Being that this is the last installment of “Lessons Beyond the Classroom” for the semester, it is only fitting that we go out with a bang, a big bang…like, we will literally be discussing things like the Big Bang theory in this article (no, not the show). Now, before you go throwing this paper into the nearest fire, or slamming your laptop shut and rushing off to your local church in a fit of existential dread, please be aware that I will be practicing, under the wise advice of Professor Vangilder (our esteemed and featured Professor for this article) “responsible skepticism” while writing this article. That means: everything discussed here is mere conjecture based on popular physical theories that have yet to be proven.
Clark Vangilder is our Professor of Physics. When I contacted him and pitched the idea for this article, I was going out on a limb. I first had to let him know that I know nothing about physics. Frankly speaking, equations scare me. However, that has never stopped my eyes from wandering up to the stars and my mind from wandering out into the cosmos to ponder where it fits into the equation of this wild thing we call life. Having made it clear that I would be attempting to articulate this article in the most rudimentary of terms, so that people like myself (with no experience in the science of physics) could understand, Professor Vangilder agreed to break things down to our level. An hour-long conversation ensued (one of the most interesting of my life).
“The best place to start with understanding the big bang, or even these supersymmetry ideas, that are popular right now, is to go back to 1921,” explained Professor Vangilder. “Two fellas named Friedmann (in 1922) and Lemaitre (in 1927) took Einstein’s equations, which had recently become very popular-and everybody realized what a goldmine they were-and worked them backwards in time. What they found out- contrary to popular beliefs that the universe was eternal- was that the universe was not eternal; it began at some finite point in the past.”
The equations used by these scientists were Albert Einstein’s trail-blazing equations for general relativity. These equations combined special relativity (a theory pertaining to the relationship of space and time) and Newton’s law of universal gravitation (a law explaining the force of gravity) and explained the geometric relationship between space and time.
What makes the fact of his equations being used to solve the mystery of the beginning of the universe (as we know it) so ironic is that Einstein himself was a fan of the eternal universe idea.
“It bothered a lot of folks,” explained Professor Vangilder, “because they wanted the universe to be eternal. They wanted it to always have been and always will be. They had no reason to believe that scientifically, but it was a desire. And that’s one of the troubles that plagues all of science-physics, biology, you name it. There are a lot of cherished notions that don’t have much to do with actual science.”
While positing the idea of the Big Bang theory has helped us come a long way in explaining the origin of the universe, it has also left several questions unanswered. The term “big bang” itself does not accurately portray what took place some 13.8 billion years ago.
“The big bang does not describe an explosion, but everybody thinks of it that way,” explained Professor Vangilder. “What it describes is the beginning of all space time and matter. It’s really an expansion, or inflation.”
But even our ability to trace back our origin to this singular event gets us only so far. What happened before that? Where did the matter come from? And what governs the laws of physics that make life possible? These are the types of question that keep theoretical physicists up at night.
Thousands of miles away, under the Swiss city of Geneva, rests the worlds largest and most powerful Large Hadron Collider (LHC). It is here that theoretical and experimental physicists have come to together to attempt to answer such questions.
The collider’s function is to accelerate particles to nearly the speed of light and crash them together. When the particles crash, many smaller particles result. Using a network of the world’s most powerful computers, The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, then performs an analysis of the data to determine if any new particles were found. By doing this, CERN is attempting to understand matter at a more particular level. Such an understanding could help to either validate or lay to rest several popular theories and principles in the field of particle physics.
One such principle, getting a lot of attention from physicists, is that of Suppersymmetry (SUSY). “Theoretical physicists have lots of interesting ideas,” says Professor Vangilder. “Some of them are crazy and some of them are awesome. Supersymmestry is a principle that says that if you model matter the same way you model force-with equations-then you have a symmetry.”
If this principle turns out to be true, it will go a long way in helping scientists piece together the puzzle of force and matter and how the two interact at a particle level. If not, then it’s back to the drawing board.
Another popular theory (among the likes of famous scientists like Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson) is that of the multiverse. This mind-bending hypothesis posits that we live in only one of a collection of universes and that the laws of physics we know pertain only to ours and ours alone. “Imagine a bubble machine,” said Professor Vangilder, in attempting to help me wrap my mind around the concept, “and that’s the multiverse generator; whatever that is. And that could never possibly be explained,” he added with a chuckle. “The problem with ever detecting that we are in a multiverse full of other bubble universes is that according to that theory, those universes are expanding away from each other faster than the speed of light. So they would never interact with each other in any way.”
Does your brain hurt yet? So does mine. And these are just two theories up for debate at the moment. So you can see how far we still are from pinning down a definite answer. It seems the closer we get to a solution, the faster it runs away from us, much like trying to find the edge of the universe. However, that does not stop people from claiming they have it all figured out.
“You can’t escape metaphysics in physics anymore. And unfortunately guys like Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss have really downplayed philosophy-in fact they’ve declared it dead. One of the tough things about communicating these things is that you have people with personality who will say something and people will not question them.”
We live in a world where it is now possible to not only have an opinion, but to make that opinion heard and seen with a few clicks of a button. Often times the difference of opinions can turn ugly, and with a topic as important as the origin and meaning of life, they are capable of becoming uglier.
“There was a philosopher named Dallas Willard who had a talk on being a morally responsible skeptic,” explained Professor Vangilder. He takes everyone to task on if you are going to be against something; you have to first understand what it’s for. Oftentimes, people don’t understand the message of what they’re against. One of the reasons for that is because it’s hard work. Understanding physics is hard work. Understanding philosophy or theology is hard work. There is a lot there. All of those knowledge systems are highly-structured, well-ordered things that take a lot of study and a lot of reflective thought before you really understand their message.”
Wherever our quest for understanding takes us, we have to remember that we are all human beings, and that we are in this together. Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, we will all ultimately suffer the same fate in the end.
“We are not a very reflective society anymore,” Professor Vangilder said in closing. “People don’t sit around and think about their thinking. We don’t talk and think deeply about things anymore. I think we would be a lot more charitable if we did, and we wouldn’t have all of these unnecessary divisions within. Instead of generating so much heat, we would generate a lot more light.”