Escher's sand clock

A few days ago, The Atlantic carried an article by physicist and writer Alan Lightman (“It Seems I Know How The Universe Originated“), about the infinite, and about Andrei Linde’s refinements to the Big Bang Theory of the universe. It’s about that, but also about much else.

I had first read of Linde’s theories many years ago in Omni magazine, but in Omni, it was often difficult to separate actual science from pseudo-science or speculative fantasy, even when it was labeled science. So I filed them away. Lightman’s is the first article that explained Linde in a way that allowed me to understand him. Here’s the key paragraph:

A strange aspect of quantum physics is that energy and matter can suddenly appear out of nothing for short periods of time. If you could examine space with a strong enough microscope, you would find that it is constantly fluctuating, seething with ghost-like particles and energies that randomly appear and disappear. Quantum phenomena are normally apparent only in the tiny world of the atom, but near t = 0 the entire observable universe was smaller than an atom. If at a certain point in the infant universe sufficient scalar field energy had materialized, its repulsive gravitational effect would have caused space to expand so rapidly that an entire universe would have been created. Since such quantum fluctuations would have been going on at random places and times—this is the “chaos” in Linde’s eternal chaotic inflation theory—new universes would have been constantly forming.

“In this vision, universes endlessly spawn new universes, each with its own Big Bang beginning. Our t = 0 would not be the beginning of space and time in the larger cosmos, only in our particular universe.” New universes would have been constantly forming, and presumably, still are forming. Forever.

Left mentioned but undiscussed are the theological implications of such a universe. Judaism and the monotheistic religions have tended to posit that only God is infinite, and that the Universe has a definite beginning and end. This stands in rough opposition to Aristotle’s assertion that the Universe itself is infinite. I realize this is a simplification, but it’s a reasonably accurate one. Even if the Rabbis admitted that God created many universes before ours, only God Himself remains infinite. I’m unsure if they entertained the possibility of universes after ours.

A few months ago, I watched most of a video of the Life of the Universe, the vast majority of which consisted of relentlessly increasing disorder and darkness, where life took up a vanishingly small portion of the very beginning of time. Something like 75% of Time was taken up with things like the last black holes evaporating. Linde’s modification of Guth’s Inflationary Model offers, in some sense, a way out of this, that is perhaps also consistent with an infinite God presiding over the creation of many universes rather than just one.

Lightman mentions in several places the role that interpretation plays in theoretical physics, something not always understood by non-physicists, but which became readily apparent to me even as an undergrad at Virginia.

Yet Linde’s bulbs follow as logical consequences of certain mathematical equations. As Linde would acknowledge, those equations are also works of the human imagination, models of reality instead of reality itself. Linde’s ideas are at once visionary and grounded in logical thinking. Although mathematically proficient in the manner of all theoretical physicists, Linde described himself to me as more intuitive than technical, a Steve Jobs more than a Steve Wozniak.


Other scientists with equal brainpower but more cautious dispositions have not ventured nearly so far in their theories of the world. The equations are the equations, but they must be imagined and interpreted in the human mind, a particular human mind, a complex universe itself, endlessly variable in its quirks and possibilities.

It’s one thing to derive an equation, something else again to understand and imagine its implications in the real, physical universe. It is something else again to distinguish between those implications that are observable – and therefore provable or falsifiable – and those that must remain speculative. Theoreticians who have a gift for derivation don’t always have the intuition for interpretation.

As with almost everything Lightman writes, read the whole thing.

Comments are closed.