A Billionth of a Second Before the Bang

MARK W. POWELL

May 21, 1992|By MARK W. POWELL

Why thank you, gentlemen. definition, it's the greatest discovery of all time, even if it has been made before. Your intellectual bravery and scientific accomplishment have given us the mother of all snapshots, the universe flying apart from the explosion of a Cosmic Speck. A thought and subject good for at least temporarily blowing away everything from closet-cleaning to sex and war.

But where did the Cosmic Speck come from? Would you answer that, please?

Some of us have answered that question the easy way, with a leap of religious faith that doesn't hunger for specifics beyond Genesis. Others of us, believing in God but respecting scientific observation, haven't. So while my mind writhed in mingled pain and wonder over the inability of all our minds together to deal with the question, I listened as Ted Koppel put it to his guests.

The men, an astronomer and a physicist, had just explained that recent astronomical measurements confirm Edwin Hubble's 1929 observation that the universe is flying apart from what could only have been a singular initial explosion. Everything that exists, it seems, was once compressed into a single infinitesimal speck. There may have been just one Big Bang, and the universe may just expand forever -- or what's worse (or better, depending on your mindset), we may be caught somewhere in an eternal cycle of explosion, expansion, contraction, and re-explosion.

That's quite a show, you redoubted gentleman of science. And who in God's name do you think is running it?

For me, proof of the infinity of space (and thus the extra-scientific ultimate nature of the universe) was always contained in the simple question, ''If space ends, what comes after it?'' More space. Q.E.D. That took care of the question of whether, but in so doing only made more agonizing the question of how, why and God.

And now, thanks to the recent discovery/confirmation, it seems we're fairly certain of what the universe is doing at the moment even though we're as unable as ever to define its ultimate nature.

Mr. Koppel's scientific guests, it was good to see, finally turned from the technical issues of the discovery to the eternal issue. One noted that astronomers can describe in enormous detail what happened in the billionth of a second following the Big Bang, but can't say a thing about what happened in the billionth of a second before, or why.

And if time is indeed a line and not a line segment -- just as the universe is infinite both outward and inward -- then there had to be a before, yes?

If we manage to defy the prophecies of (among others) Henry Adams and James Cameron by surviving our manipulation of the atom and controlling the pernicious effects of all our other technologies, we are likely eventually to answer most of our questions about the microscopic and macroscopic worlds. But in more time to come than we have yet existed, we are most bTC unlikely to ever comprehend, much less see or measure, the ultimate horizon.

It will remain unmeasured and unmeasurable, unknown and unknowable. We should commend and respect in the highest terms the effort and accomplishment of those who have provided us with the celestial equivalent to the discovery that the world is round -- at the same time we pity them, and in a deeper way envy them, for the supreme hopelessness of their quest. That aching, ultimate unknown, regardless of religious beliefs, is the one single thing beyond birth and death that we all truly share.

Untold millennia from now, post-humans as far above us as we are above the fish of the primordial ocean will face the same question, and just as impotently. That, like the question itself, is infinitely terrible and infinitely wonderful.

Mark W. Powell is a New Hampshire journalist whose childhood ambition was to be an astronomer.

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