Editorial: An age-old question
This image released March 21, 2013 by the ESA and Planck Collaboration shows the afterglow of the Big Bang, the cosmic microwave background, as detected by the European Space Agency's Planck space probe. The radiation was imprinted on the sky when the universe was 370,000 years old. It shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities, representing the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today. (AP Photo/ESA, Planck Collaboration via NASA) Purchase photo reprints »
Amid the background chatter over March Madness and a new pope came the revelation last week that the universe is 80 million years older than previously thought. Which makes it around 13.81 billions years old. The discovery, recorded by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, elicited oohs and aaahs from scientists across the world.
There has been much excitement after the findings. They included an image of a heat map of the universe as it appeared 370,000 years after the Big Bang, showing space dotted with faint spots from which galaxies would grow over the intervening billions of years.
There is now further confirmation of the universe bursting from subatomic size to a gigantic expanse in a fraction of second through something called inflation, a 30-year-old theory concerning the Big Bang and its aftermath.
The Big Bang is what some scientists call the most comprehensive theory of the universe’s beginning. This theory posits that the universe was at one time (around 13.81 billions ago) smaller than an atom. In a millisecond, the theory goes, it blew up, cooled and expanded faster than a speeding bullet and the speed of light combined.
If this theory of inflation is correct, some scientists believe there’s a good probability of an infinite number of universes existing out there in the space-time continuum.
The report has also generated even more chatter of dark energy, dark matter, mysterious force fields, subatomic pinpricks, submicroscopic quantum fluctuations, cosmic microwaves, anomalies in the microwave data, string theory, quantum cosmology.
Does your head hurt yet?
Various scientists have thrown around pretty heavy quotes about this latest breakthrough: “We’ve uncovered a fundamental truth of the universe.” “This is about how humans figure out how the universe works and where it’s going.” “The universe is trying to tell us something.”
We’d like to focus briefly on that last statement to help you (and us) deal with all this astounding science. What is the universe trying to tell us? Can the universe tell us anything about how existence came to be?
Which leads us to the question William James called “the darkest question” of philosophy: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Take a good two or three minutes and concentrate on this question. It’s a hard question, meant to get you (and us) to question our existence and how we got on this crazy place called Earth in the first place.
Try to imagine “nothing” existing at some point in the long-ago past. This is sure to cause one’s brain to start exercising some of its little-used gray matter.
But it’s good to occasionally expand one’s horizons beyond the latest zoning board issue. And trying to imagine a time when nothing existed before something existed is one way to do that.
Of course thinking about such things is not easy. So to help us in our horizon-expanding exercise, we recommend you pick up a book by Jim Holt called, “Why Does the World Exist?”
The author talks to philosophers, physicists, theologians and non-scientists, like the late John Updike, as he attempts to grapple with the question of why is there something rather than nothing.
His book does not offer any easy answers. Sometimes, easy answers are not what we need.
We now return the use of your brain to you.