Dummies guide to life, the universe and everything.

You’re going to have to excuse my pathetically under-educated simplification of this mind blowing issue but I do find it fascinating, especially as I’ve recently watched a few related TV programmes. I even went as far as reading the text of a speech given by Professor Stephen Hawking in 1988. He’s been trying to put the finishing touches to his earlier revelations for the last 30 years or so with little success it seems. The man’s just not up to the task! ;)

If Hawking is having difficulties then what hope have I got! To say most of this goes over my head is be a massive understatement but let’s meander through what is known and what is not.


I think I understand why the “steady state” theories of old don’t work. This is the idea that the universe has always been its current shape/size and will be so forever more. There are (at least) three things that squash that idea;

  • Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Don’t try reading about this! I ended up with the “simple introduction” and still got a headache. Essentially, this suggests that if the universe had been the way it is for donkey’s years then everything would be the same temperature. Same as leaving a glass of iced water in a warm room for a long time, eventually the temperatures even out.
  • Gravity. As pondered by Newton and cheated around by Einstein, if we had a steady state then clusters of stars should all fall toward a ‘centre of gravity’ and bump into each other. Assuming Newton’s law of universal gravitation is correct of course. As it is, the gravity that would make the stars do this ‘big executive toy ball bumping in the sky thing’ is offset by the velocity with which they are moving away from the centre (and have been theoretically since the big bang).
  • Hubble’s Law. This tells us that distant galaxies are running away from us at a velocity proportional to their distance from us. The velocity of these objects was worked out from their redshifts. An observed redshift due to the Doppler effect occurs whenever a light source moves away from the observer.

Now, what I’m calling ‘steady state’ shouldn’t be confused with the Steady State Theory of the universe. This was more of a ‘Steady State – now with added expansion!’ model that allowed for an expanding universe (by then indisputable) that back-filled itself by generating new matter. This universe had no beginning nor end and all kinds of matter or galaxies could appear at any position in the universe. This feels much more like a Star Trek kind of universe to me. Anyway, the idea still has a few champions but is largely if not completely trashed by a bunch of observable things like cosmic microwave background radiation, quasars and radio galaxies only being found a long long way away and so on. What this theory did most effectively was to drive research that would eventually get everyone thinking that the big bang was the way to go!

And so in comes the Big Bang and out goes my ability to understand very much thanks to the need to dabble in things like quantum mechanics, singularities, dark matter and other strange stuff.


What we think we know.

The story goes that 13.73 ± 0.12 billion years ago there was this very small, very hot, very dense and exceedingly weird blob. We have a fairly good understanding of what happened from 10-43 seconds after the BANG until today and on into the future (assuming nobody moves the goalposts).

So where did all the matter come from if this blob was so tiny? Apparently, matter can be created from energy and this embryonic universe might have borrowed massive amounts of energy from gravity which it then turned into matter. Apparently we’ll need to pay back this “gravity debt” when the universe comes to an end! There was a funky thing that happened very early on to determine that our universe was made of matter as opposed to antimatter, but otherwise everything from this point on seems to have followed the rules our best brains have written over the years.

What we don’t know.

What remains a mystery to Mr. Hawking and everyone else is what happened between BANG and 10-43 seconds afterwards. Amazingly, this incredibly small moment in time has a name. It’s called the Planck Epoch. Technically speaking, it is thought that during this period all the ‘stuff’ that made up the blob (fundamental forces, gravity, bosons, it’s all Chinese to me) got excited and kicked off the extremely rapid expansion of the universe. However, it appears that none of our current rules apply within the Planck Epoch and so until we have some new ones, we really have very little beyond a lot of guesswork.

This passage from Wiki explains why this is still a mystery far better than I can:

As there presently exists no widely accepted framework for how to combine quantum mechanics with relativistic gravity, science is not currently able to make predictions about events occurring over intervals shorter than the Planck time or distances shorter than one Planck length, the distance light travels in one Planck time—about 1.616 × 10-35 meters. Without an understanding of quantum gravity, a theory unifying quantum mechanics and relativistic gravity, the physics of the Planck epoch are unclear, and the exact manner in which the fundamental forces were unified, and how they came to be separate entities, is still poorly understood. Three of the four forces have been successfully integrated in a common framework, but gravity remains problematic. If quantum effects are ignored, the universe starts from a singularity with an infinite density. This conclusion could change when quantum gravity is taken into account. String theory and Loop quantum gravity are leading candidates for a theory of unification, which have yielded meaningful insights already, but work in Noncommutative geometry and other fields also holds promise for our understanding of the very beginning.

It is good to know people are working on it but when you have a thing as uncertain as this I’m wondering if we’ll ever really understand what happened? To use a simple analogy our knowledge of the beginnings of the universe has reached a point where we know everything about the bullet that is flying across the room. We know what its trajectory will be, where it will hit the wall, how far it will bury itself into the wall, what the bullet is made of, how hot it is, how fast it’s going, its density, what it is made of, etc. What we don’t know is who or what pulled the trigger or how the trigger moved the bullet! When you come to think of it, that’s quite a lot of important information missing, even if it is all squeezed into a trillionth of a second or so!

Wild speculation.

Personally, I’d like them to discover that time actually extends backwards beyond the Big Bang. To discover that our universe has been expanding and collapsing for goodness knows how long. There might have already been an unknown number of repetitions of the same – BANG, GROW, SLOW, COLLAPSE – sequence, each one creating a totally unique universe from the same raw materials. I prefer to think of the Big Bang therefore as not so much the first act of a single expansion but as the last act of one of many collapses. Try and get your head around that!

It’s interesting to imagine that each time the bang occurs the material that makes up the universe scatters itself in very different ways. Sometimes creating life on planets, sometimes not. A bit like dropping the same 50,000 marbles on the floor repeatedly and life will only be created if the single red marble touches the single green one. The actual odds may be better or worse than this, I have absolutely no idea!

Might our feelings of having been in a previous life and all that associated voodoo not be related to earlier lives on this planet in this universe but to lives on another planet in an earlier version of the universe? It is unlikely that our body chemicals would be able to retain such memories after being squished and exploded again in such a manner but hey, who knows? In this arena of scientific investigation it seems that almost anything is possible. The vast majority of our universe is missing anyway, only 4% of what we think should be there is actually visible, the rest is hypothetical dark matter or dark energy. Even the atoms we’re made up of have got massive gaping holes in them. Did you know that if the nucleus (the only bit you might bounce off if you bumped into it) of one of your atoms was the size of a marble then there would be around 3 km of wide open nothingness all the way around it before you came across any of the electrons wobbling around the outside? That’s an awful lot of nothing!

So, on that basis I think I am safe to speculate for now, until someone finally cracks the secret of those very first moments at least.

Where does God come into it all? Well, if there is such a thing we might be doing it a great injustice by limiting its powers to just the one spark of ignition. Perhaps our ever expanding and collapsing universe is just one of God ‘s little experiments? Maybe God is playing with its own somewhat larger version of the CERN particle accelerator exploding and shrinking all this matter until it gets a universe it likes?

I think it’s important to have a sense of your own unimportance in the great scheme of things.


22 thoughts on “Dummies guide to life, the universe and everything.

  1. An excellent and thought provoking post. Anything is possible. Parallel universes exactly like ours, but where Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s third single didn’t get to Number One.

    My take on God is that God is the moving force, the will, the drive behind the Universe. God is neither omnipotent or omnisapient, but a tendency towards both. Our souls/consciousnesses evolve over a myriad lifetimes to merge into oneness with God as we acquire absolute awareness, absolute will. But this will indeed take forever.

    We have consciousness. On a lower level, cats and dogs have consciousness. Rats and mice have consciousness. Bacteria and amoeba – the atom even.

    Every hydrogen atom in your body (9% of your weight) has had its electron spinning around its nucleus for those 13 billion years. What keeps it going? [A propos: that makes even the cheapest whisky in my drinks cabinet 13 billion years old too]. Here will be a toast (after Lent’s finished) to atomic will, what keeps the universe going.

    The universe is, indeed, stranger than we can imagine.

  2. “I think it’s important to have a sense of your own unimportance in the great scheme of things.”

    Indeed but I don’t know how you’d square that with believing that our feelings could survive 13.72999 billion years since the big bang and then be reconnected to our tiny brains, it might have been better to put Wild fantasies as a header for that section.
    You’d have to believe we’re the single most important thing in this universe (and all previous ones) for that to happen to humans.
    There are a lot of people who do think that of course, dembski here seems to be a prime example, doesn’t make it true though.

    Still a good read, like your blog.

  3. Nice piece Scatts – good to read some hard thinking on the subject. My own musng in the subject have got me to conclude that there is no such thing as time only to discover some years ago that others are on the same track. You’ve probably heard of Peter Lynds, but in case you haven’t have a read http://30at328.eresmas.com/Time%20and%20Classical%20and%20Quantum%20Mechanics.pdf
    and visit his site for some more.

    On the question of God, however, I recently watched the film ‘Intelligence expelled’ on Youtube and although I found it somehow came short of its own promise I would recommend it if only to hear dawkins admit that he allows for the possibility of ‘Intelligent design’. A term that is bandied around a bit willy nilly, but in Dawkins’ case he allows for the chance that life was seeded on earth in some form, although he does add the caveat that he ‘believes’ it would have itself evolved on the place it originated from.

    There’s a bit of a witch hunt on creationaism in America, fair enough I say, but I’m a bit miffed if scientists, however religious, are not allowed to present scientific arguement and scientific ‘evidence’ as to holes in Darwins theory of evolution. This interview is a brief discussion of the film and fun I think (although a bit self congratulatory) whatever you think of the participants http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4609561480192587449&ei=tv27Se7uOIWb-AaGyszNAQ&q=intelligence+expelled&hl=en

    Carry on :)

  4. Scatts…As ever Mate, a well written and thought provoking piece,but ultimately I felt my eyes glaze over and I slid back to my own view on the Universe and all of the rest of the gubbins out there…. God Made it, God runs it….. Who the hell are we to dare to interfere or second guess such omnipotence?

    Moving away at the speed of greased effluent or colliding like two bull effilumps after the same bit of efflilump nooky, what if anything can we do about it? And if we could, what good would it do us, bring down the price of a decent single Malt ?

  5. potato, patato
    What do you mean? Do you think consciousness can survive 13.72999 billion years from a previous universe to be fused with our existence?
    Consciousness is a property of our brains, nothing magic about it, nothing that needs to be inserted by a magic pixie.

    Since we’re throwing links around have a look at these lectures about how far we stand in the knowledge about the workings of the brain (they’re already a few years old so advances have been made)
    Part 1 of There Are No Ghosts in Your Brain
    Part 2 of There Are No Ghosts in Your Brain

  6. All excellent stuff.

    I highly recommend a dabble in the theory known as ‘panspermia’ or exogenesis.

    Exactly where ‘life’ came from is fascinating question.

    If you’re into this kind of thing I also strongly recommend the novels of Stephen Baxter (the Manifold Trilogy). All about the mysteries of deep time and how close to us they really are.

  7. I saw a TV prog the other day about panspermia. It’s a very interesting and entirely plausible theory.

    I’ll try those novels you suggest.

  8. Excellent ! I just loved reading this post. It is taking me as far as my mind can imagine. Sometimes I think science can explain only based on what has been documented or concluded. There can be things going beyond what can be logically or rationally explained. But an attempt to find it is awe-inspiring.

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  10. What an excellent post. I learned a lot and appreciate your research. I do believe the odd are far, far great then just 1 red marble and 1 green marble amongst 500. I’ve read that the odds of life forming in a random universe is not like hitting the lottery, but rather hitting the lottery multiple times in row! The odds are astronomical and that’s what adds to the mystery of the origin of life.
    Good stuff,
    With appreciation,
    Adam Barton
    Akron, Ohio

  11. I’m sure you’re right, Adam, astronomical odds. One day we will work it out but I suspect I won’t be here, not in this body at least!

  12. I just happened to be passing by and took some time out to visit, briefly. Fascinating topics and interesting comments. I will be back and try and to get a least a partial grasp on some of the easier stuff.

  13. Very interesting topic Mr. Scatt ,God’s creation is really a master piece.It inspires me that humans and the universe are one our knowledge keeps expanding just like the universe.

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