Whither the universe?

James A. Humphrey

July 13, 1992|By James A. Humphrey

WHEN I WAS a teen-ager, I thought the world was ordinary.

Explorers and the scientists seemed to have laid bare the inner workings of everything. All the continents had been discovered. Everything was understood. The spirits and the demons had been banished, leaving behind a flat, prosaic, unmysterious world.

In my teenage mind, the main culprit was science. The same science that promised me an exciting technological future filled with amazing gadgets had rendered the world itself ordinary, unsurprising, predictable.

How wrong I was! In my adult years, I have enjoyed reading widely about science. The world as imagined by scientists is hardly ordinary. It is extraordinarily strange.

Consider the late 20th century creation myth envisioned by astrophysicists:

Darkness reigns on the face of the deep. Matter does not exist. The cosmos rests in a vast nothing. But the nothing is bursting with an infinitude of pent-up energy, expressing itself in a foam of microscopic black holes, popping in and out of existence for a single 10-million-trillion-trillion-trillionth of a second each.

After an eon, the cosmos stirs. Something becomes unbalanced and awakes. Our universe is born. It is infinitesimally small, contained in a space billions of times smaller than a single atom of hydrogen. It is hot: The temperature is 10 to the 32nd power (1 followed by 32 zeros). It is dense: 10 to the 92nd power times more dense than matter is today.

And it is expanding. Before one second has elapsed, the new universe expands from a space smaller than an atom to one as large as our solar system. During this initial second, the original unified force separates into the forces of gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force.

Part of energy congeals into particles of matter and antimatter, which annihilate each other as they meet. Fortunately, there is one-10-billionth more matter than anti-matter, which is enough matter to build a universe, our universe.

Three minutes pass. The universe is much larger and cooler. The temperature now is only 1 billion degrees, and protons and neutrons can fuse into atomic nuclei. It is still too hot for electrons, though. It takes another hundred thousand years before the universe has expanded and cooled enough for electrons to join with atomic nuclei, creating oceans of hydrogen and helium atoms, the first elements of the universe. By this time the primordial glow of creation has also subsided enough for ordinary light to appear. The universe is becoming recognizable.

Pulled together by gravity, the hydrogen and helium form vast clouds, which collapse in upon themselves, each unbearable extremes of mass and density, and erupt into atomic fire, creating the first stars, which shine out into the cosmos.

But the stars create more than light. Their atomic furnaces, by stellar alchemy, convert hydrogen and helium into new and heavier elements. Apart from hydrogen and helium, all of the traditional elements, all of the iron and lead, gold and silver, carbon, silicon and oxygen, were created in the fiery interiors of the stars. When stars die, in the cataclysmic explosion of a nova or supernova, these new elements are spewed forth into the universe, where in time they form new stars and planets. Some of these planets, in turn, mold the stardust into continents and oceans and creatures. Truly, the earth and all its creatures are children of the stars.

Today, some 15 billion years after the Big Bang, we look out upon a still-expanding universe, filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies, many of which in turn contain hundreds of billions of stars. Scientists contemplating this spectacle have debated whether the universe is destined forever to expand or instead eventually to collapse back upon itself.

The answer turns in part upon how much mass the universe contains. Given sufficient mass, the force of gravity would eventually slow and then reverse the outward expansion of space. With increasing speed, the universe would contract until all had once more been reduced to primordial chaos, after which a new universal expansion would begin.

So which will it be? A universe growing ever dimmer and colder, with matter itself slowly evaporating into radiation, until at last, after countless eons, there remains only the darkness of the void?

Or, instead, a universe which repeatedly is born in fire, expands, contracts, perishes and is born again? As for me, I choose the latter, with its endless cycles of destruction and creation, each cycle, in the words of physicist Edward Harrison, another day in the life of Brahma, another beat of the cosmic heart.

I still have regrets, but they do not include my teen-age regret. Beyond all doubt, our ordinary world is extraordinary. As Thomas Carlyle wrote more than 150 years ago, "This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whomsoever will think ot it."

James A. Humphrey is a commentator for Montana Public Radio. He lives in Great Falls.

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