Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Day Before Genesis

In the mispent youth of science classes and houses of ignorance, where robed mystics babble incoherently, we were led to the belief that there was a beginning. That the beginning was something miraculous and mysteriious, and if we stared too long we'd probably go mad with more questions -- or worse, blind. In the beginning, there was nothing, and from it, everything emerged -- space, time and the very laws of nature.
The Man (Purusha) has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He pervades the earth everywhere and extends beyond for ten fingers' breadth. The Man himself is all this, whatever has been and whatever is to be. He is the lord of immortality and also lord of that which grows on food. Such is his greatness, and the Man is yet greater than this. All creatures make up a quarter of him; three quarters are the immortal in heaven. With three quarters the Man has risen above, and one quarter of him still remains here, whence he spread out everywhere, pervading that which eats and that which does not eat. From him Virj was born, and from Virj came the Man, who, having been born, ranged beyond the earth before and behind. When the gods spread the sacrifice, using the Man as the offering, spring was the clarified butter, summer the fuel, autumn the oblation. They anointed the Man, the sacrifice, born at the beginning, upon the sacred grass. With him the gods, Sdhyas, and sages sacrificed. From that sacrifice in which everything was offered, the clarified butter was obtained, and they made it into those beasts who live in the air, in the forest, and in villages. From that sacrifice in which everything was offered, the verses and the chants were born, the metres were born, and the formulas were born. From it horses were born, and those other animals which have a double set of incisors; cows were born from it, and goats and sheep were born from it. [Source]
At one point in my life, that all made sense, and I was at peace knowing that I knew all there was to know. Then I got some education and it made me think, and doubts and questions arose. If Vishnu never woke up, would the world have been created?

I stopped pinning my hopes on the Big Bang after a while. The Big Bang implied something came before, and even though I wasn't supposed to ask, I asked -- quietly. Thinking of everything, at the vast scale of the universe to the weirdly, wonderous quantum scale, one can get lost. The human species may never find the answers before we go extinct, but that possibility isn't stopping us. In the April issue of Discover Magazine, Adam Frank teases us with three tantilizing prospects that dares venture beyond the Big Bang and conventional thinking. Cosmological heresey, if you will.

(1) The universe is more than we can see, and at the fundamental level, are one-dimensional objects called strings. The promise of string theory is the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics -- and it's all dizzyingly complex mathematics, that may prove itself unobservable. There are many interpretations of string theory, including the possibility of dimensions beyond the four that we are familiar with. In this theory, our four-dimensional universe is a brane (short for membrane) inside a higher-dimension space, called the bulk. There could be many branes within a bulk, all with different laws of physics. Think of bedsheets hung out on clotheslines to dry in the summer. Each bedsheet would be a four-dimensional universe, flapping in the wind. When bedsheets touch each other in the bulk, the results materialize in the brane, like, well -- a miracle. One such effect would be the Big Bang. In this version of the universe, ours is but one in a multiverse. The concept of a beginning disappears, as universes are constantly being popped into the multiverse. Each new universe is a brane, that could likewise interact with other branes to create more branes, and so the multiverse continues.

(2) In seeking to explain the Big Bang and the resulting universe, the concept of inflation has been proposed -- and while the mechanism that precipitated it is not understood, it has made predictions that have been confirmed by observations. The universe as we know it today, is expanding from a distance past; seeming to originate from a single point; is flat; and in whichever direction we look, appears the same. The concept of inflation states that at some point in the beginning of everything -- perhaps just after the Big Bang -- the universe underwent a period where it expanded exponentially, driven by negative pressure vacuum energy; i.e. stuff appearing out of nothing, and flung out to create the universe. As crazy as it might sound, stuff does appear out of nothing, all the time. What if then, inflation isn't as unique as once thought, but occurs on quite a regular basis? The result would be a multiverse, in which the Big Bang really isn't unique, but is constantly happening. A multiverse of infinite, interconnected universes. An interesting outcome from this thinking is that time has no meaning. Our inflation only pushed time in the direction we experience it today. It could very well happen that other inflations have time running in the opposite direction.

(3) The craziest idea of the three, and my favourite, cause it seems to make the most sense, is that time is an illusion. Time doesn't exist. It's an idea proposed physicist Julian Barbour. In this theory, the universe is like pages in a book. Every page exists at the same time. There is no past, and no future. The flow from one Now (page) to another Now (page), produces the illusion of time (narrative) that we experience. In such a universe, nothing changes. Everything just is. This may sound crazy, but there is hard mathematics to support it.

If you're still here, you may want to check out some related reading. (The Adam Frank Discover article, The Day Before Genesis, isn't online as yet.)

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