Beginning of the Universe
Imagine experiencing Earth’s beauty for the first time—its birds, fish, mountains, and waterfalls. Imagine, too, the vastness of Earth’s home, the universe, with its numerous galaxies, stars, and planets. Surrounded by such magnificence, we can ask ourselves a simple question: Can we find a way to sink deeply into these immensities? And if we can, will this enable humans to participate in the flourishing of life?
This book is an invitation to a journey into grandeur—a journey into grandeur that no previous generation could have fully imagined.
We are the first generation to learn the comprehensive scientific
dimensions of the universe story. We know that the observable universe emerged 13.7 billion years ago, and we now live on a planet orbiting our Sun, one of the trillions of stars in one of the billions of galaxies in an unfolding universe that is profoundly creative and interconnected. With our empirical observations expanded by modern science, we are now realizing that our universe is a single immense energy event that began as a tiny speck that has unfolded over time to become galaxies and stars, palms and pelicans, the music of Bach, and each of us alive today. The great discovery of contemporary science is that the universe is not simply a place, but a story—a story in which we are immersed, to which we belong, and out of which we arose.
This story has the power to awaken us more deeply to who we are. For just as the Milky Way is the universe in the form of a galaxy, and an orchid is the universe in the form of a flower, we are the universe in the form of a human. And every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself.
And this changes everything.
Every culture organizes itself with its central stories, in both written and oral forms. Such stories contain that which each culture holds as most valuable, most useful, most essential, and most
beautiful. They are regarded as containing compelling orientations toward the most enduring human challenges. Some of these stories have been so deeply valued they have been told over and over by many generations. Homer’s Odyssey,
for example, has been passed down in the West for perhaps twenty-eight centuries. Or, in south Asia, the stories of the Mahabharata
have been told for well over two millennia. In distinct and invaluable ways, these stories and many others continue to shape billions of humans around the planet.
While such stories will no doubt be told far into the future, a new integrating story has emerged. Even though it is only a few centuries old, it has already begun to change humanity in crucial ways. This is the story of the universe’s development through time, the narrative of the evolutionary processes of our observable universe. This story has, and will continue to have, many different names. But if we can think of the New Testament as that which tells a Christian story, and of the Mahabharata as that which tells a Hindu story, perhaps the simplest description of this new narrative is that it tells a universe story.
One of the differences between a universe story and more traditional narratives is that with this newer story we have a “story of the story”—a historical account of how our awareness of this universe story came forth. This began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when we realized that Earth was not stationary but was moving around the Sun. In the eighteenth century this idea
was extended when we came to realize that the human mind was not static, nor was human society; instead, both had forms and structures that had emerged over many centuries. Then, in the nineteenth century, we discovered that the life forms themselves had gone through significant transformations over time. Even the rocks were not inert but were also in the process of deep change throughout geological time. Finally, in the twentieth century, we came to see that the stars too had changed dramatically, as had the galaxies, and, most astonishing of all, the entire observable universe had passed through a series of irreversible transformations.
This immense journey evokes wonder from scientists and nonscientists alike. And it challenges some religious traditions to rethink or expand their worldviews. Certainly Copernicus was aware of the radical nature of his discovery of a heliocentric solar system and hesitated to reveal his work. Darwin also agonized over the revolutionary implications of his views regarding life’s emergence. We are still struggling with the changes of worldviews that Copernicus and Darwin and many other scientists have presented to us over the past five centuries. And why? Because this is such a comprehensive story that it challenges our understanding of who we are and what our role might be in the universe. Are we here by chance, by necessity, by serendipity, or on purpose? What is the nature of creativity in this changing universe?
It will take time to answer these questions more fully and to integrate this universe story into our diverse human cultures
around the world. Journey of the Universe
is intended not to override or ignore these other stories, but rather to bring into focus the challenge of creating a shared future. The great opportunity before us today is to tell this new universe story in a way that will serve to orient humans with respect to our pressing questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? How should we live together? How can the Earth community flourish?
BIRTH OF THE UNIVERSE
Let’s begin at the very beginning. How did it all start?
An awesome question, certainly, but it appears there really was a beginning. Some scientists refer to this as the Big Bang. Let’s think of it as a great flaring forth of light and matter, both the luminous matter that would eventually become stars and galaxies and the dark matter that no one has ever seen. All of space and time and mass and energy began as a single point that was trillions of degrees hot and that instantly rushed apart.
The discovery that the universe has expanded and is still expanding is one of the greatest of human history. In the modern West, the common understanding had been that the universe is simply a vast space in which things existed—large things like stars and small things like atoms. Scientists knew that matter changed form in the universe, but they assumed that the universe as a whole was not changing. That assumption proved to be mistaken,
for the universe is unfolding and has a story—a beginning, a middle (where we are now), and, perhaps in some unimaginable future, an end.
One of the scientists responsible for this great discovery is Edwin Hubble. In the 1920s, atop Mount Wilson in southern California, he focused the hundred-inch telescope on the night sky. He was trying to determine if our Milky Way was the only galaxy in the universe. Not only did he discover that the universe is filled with galaxies; he also determined that all of them were rushing away from each other. Building on Hubble’s work, scientists have learned that the entire observable universe was once smaller than a grain of sand, a tiny dot that began with a massive inflation that has been carrying matter apart for billions of years. The universe arose with a titanic expansion.
But there is another fundamental force at play in our universe: a force of attraction, pulling things together—a force we call gravity. The universe expanded and cooled, and gravity pulled some of the matter together to form the galaxies and stars. These two opposing dynamics, expansion and contraction, were the dominant powers operating at the beginning of the universe. The expanding universe was causing matter to move apart from the tiny seed point of its beginning. Gravity was drawing some of this matter back together again. We now know that the universe as a whole, from the beginning, has been shaped by these two opposing and creative dynamics.
This double process is wonderfully reminiscent of life, of the movement of breath and of blood. Our lungs expand and contract. Our heart expands and contracts. Within such primordial movement we come into existence. In a very literal sense, our lives are possible because of this in-and-out rhythm of the universe. As we fill our lungs with breath are we mirroring the large-scale dynamics of our universe? At the very least we can say that because of the great exhalation of the universe, life and humanity have emerged and are breathing within it now.
NUCLEI AND BONDING
In the beginning, the universe brought forth quarks and leptons, the elementary particles, and within a few microseconds the quarks combined to form protons and neutrons that churned ceaselessly in a thick and gluey form of matter called plasma. There was almost no structure in the universe. These quanta would collide, would interact with one another, and then would scatter apart to collide with different partners millions of times each instant.
Our current mathematical model of the early universe asserts that even in the first few minutes, more structures began to emerge. The elementary particles began forming stable relationships. A single neutron might interact with a single proton, and instead of scattering away they would remain bonded together. At first these new bonds were quickly torn apart by other particles. But as the
universe continued to expand and cool, these primordial couples and triads began to survive.
Amidst such bonding and dissolution, the universe moves toward increasingly complex communities. These simple nuclei were the very first of the complex communities among the elementary particles. Intriguingly, all relationships carry a cost, even at this quantum level. A neutron does not simply adhere to a proton. Rather, both the neutron and the proton have to undergo a transformation for the bonding to occur. The proton and the neutron each give over part of their mass, which becomes a flash of light released into the universe. Who could have imagined this? Who could have guessed that the creation of a quantum community would require the contribution of the mass of the particles? Or that its creation would be accompanied by a flash of light?
Even from the first moments, our universe moved toward creating relationships. Certainly, in a theoretical sense, we can imagine that things could have been different. We can theorize about a different kind of universe, a universe that would have taken the form of disconnected particles, a universe that would never have formed bonded relationships. Such a universe would consist of trillions upon trillions of these tiny particles, each one completely independent of the others. But in our observable universe, various forms of bonding are inescapable. Even moments after the birth of the universe, the simple nuclei were brought forth, an act that required vast amounts of mass throughout the
universe to be transformed into light. The entire universe was permeated with a new burst of radiation as protons and neutrons fused together into the first nuclei. This bonding is at the heart of matter.
TIMING AND CREATIVITY
Within an unimaginably vast and complex universe, we seek meaningful orientations in order to live an integral human life. Humans have always sought answers to questions such as, What is the nature of the universe? What is our role? By pondering such questions we are hoping to become more fully and deeply alive in this emerging planetary era in which we find ourselves.
The fundamental images we hold of the universe are central to the whole process of exploring meaning. An image cannot carry the fullness of the universe, and thus we need multiple images or metaphors. Already we have considered at least three images of the universe. We spoke of the universe as unfolding its structures from a tiny ball. We spoke of the universe as lungs breathing and as a heart expanding and contracting. And we spoke of the evolution of matter with the implicit suggestion that the universe is filled with complexifying communities.
Another image presents itself when we consider the origin of these nuclei soon after the birth of the universe, the image of a developing seed. When a seed germinates, it will initially focus
mainly on bringing forth roots; later it will concentrate on constructing leaves. The process of its growth is a complex and creative orchestration. Similarly, the universe in its first moments focuses on building nuclei. The process continues for a brief time and then stops, and other processes emerge. The astonishing fact is that if the universe had continued building nuclei all the way up to iron, for example, iron nuclei would have predominated for all time.
But the universe was expanding and cooling, and as quickly as the conditions for building nuclei emerged, they changed. After that brief moment when all of the light nuclei had been created, there was a shift. Something new was about to emerge, in a way analogous to the development of a plant from a seed. This dynamic of timing will appear again and again over the fourteen billion years of cosmic unfolding.
EXPANSION AND EMERGENCE
One of the most spectacular features of the observable universe is the elegance of its expansion. If the rate of expansion had been slower, even slightly slower, even one millionth of a percent slower, the universe would have recollapsed. It would have imploded upon itself, and that would have been the end of the story.
Conversely, if the universe had expanded a little more quickly,
even one millionth of one percent more quickly, the universe would have expanded too quickly for structures to form. It would have simply diffused into dust, with no structures to bring forth life.
What we’ve discovered is that we are living in a universe that is expanding at just that rate necessary for life to emerge. When scientists first discovered this they were filled with a desire to understand this amazing fact. What happened in the past to make our universe like this?
As mathematical cosmologists began to probe this mystery of what gave rise to a life-generating universe, they came up with a theory, first articulated by Alexei Starobinsky at the Landau Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences and later given a more comprehensive form by Alan Guth now at MIT. Drawing on the ideas of Albert Einstein and his General Theory of Relativity, these cosmologists realized that at the beginning of time gravity exerted a form of repulsion rather than attraction. It was precisely this repulsive form of gravity that forced the universe to expand right to the critical expansion rate. In other words, the universe utilized its own inflationary mechanism to expand rapidly to the rate that enabled it to bring forth structure and life.
When the celebrated physicist Freeman Dyson was reflecting on all of this and trying to make sense of it, he realized that he had come to feel at home in the universe in a new way: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture,” he
wrote, “the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.”1
Of course, humans were not present in any explicit sense at the beginning, but Dyson is suggesting that we are now learning ways in which life was implicitly present in the very dynamics themselves, from the very first moment.
ATOMS AND ATTRACTION
Attraction is at the heart of creativity at all levels of being. When the universe was less than half a million years old the plasma was a dense, thick, gluey form of matter whose components were primarily helium nuclei, hydrogen nuclei, and electrons. All of this was permeated with an ocean of light. But as the universe continued to expand and cool there came a moment of transformation when the electrons and protons came together to form the first atoms.
The structure of atoms is governed by the electromagnetic interaction between electrically charged particles. Oppositely charged particles pull each other together. This electrical attraction drew electrons (negatively charged) and protons (positively charged) to form hydrogen and helium atoms. Hence, the universe as a whole transformed itself from one vast plasmic ocean of elementary particles into endlessly billowing clouds of much larger atoms.
We cannot fully explain why a proton is attracted to an electron. Saying that opposite electrical charges attract one another does not address the mystery of why this is so. Nothing outside is pushing them together. They are not being forced together by something called “electromagnetic interaction.” Rather, it is by their very nature that they are drawn to each other.
We are left marveling over the fact that the allurement between opposites gave birth to the atoms. And who is it that is marveling over this fact? It is none other than we humans—a much later development of these very atoms. The attraction between a proton and an electron is not just another disconnected fact about our universe. Attraction between a proton and an electron is a way in which the universe gives rise to ever greater complexity, which, after some fourteen billion years, includes us.
THE UNIVERSE BECOMES TRANSPARENT
Scientists made a fascinating discovery that a change at the micro level, such as the birth of atoms, can actually alter the overall qualities of the macro universe. We can begin to appreciate this dynamic by reflecting further on what took place with the appearance of the first atoms—the universe became transparent.
This transformation can be compared to a fog lifting. In a fog we cannot see anything in the distance because the light is scattered by the water droplets of the fog. It was the same with the
plasma in the early universe. Particles of light could travel only a fraction of an inch before they were absorbed and then scattered by an electron or a proton.
But when the electrons and protons began bonding together into electrically neutral atoms, a light particle was no longer scattered as it encountered yet another electrically charged particle. Light could suddenly travel in straight lines. Some of this light might disappear should it be absorbed, for instance, into the matter of a cold cloud of gas. But much of this primordial light continued unimpeded on its journey for billions of years. During this time the universe entered further into its deep, complexifying processes. Thus, today, when we train our sensitive instruments on the night sky we are able to detect these photons from the beginning of time and learn their story of the nature of things near the very birt...