Tuesday, January 19, 2010

High Priests of the Big Bang

Wonder. Humans wonder. We want to know.

Journalists created five W's and an H as a mnemonic to help them satisfy our curiosity any time they report an event.

  • Who? Who was involved?
  • What? What happened (what's the story)?
  • When? When did it take place?
  • Where? Where did it take place?
  • Why? Why did it happen?
  • How? How did it happen?
We are most satisfied when all of those questions are answered. Of course, for even the most trivial stories, say a fender bender at rush hour, it is possible that we will never get all the answers.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that we humans struggle to create a story about the origin of the universe that satisfactorily answers all of the Five W's and the H. A quick survey of cosmological theories over the centuries shows that we have had a tough time answering even one of the questions. It is not surprising that there have been attempts to shorten the list of questions.

For many centuries, physicists supposed the when question to be irrelevant. The universe was declared to have had no beginning and no end. Timeless and infinite. But, for most of the last century, scientific thought about the physical universe seems to point to a beginning: the big bang. Before the big bang, neither when nor where existed. Space and time did not exist until the big bang happened. The clock couldn't start ticking until then. Many physicists estimate that the clock has been ticking for about 14 billion years.

There is no strong consensus on when (or even whether) the universe will end. Consequently, one may find several scenarios: The big freeze, the big rip, the big crunch, The big bounce, and the multiverse. Cosmologists seem overly fond of the word big. Big compared to us I suppose, but I thought we had given up having man be the measure (and center) of the universe. Multiverse is a contradiction in terms, since universe is meant to describe all that is.

It surprises me that one of the more literate cosmologists hasn't proposed the the big whimper, thus allowing us to start with a bang and end with a whimper.

Cosmologists have done their best to answer the what, when, and where questions. Things get messy when we move on to who, why, and how. Those who are disinclined to the spiritual side resent the suggestion that a who is involved. With no who, the question of why is difficult to entertain. Theists propose a Big Who and believe that the Who knows why.

Cosmologists have an o.k. story about the how follows the big bang. They don't have much to say about how the big bang happened. It would be a description of no space and time suddenly spawning a singularity that contains all space time and proceeds to spread out over as many dimensions as we care to do the math for. So nothing results in everything tightly compressed , followed by expansion ended by freeze, rip, crunch, bounce or the poet's entry, whimper.

This would seem to be a story that suits both theists and atheists. The matters of who and why could be declared outside the scope of the cosmological debate. However this seems to trouble some atheists, who insist there is nothing outside the scope of the physical universe. Theists, like myself, wonder what makes the atheist care about the who and why questions, since they seem to insist that who and why don't exist. It seems the atheist wants the theist to play by the rules while insisting that there are no rules.

It is those atheists who want theists to shape up and fly right that I would call the High Priests of the Big Bang. The High Priests seem to damn the theists, and not with faint praise. I pray God would bless the atheists, and sincerely hope that damnation is not their fate nor my own.

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