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Theories of the Universe

Scientific Origins of the Universe

Black Holes

It has happened more than once in the history of science that because of the fame of an individual's contribution, theory, or breakthrough in some area of science, they push their views over those of other lesser-known individuals. This happens regardless of the correctness of their explanation. Isaac Newton refused to listen to rebuttals against some of his ideas, as did Neils Bohr and even Albert Einstein. Somewhere along the way, the search for truth in science gets lost in the person identifying with the “truth” of their ideas.

As far back as recorded history goes, there have been two sets of opposing ideas, beliefs, theories, or teachings about the origin of the universe. It has either existed eternally with no beginning or end, or it was created at some point in time and will eventually come to an end. In the first part we examined the early cultural, religious, and somewhat philosophical views of how the universe began. We've also spent a little time looking at some ideas about our own beginnings from a religious and scientific point of view. In this section, we're going to take a brief excursion through the various theories that science has put forth to explain the origin of the universe.

By far the most popular theory in science today is the big bang theory, the idea that the universe came into existence at a certain point in time roughly 15 to 20 billion years ago. In the last 25 years this theory has moved to the forefront of cosmology. You'll meet some of the key figures whose theories have laid the foundation for the big bang. However, as you'll see as we move through this section, this theory is not only a product of science but also of the times in which we live. And although science would like to consider itself removed from outside influences, it can't help but be affected by the people who work in the field.

The Cosmological Pendulum

Universal Constants

Zeitgeist is a German word that means literally “the spirit of the times.” It can also refer to a trend of thought and feeling during a period. It describes the general mood of a culture or society based on one or many influences coming from science, religion, art, politics, or even economics.

I don't think I have to reiterate for you again the two major ways in which the study of cosmology can be approached, I'm sure you remember what they are. In our present day, these two methods have manifested, and in some cases crystallized into two distinct areas of science: experimentation and mathematical theory. Theorists often have nothing to do with actual experimentation and the same can be said of experimenters. And it is this distinction that has been a source of disagreement between various scientific groups who put forth one view of the origin of the universe over another. To see exactly what I'm talking about, let's trace the development of the big bang theory through its various stages. Along the way you'll get a chance to meet an opposing theory, and examine some of the reasons why the big bang was developed in the first place.

Science as a methodology likes to see itself as a revealer of the true nature of the universe, as sort of a seer that can look beneath the veil of appearance. Yet science is practiced by scientists, human beings who bring with themselves a whole set of predispositions, values and beliefs. And as in any cross section of our society, some will be seriously invested in their positions and viewpoints, taking themselves rather seriously and purporting the “correctness” of their views. Of course, there are as many who don't take this stance and seek to move beyond any personal attachment to who they are and what they've discovered.

Universal Constants

Ex nihilo is a Latin term that translated means “out of nothing.” It was an idea presented by St. Augustine that became Church doctrine later on. It is his philosophical explanation of how God created everything out of nothing, which interestingly enough can be applied to the big bang as well. Where did everything contained in the big bang come from and why did it bang in the first place?

Much of the history of cosmology and its theories are a reflection of these types of people and the cultures they lived in. Often the most widely accepted theory becomes exactly that, because of the forceful personality behind the ideas. And while science tries to remain free of influence from things outside of it, the scientists who practice it are still a product of the culture and the times in which they live. In other words, in relation to the theories in cosmology, whether the universe has always existed or began with a bang, can't be separated from the influence of the zeitgeist, or spirit of the times. While there isn't enough time to go back through history in detail and show you how the cosmological pendulum has swung from one theory to the other, I can give you a rough outline and a few examples of some time periods in which this occurred. Just remember that there are always many factors impacting how any specific paradigm develops.

  • In ancient Greece the two basic concepts of the empirical (observation and practical application) and deductive (theoretical and mathematical) methods were intimately linked to the conflict between free citizens and the slave populace. The empirical system developed alongside the free craftsman and traders, while the deductive method, which can disregard observation and practical application, arose with the slave master's disdain for manual labor.
  • The Ptolemaic system was strongly influenced by the deductive method (theory and math as opposed to observation). Also at this time, we find the introduction of today's central theme in cosmology, the origin of the universe out of nothing. This ideology was developed out of the somewhat pessimistic and authoritarian worldviews of two founding Church Fathers, Tertullian and St. Augustine. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo served as the basis for a religious social system that saw the world as decaying from a perfect beginning to an ignominious end.
  • During the rise of science, two central concepts of medieval cosmology were overthrown—the idea of a decaying universe, finite in space and time, and the belief that the world could be known through reason and authority. The deductive, finite Ptolemaic system was replaced with the empirical, eternal, and infinite universe that was evolving by natural processes. It was a universe knowable by observation and experiment. The triumph of science was linked to the overthrow of the feudal system, out of which developed free labor and a society of merchants, craftsmen, and free peasants who questioned authoritarian power—religious, political, and economic.
  • Today's view of cosmology is much closer to the systems of Ptolemy and Augustine than Galileo and Kepler. The big bang universe is a finite one that will eventually end in either the big chill or the big crunch, (we'll examine both of these theories in “Supersymmetry, Superstrings, and Holograms”) which like the medieval cosmos is finite in time. The universe of popular cosmology is the product of a single unique event, dissimilar from anything else that has ever occurred—just as the medieval universe was seen as a product of creation.

And finally just to show you how what I outlined above can be revealed in the lives of the people living at some of those times, here are a few quotes from some famous people.

What makes God comprehensible is that he cannot be comprehended.

—Tertullian, c. 200 C.E.

If I can't laugh in heaven, I don't want to go there.

—Martin Luther, c. 1460

Religion teaches men how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

—Galilei Galileo, c. 1630

The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.

—Albert Einstein, 1935

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

—Steven Weinberg, 1977

We may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature.

—Stephen Hawking, 1988

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Theories of the Universe © 2001 by Gary F. Moring. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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