It Is Highly Unlikely That Any of This Exists: On the Origins of the Universe
Oren Harman Looks for Dark Matter and the Big Bang
Pythagoras called it “the All.”
When it came to be, it already contained all that was and all that will be, all the matter and all the energy, all the stars and planets and galaxies, the budding leaves and broken hearts. Every drop that would ever evaporate, or fall silently upon a rock, all were there from the beginning. The beginning of time gave birth to all future time, to philosophy and mathematics. Believing this truth, men have desperately sought to flee the consequence.
Nearly 14 billion years ago was when “the All” began; if you had blinked, you would have missed it.
We call it the Universe.
But the Universe was not always the Universe. In the beginning it was merely the World, at least according to the early humans.
The Babylonians thought that the vaults of the Earth and the Heavens were wrought from the ribs of Tiamat, torn to pieces by her son Marduk, her teary eyes becoming the Tigris and the Euphrates, her tail the Milky Way.
The Norse, to the contrary, had it all begin with a giant created when fire and ice met in the abyss of Ginnungagap. As Ymir was suckled by the cow Auðhumla, his sweat gave rise to more giants, spontaneously, and these to still more descendants, including Odin. It was Odin’s two brothers, Vili and Ve, who slew their progenitor’s progenitor, as told in the Song of the Hooded One: “From Ymir’s flesh the earth was created / And from his blood the Sea / Mountains from bone / Trees from hair / And from his skull the sky / And from his eyebrows the blithe gods made / Migdard, home of the sons of men / And from his brains / They sculpted the grim clouds.”
The Maori, too, thought there had been a beginning. The father sky and earth mother were inseparable lovers locked in an embrace, but their passion was the curse of their children, trapped in darkness between them. After a time, the sons would have no more. rongo, the god of cultivated food, tried to push his parents apart but could not break their love clinch. Tangaroa, the god of the sea, and his brother Haumia tiketike, god of wild food, joined in, but they too failed to make a separation. Only after many attempts, lying on his back on his mother and pushing with his powerful legs against his father, did the god of forests and birds, Tāne, finally force his parents apart. For the first time, light and space came to the world and the sons were happy. But one son, the god of storms and wind, Tāwhirimātea, could not bear the sound of his parents’ cries and vowed to avenge their sorrow. Ever since, hurricanes and thunderstorms and rain and mist and fog and whirlwinds have troubled the earth and its seas and fields and forests and fish and lizards and humans. And the sundered father sky, rangi, and mother earth, Papa, forever continue to yearn.
This is not all. The Chinese believed the world hatched from an egg, and Aristotle that it was eternal.
The Universe was born approximately 13.799 billion years ago. It was not from a chicken or a dismembered corpse or a broken love embrace, but from a Big Bang that the Universe came. Nor was it just our own heavens and Earth that were created: our Solar System belongs in a galaxy of billions of stars, itself a galaxy among billions of galaxies. On large scales, the galaxies are uniform: there is no edge, nor heart, to the Universe.
First there was nothing: no Time, no Space, no cause. Lucretius said that nothing can come from nothing, but he was wrong, according to the Scientists. For the Big Bang came from nothing at all, heralding the arrival of the forces that would seed and carve the Universe. One day they would be named the Weak Force and the Strong Force and the force of the fields, Magnetic and Electric, and the scrawniest force of all, Gravity.
When Time began after the Big Bang, well before the Scientists, all the forces were one, none yet stronger than the other. The forces were still united, but unity would prove fleeting. It was the Planck Epoch, dense and sweltering and dark and symmetrical. Epochs are long; this one lasted 10−43 seconds. After that the forces demanded to separate.
“The Dark Age would end. Heavy elements would be born. Light and Life would come to the Universe. And from them, eventually, Love.”
Gravity, suddenly the weakest of all, was the first to break away. What did she have to offer? After all, the Universe was only 10¯35 meters long. But then the Strong Force stripped away, too, and there came the great cosmic Inflation. In an instant, the Universe was as large as a grapefruit. Gravity would one day have her comeuppance: in this expanding Universe, true power would be exercised at a distance.
Great wars followed. In the cauldron, Matter and Anti Matter became adversaries. And so when the Gluons gave rise to the Quarks, the AntiQuarks marched out to fight them. Only one in a billion Quarks survived the on slaught, a narrow escape. From this remnant all matter would form.
It was time to consolidate. The Higgs Boson had already made mass possible. Stretched to a billion kilometers in diameter, the Universe had now cooled down to a mere trillion degrees. And so as Gravity looked on from afar, powerless, the surviving Quarks summoned the Strong Force to pull them together, giving birth to the Hadrons. No sooner had the Hadrons come into being than Anti Hadrons materialized to annihilate them. Once again, just barely, Matter survived.
From a speck of nothing, the Universe had grown 100 billion kilometers in caliber. Looking at the clock ever since the Big Bang, incredibly, Time registered one second passed.
The path was now determined, just an instant from the start. And as the Universe continued to cool, the Hadrons stayed close together, fusing to form the first stable elements: Hydrogen, Helium, and trace amounts of Lithium. After 20 minutes, abruptly, as if scorned, they shut down all nuclear fusion, too cold to be able to stay together. For 380,000 years the Universe would drift in darkness, all wavelengths of light immediately absorbed by the free Electrons, a dense, searing plasma of formlessness. Gradually, as the freed Electrons were captured by the Atoms, Photons would decouple from Matter, escaping, traveling long distances before scattering, rendering the Universe transparent for the first time. Gas clouds would condense. Over billions of years, stars would form, and galaxies. The Dark Age would end. Heavy elements would be born. Light and Life would come to the Universe. And from them, eventually, Love.
The path was determined, but there was a catch: against all odds, the Universe continued expanding. It was Hubble who saw this, in 1929. Gravity had pulled the cosmic constellations into place, but the galaxies were spinning away from one another, the aggregates of all our future joys and sorrows disbanding.
Measuring the rate at which the Universe was expanding, two generations after Hubble, the Astronomers in 1998 would discover something even more astonishing: the expansion was not slowing down but accelerating. It was as if an apple had been hurled into the sky and kept on going faster as it rose. If they could, the other forces might have chuckled at the spectacle: Gravity had chosen
From beyond the grave, Einstein came to the rescue. Gravity, his mathematics showed, can push things apart as well as pull them together. Great truths are one and the opposite, just as Bohr had thought. Einstein didn’t believe it at the time because no one had seen it. But the Universe had created a mist that made expansion possible. And soon we would give it a name.
Dark Energy was beguiling.
After all, to generate the repulsive Gravity for the accelerated expansion of the Universe, Dark Energy would need to exist in precisely the density of Planck units revealed to us by the Astronomers:
Even the smallest deviation in this cosmic number would forever change reality: subtract one zero after the decimal point, and the Universe would be so dense that the galaxies would collapse in on themselves; change the six on the tail to a seven, and Gravity would paradoxically be pushing out so fast against the mist that galaxies wouldn’t form at all. The 300 sextillion known stars and 100 billion known galaxies are but a fraction of the Universe; with space expanding faster than light can traverse it, what lies beyond remains opaque. Still, one thing the Astronomers do know: with even the slightest tweak to the amount of Dark Energy, “the All,” as well as the possibility for Love and every departure from it, would vanish like a morning mist.
It seemed rather capricious if not altogether irresponsible. Why should such weight be placed on Dark Energy’s narrow shoulders? Many Philosophers and Theologians claimed they had an answer.
It was then that the Universe revealed its precious secret to one group of believers, or so these people thought. These men and women believed in Strings so small even pygmy fleas couldn’t hear their vibration. Neither depth nor height nor width could suffice to carry their intricate melodies, but the music they played was the most perfect of symphonies, uniting all the forces.
“Our Universe, by pen-and-pencil fiat, was just one in a vast crowd. It had not come from a chicken or a dismembered corpse or a broken love embrace, but from a Big Bang burped by nothingness.”
For despite appearances, tucked away undetected in extra dimensions, it was the Strings who had pulled away Gravity and the Strong Force to ignite the cosmic Inflation. It was they who summoned the Quarks and the AntiQuarks, and after them the Hadrons and AntiHadrons. And when the Electrons were captured, and the elements were wrought, and the gas clouds condensed and the stars and galaxies were created, it was the Strings who invited Dark Energy, just so, no more or less, to reveal the Janus face of Gravity. No one had ever seen them, it is true, but the mathematics demanded them, and the implications were dramatic. For from thence all the loves and all laughter, all songs and all sorrows, all grudges and all grievances would come flowing.
But here was the lie, of cosmic proportions: The Universe was not alone.
If the Dark Energy was to exist, at least 10,500 other universes were necessary, each with Strings tucked in hidden dimensions plucking a distinctive Dark Energy melody of their own. There would be the universe with
density of Dark Energy, and the one with
and another with
and a fourth
and a fifth
ad infinitum. Each would have different dimensions and different music, different elements and forces, some say a different mathematics or even philosophy. Our Universe, by pen-and-pencil fiat, was just one in a vast crowd. It had not come from a chicken or a dismembered corpse or a broken love embrace, but from a Big Bang burped by nothingness. Thus every drop that had ever evaporated, every future heart that would be broken or healed—even logic and all departures from it—had been tricked into believing in their uniqueness.
Nor was this the end of it. For the nothingness that had produced the Big Bang was insatiable, a fuel that could not be extinguished. This is the gospel the String Theorists proclaimed: the Big Bang had birthed our Universe, floating on a Bubble, but there had been many Big Bangs, and many Bubbles, all birthed by nothingness. Nor could the Bubbles touch or ever know each other, some said—all 10,500 of them with their 10,500 universes.
The Dark Energy had let out an even darker truth. Without all its zeros after the decimal point, without its precise tail and our incredulity over its narrow shoulders, we would have never known about the Strings or Bubbles or Universes in the first place, nor could we imagine limits to our supposed boundless imaginations. But the dimensions of our own Universe that would bring about all future yearnings, the unseen vibrations that would mend and break again all hearts, the masses of the particles, the strength of the Strong Forces, the restored pride of Gravity—none, in the end, could ever have been intended.
Instead they were just one of infinite possibilities, necessary to no one but us.
From Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Oren Harman.