matter, and the remaining 70% is composed of a thing called dark energy. Not a lot is known about these substances, if that is even the proper term for them, but dark matter does appear to play some kind of a role in keeping galaxies spinning in their orbits, and dark energy may, in whole or in part, be responsible for the continuing rapid expansion of the universe.

But returning for a moment to the fluctuations of quantum particles in a vacuum, it could also be deduced from this that not merely one, but many, indeed perhaps an infinite number of universes could be formed in this way. Ours, therefore, the one with life in it (as we think of life anyway) is but one example of millions, or even billions, most of which might not support life at all (again, at least as we conceive of it). But where are these other universes? And could there be other ways in which to conceive of life? If so, why are they hidden from us? The answer, if there is an answer, is probably because they exist within physical and mathematical principles which are so different from, or alien to, our own that they cannot be seen, or otherwise perceived by us.

But we are conditioned to think, and to believe, that every effect has a cause that brings it about. How, therefore, can we imagine that a fluctuation within a quantum vacuum can come about spontaneously and causelessly? And if there exists such a thing as laws which govern even quantum fluctuations, to say nothing of inflations, surely it is a legitimate question to ask, where do these laws come from?

So far at least, it seems to me that everything our greatest scientists have done has merely wound up backing up the basic question of where “all this” comes from. In other words, if the original question was, what came before (i.e., what “caused”) the Big Bang, and if we now theorize that it could have been the fluctuation of quantum particles in an inflation, then the question bumps back, and we have to ask, where do quantum particles, and the laws that govern them, come from? Right now, it is posited that they come from nothing. But can “something” really come from nothing? The old mathematical question remains: how do we get from 0 to 1, from nothingness to somethingness?

Many, but not all, scientists hesitate to posit a Divine Spirit, an Infinite Intelligence, if you will. If this is the case, however, in other words, if such a concept does exist, what it surely cannot mean is anything like the God that most of us were raised to believe in. Such a God, with his likes and dislikes, and his favorites and his not-so-favorites, his anger and his appeasement, his concept of sin and redemption, all this gets jumbled up in our minds with our own human needs, our desires, and especially our fears. God (to use that word only as a kind of short hand) must surely be so far beyond such concepts of ordinary human understanding that all we normally can do is catch glimpses of him. We see parts, while The Whole is beyond our everyday range of vision. And the very least that must be said is that such a Divine Spirit would never confine himself to speaking only from the voice of, let us say, a power-hungry politician-pope, or the fear-filled raging of some ignorant preacher, condemning sinners to the fires of an everlasting hell.

No, the universe is and must be far grander than that. There can be little doubt that, whatever it may be, it is light years away from anything that we can conceive of. It is filled with mystery and magnificence and unimaginable beauty. Dark matter, dark energy, swirling galaxies, exploding supernovae, human abilities to think and create and wonder at what is beyond, and below, and within, all this forms merely part of what is meant only by our own universe. And what of other universes, which by definition more or less defy our abilities to imagine what they could be like?

These are the things that should capture our fancy and our imagination. These are the questions which ought to occupy our spirit and our intellects. These, surely, are topics that must fascinate our minds, not only as we turn one hundred, but indeed all the days we are privileged to lead our lives in this magical and fascinating world, always and forever beyond our final understanding.

HURRAY FOR THE HIGGS BOSON!

By Paul

It’s not for nothing that theoretical physicists have been searching for the so-called Higgs boson for decades now.  It may sound to most of us like some indescribably arcane piece of scientific trivia, and arcane it may be (at least to the layman), but trivial it definitely is not. 

What is at the heart of all this is one of the most basic questions that humans can ask, namely, why is there “stuff” in the universe instead of nothing at all?  Why and how did matter form in the first place?  This is what is being asked.  And without matter, it goes without saying, we would not have stars or galaxies or planets, or things upon planets, like animals and plants and people, and all of the things that people appear to cherish so dearly.  We know that, at the time of the Big Bang, intense and unimaginably powerful energy suddenly exploded and radiated outward into space.  That energy, in fact, continues to expand today at velocities that seem to exceed even the speed of light itself.  So, wouldn’t it be logical to think that this energy would just keep on going and going and going, ultimately infinitely, if we can imagine such a thing?  What caused some of this energy instead to slow down, to cohere, and to begin forming the molecular structures which eventually themselves bound together to form what we think of as matter today? 

Physicists have long had their theories, of course.  That’s in large part what physicist do, they think about such subjects and they theorize ways in which, given the currently understood laws of the physical universe, it might be logical that things could have proceeded.  It was thus that the physicist Peter Higgs theorized many decades ago about an elemental particle so small that it could not be seen, even with the most sophisticated technology of his day.  He further posited that this particle would travel through an energy field, subsequently called a Higgs field, and slow down, in the process taking on some of the energy from that field.  The particle itself was called the Higgs boson.  The Higgs boson, however, would be a highly unstable form, and would quickly disintegrate into other forms, which themselves would be more stable, and which would then go on to form the basic building blocks of molecules. Molecules would form atoms, and atoms would create the various forms which we have come to know and to love. 

The problem was that it remained only an untested theory.  And in the end, scientists are nothing, if not practical.  If you cannot see it, not with the naked eye, of course (we can’t really see much with our eyes, at least not unaided), but with the technology that we create in order to “see more clearly,” then who was to say if Peter Higgs was right?  Higgs, himself, didn’t know, couldn’t know, for sure.  Maybe it was something else that “created matter,” and not his boson at all?  This, by the way, is why the Higgs boson has sometimes been referred to as the “God Particle,” because in most theologies, it is God who “creates the firmament.”  He (or in very old mythologies, She) it was who made something out of nothing, and brought about the world as we see and know and experience it today. 

Now we know that we do not have to rely on God in order for matter to be created.  Matter came into being, as it were, of its own accord, because an inconceivably tiny particle happened to travel through a certain kind of energy field, thus slowing down long enough for that energy to “stick” to it, and ultimately form what we know as matter. In my book, that is a big very deal!

But what’s an ever bigger deal is that scientists at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research – or according to its French title, le Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire) have been spinning tiny particles around at enormous speeds for several years, crashing them into each other, and then focusing their powerfully sophisticated computers in order to analyze the results.  The machine they used in order to do this, called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC for short, has brought about as many as 400 trillion collisions just since June.  Now, 400 trillion as probably as close as I’d ever care to get to an unimaginably big number.  But in the process, they found actual evidence of the Higgs boson!  And that’s the big news in today’s paper, which will continue to roil the scientific world maybe for years, or even decades, to come.  At this point, they know it, or something very close to it, is no longer merely an elegant theory.  They know that it is actually the way things happen in nature.  They have been able to peer into these processes, see them, record them, and analyze them.  The theory has been proven. 

So, what now?  Do theoretical physicists sit back on their haunches and smoke a nice big cigar, sip a glass of champagne, and say we’ve done it?  Hardly!  Most scientists believe that this is really just the beginning of new and exciting research to come.  It appears as though this now opens the door into other, perhaps yet unimagined, ways of exploring the mass-generating capability of the universe.  And in another article, coincidentally simultaneously published in today’s same paper (the Los Angeles Times), there is a report that the bigger-picture cousins of theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, have discovered something of their own in regard to dark matter.  Dark matter is that mysterious stuff which fills a far, far greater percentage of the universe than does ordinary (perceivable) matter.  They have seen evidence of filaments of dark matter connecting whole galaxy clusters, and these filaments extend into many millions of light years in length.   Can it in fact be a total coincidence that these two discoveries, the unimaginably small and the unimaginably big, have come about so close to each other in time?  Perhaps, but then I guess it’s my bias that I’m just not so much of a believer in coincidence. 

How, after all, did energy itself come about, that massless something that we in a sense intuitively understand but cannot see or fully conceive of?  Why did the Big Bang bang in the first place?   Is it possible that such an otherwise inconceivably enormous explosion took place on its own?  Indeed, what was it that actually exploded?  And is thought, and our own energy, tied in some mysterious way to all of this other energy in the universe?  How could it be otherwise?  We are after all, at least in our bodies, made of star stuff; and the same kinds of Higgs bosons that created us also created dark matter, to say nothing of the trillions of whirling galaxies all around us. 

I don’t like to use the word God, because that appears to me to be so limited, so human in form and conception.  I imagine bigger, more immense, more utterly unfathomable.  The God of most religions is tiny and limited and concerned with whether or not we follow certain moral principles, which in the end are essentially man-made principles.   The Higgs boson may be the God particle of the physical universe, and I have no problem accepting this.  But the Divine Spirit that I see, or do not “see,” but feel and open myself to, in my own meditation is beyond any human category.  Whatever we say about God can at best only be a partial truth, because whatever that is will, in the end, only be expressed within the limitations of our ordinary human understanding. 

So, hurray today for the Higgs boson, and hurray, too, for limitless, inconceivable, unimaginable Spirit, who both is and is not within the compass of this, our glorious little universe.