We recently received an email question I just couldn’t resist.
..I have a question for you…concerning the origins of the universe….yes, just a small matter, which I am sure you can clear up in no time.
The question is……When I consider the origins of “life, the universe and everything”, when you go back as far as you can go, it seems to boil down to two simple options……either 1) Matter has always existed or 2) Matter somehow has been created out of a complete vacuum/nothingness.
Now I am certainly no astrophysicist, and maybe I am being too simplistic here but either of these options seems impossible to me…
Yours in anticipation Craig B. Australia
Thanks for the question Craig,
I should start by saying that I’m no astrophysicist either but I do play one on a podcast…
Actually, There’s a bit of a false dichotomy here, which is completely understandable given the topic. We don’t know and may never know what preceded the Big Bang. A vacuum or nothingness (whatever that is) seem like the two only options but there could be one or many more possibilities.
Given this, the second option makes the most sense from what I understand of modern physics and from direct quotes from respectable physicists.
Something from nothing does sound impossible on its face but if we look at some of the bizarre stuff that really happens in physics, it can be made to seem at least a little less than impossible.
I’m referring to here a real phenomenon called quantum fluctuations.
A quantum fluctuation is a temporary change in the amount of energy in a point of space. This change manifests itself as a pair of virtual particles that seem to appear from nothing. Virtual particles are particle/antiparticle pairs like an electron and a positron that exist for an extremely brief interval before colliding with each other and disappearing.
Although these particles cannot be directly observed, we know they’re there because of how they affect matter. Physicist Will Lamb discovered a tiny change in the energy level of atoms in 1953. This so-called Lamb-Shift is caused by the virtual particles as they interact with atoms changing their energy by one part in a billion. This discovery brought him a well earned Nobel prize many years later.
One way to look at this is through the Principle of Indeterminacy otherwise known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. I’m sure many of you have heard of this. This is Werner Heisenberg’s game changing idea that there is a minimum level of uncertainty in the universe we can never resolve.
There is no way, even in principle, to investigate nature with arbitrary precision. If you are examining something at an atomic level there are certain conjugate or twin variables like position and momentum that can never both be resolved with arbitrary accuracy. The more accurately you determine where a particle is, the more uncertain its speed is and vice versa. Time and energy themselves are also conjugate variables. A very brief interval of time is very precise…therefore the energy associated with it is very uncertain. It is within this uncertainty and these brief time-spans that conservation of energy allows these particles to appear and then disappear.
So if particles can appear out of the energy of a vacuum, where did the energy come from?
Ultimately, it doesn’t have to come from anywhere because the total energy of the universe is……a big fat…Zero
How can that be?
Well, this is possible because energy can be considered negative or positive.
The positive energy of the universe is the energy of motion and mass like (matter, antimatter, photons etc). This is balanced by the negative energy of attraction like certain types of gravitational or electromagnetic fields which try to pull everything together. The result is a universe of zero total energy which means it came into existence without any input of matter or energy and without any violation of the conservation of energy. Talk about a free lunch.
It is because of this that some scientists describe the universe as potentially one big long-lived quantum fluctuation.
This makes more sense to me than anything else I’ve heard on this subject. I’ve always thought though that if the universe consists of space-time, then before the big bang there must have been a nothingness that was even less than nothing. How else do you describe something devoid of even space and time? Therefore, how can any quantum fluctuation occur? How can anything for that matter occur if there is not even a dimension of time that the word “occur” seems to require?
That’s why I think that before the bigbang there might have been some type of space-time continuum around already that would be amenable to quantum fluctuations. Maybe it had 3 time dimensions and 13 space dimensions. Maybe our universe is still expanding within that earlier but much bigger universe and there’s some pan-dimensional beings there thinking…”what the hell is that?”