Another Brief History of the Universe

late-night ramblings by Ben

Apr. 12, 1996

Editor's note: This is six pages of stuff that I wrote late one night when I should have been writing a philosophy paper. I think it's approximately what I believe. (I do, by the way, believe in most of modern physics and astronomy, so if there's any glaring errors in those regards, someone please tell me.)

Disclaimer: Anyone who might be horribly offended by the implication that many major religions are silly and unwarranted might want to avoid this page ...

Second Disclaimer: This has never been edited, so please excuse a few typos.

the beginning...

In the beginning,.. no, scratch that. Before the beginning there was nothing. It wasn't empty space, because there wasn't any space around at all, empty or not. It was nothing. Absence of anything. Then.. but no, 'then' is misleading, since at this point there is not any time in existence, so a concept like 'then' or 'before' or 'a couple hours after lunchtime' make no sense at all. So there was simply nothing. And there was something. Not for any particular reason that we can think of; there just was. And now that there was something, there was also time, so now we can get on with saying things like 'now', and the way in which things happen will be a bit more comprehensible to our linearly temporal brains. This is the beginning, since it is the very first time that 'beginning' has meant anything.

So now there's something. What was it? Well, it was damned hot, for one thing. And we're not just talking about hot enough to melt your grilled cheese sandwiches in 10^-5 seconds here, we're talking hot enough to melt the fiber in the bread, to break all the bonds in the fatty acids in the cheese, to strip the electrons away from the carbon and oxygen molecules in the carbohydrates and then take the leftover bits and break them up even more until they've had enough. So, basically, we've got a whole bunch of really tiny bits of stuff moving really fast with more energy than you'd ever care to try and comprehend, all packed into a near-infinitely small space.

Now, moving so fast and all, they don't stay in this small place very long... they whizz out in all directions and the area they cover is expanding rather more rapidly than a frightened bunny rabbit. And as we all know from basic physics (or was it chemistry?) things get cooler when they expand, so this whole bunch of stuff is cooling down as it starts to thin out. Now, for a while it's still hot enough to vaporize that aforementioned sandwich, but at least it starts cooling down enough for basic particles to stick together for awhile without getting squashes into smaller pieces again. So you get your electrons, and your protons, and your neutrons, and all those other fun -ons that physicists and chemists like to babble about (except for those guys who think everything is waves, who might be right, but who we'll ignore for now). So we've got these particles, and then after it cools down some more, some of them start sticking together. It's still to hot for a while to do anything fancy, but you can make some of the smaller, less ambitious atoms like helium and have them stick together for a while at least.

So this goes on for a while, cooling down and having more stuff stick together, and after a while we've gone from having a patch of stuff smaller than the average politician's integrity to bigger than his ego, which is to say, quite a lot bigger. And eventually, since every bit of this stuff is somewhat attracted to every other bit of this stuff, it starts clumping together in various big chunks of stuff. And there's all sorts of sizes of chunks; there's really huge chunks that aren't very dense, and they're made up of smaller chunks that are a little more dense, and they're made of smaller chunks... and so once things have settled down enough you see a nifty thing start to happen in some of the small chunks. There's a whole bunch of these small, not-to-ambitious atoms we talked about earlier running around close to each other in a ball and they react with each other and give off a lot of heat and light. And the space around them is all cooled off by this time and there's relatively not much stuff there, so you can see these balls of stuff pretty well, and we'll call them stars. And then of course, the bigger size of chunks which are made up of a bunch of these little balls become galaxies, and the even bigger chunks become galaxy clusters and so on, so you get this whole interesting structure to everything there is, which, by the way, is still expanding amazingly fast, so all these chucks are always getting farther and farther away from each other.

Now, unfortunately, although we've got this nice structure and everything, still most of the atoms running around are these little tiny ones, which are great for making stars but not a lot of good for much else all by themselves. So we wait a little while and eventually something interesting happens: some of the stars run out of steam and collapse. And when this happens some of them collapse so much and get so dense that they blow up, and this makes a really cool and powerful reaction which can create all sorts of fun, big atoms like Uranium and Plutonium and stuff. And so after this explosion you get this big bunch of cloudy stuff floating around with lots more interesting atoms in it. Eventually, some of it will be attracted enough to some more of it that you'll get another one of those reacting balls and have some new stars -- the second generation. But what's really fun is if conditions are right, you've still got all this interesting cloudy stuff around the new stars, and some of it will make smaller balls that are floating around the new stars. And if these balls are small enough, they won't get up enough pressure to ignite and so they'll just sit around as balls of gas, or even denser stuff, floating around the new stars.

So now we've got some planets. And depending on how far away they are from the nearest star, they'll have various temperatures and so get lots of interesting mixtures of solids, liquids, and gasses of all sorts of atoms and compounds. And so you've got all this chemical stuff lying around on them, and it's a lot more interesting than the random mass of particles we started out with back at the beginning, but it still just kind of sits there and doesn't really do much, unless maybe the nearby star blows up in which case you go back to all gas clouds for a while until stuff recondenses. But it doesn't really do anything. What would be really interesting is if we could get some kind of compound or molecule that could somehow influence its surroundings so as to make more of itself, because then it could really get something done, make things happen. Unfortunately the chances of this occurring due to random happenstance are low. Very very low. Worse than the Illinois lottery. Worse than the chances that you will ever find that one sock you lost late last February. Worse, even, than the chance that the local weatherman will actually be right about the weather for every day in an entire year. BUT the universe is still expanding rapidly with no end in sight, so we've got a damned lot of time on our hands, maybe even infinite time. A lot can happen if you wait long enough. And it turns out we don't have to wait infinitely long because eventually, it happens. Somewhere, maybe even in more than one somewhere, a molecule sticks together that has the ability to cause reactions that make more molecules like it. And this is something we should be very happy about because it is just about the only way we can think of to get Life.

So we get these molecules that can make more of themselves, but they don't always get it just right, so sometimes the new molecules are different from the old ones. And most different ones probably can't reproduce themselves anymore so they're not very interesting, but sometimes you get a molecule that can reproduce itself better, or faster, or in more places. And these new, better molecules start to take over. And this keeps happening, with better models crowding out the old ones, getting more and more complex, and more and more efficient at doing interesting things, and this is what we call evolution. And pretty soon you get some groups of molecules that stumble upon a way to get more energy to reproduce themselves faster by trapping light energy from a nearby star and these groups of molecules we call plants. And some other groups discover that they can get energy by stealing it from the plant groups or from each other, and these become animals. And all of them get more complex and find ways to survive in all kinds of environments and in all kinds of strange ways, and eventually it turns out that perhaps one of the best ways to be able to survive in all kinds of different places is to be able to make complex decisions, and so the planet we've been watching is quickly taken over by the animals that have most developed that ability, and that's people.

This ability to make decisions and come up with new and interesting solutions to problems helps these creatures survive better, but it also comes with some interesting side effects. When their decision-making processes start to get really complex, they develop these capacities called wonder and curiosity, and they begin to think of all kinds of weird questions that have very little to do with their immediate survival. And some of these questions make a bit of sense, like "Where did I come from?", and some of them make a little less sense, like "Why am I here?", and some of them don't seem to make much sense at all, like "Who put me here, and for what purpose?". And since for quite a while their senses don't show them anything that clearly answers these questions, they tend to accept whatever comes to mind, or whatever someone tells them. What's a bit strange is that they often cling to these answers with such fervor and determination that they're willing to go shout at and oppress and kill people that come up with different answers than their own, and this seems rather pointless, but it has something to do with the way their complex brains work that no one really understands all that well.

So they go on for quite some time, often feeling kind of lost, and eventually these complex brains of theirs come up with some ways to actually get some evidence as to where they came from. And some of them believe it, but some of them don't. So they go on feeling lost some of the time and alone a lot of the time, and they have lots of problems, as anything that spends its time making conscious decisions must; but then we already saw the universe before there were any conscious decisions, and it was ok, but it wasn't really very interesting. Some of the people realize this, and others of them have other reasons, but on the whole they usually decide that what they've got is better than nothing. So they carry on, and, perhaps, eventually their decision-making brains allow them to reach out past their own little chunk of rock and see more of the universe and, perhaps, eventually they come to understand it better.

And then what happens? Well, it all depends on just how much stuff there is the universe, and just how fast its expanding. If there's too much of it then eventually, since all the little bits are still attracted to each other, they slow down, stop, turn around, and finally all come back together in that same incredibly cheese-vaporizingly hot little point that they started out in. Or if there's not quite that much then the universe might keep on expanding forever, and might eventually get so spread out that not enough particles aver get close enough to make new stars and planets and all you've got is a bunch of cloudy stuff floating about forever. Or, maybe, if there's just the right amount of stuff, it stops at a nice convenient size and just stays there, making new and interesting patterns forever.

So then what happens to the people, or whatever they are, one of the most interesting things in the universe, reaching out from their little chunk of rock? Well, they could make a mistake and die out at any time, but there would probably be more things kind of like them somewhere else, or you could just wait for that unlikely life-starting event to happen again somewhere else. But maybe sometime one of these decision-making creatures will learn enough about the universe to really answer its questions. Maybe one of them will find out just why, back in the beginning, there was something rather than only nothing. Maybe they'll be able to escape from their one-way trip through time and go back and see for themselves. Maybe they'll be able to escape from this patch of something, this universe, and find another patch of something that's different, and new, and exciting.

But since I myself am one of these beings, caught in time and limited by my current senses and environments, I cannot answer theses questions. I can only sit here and wonder "Where did we come from?" and "Where are we going?". Oh, and put off writing overdue philosophy papers by babbling about the universe late at night. I can do that too.

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Last Modified 5/6/96; 1996 by Ben Elgin