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Matter matters

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?”

7 comments to Matter matters

  • This entire post made my brain explode. But it had nothing in it to begin with so it is like a big bang as well I guess.

  • Ian

    I was going to post something really similar today too! This was very well written though.

    I did go ahead with my post though, since I think I attacked the same idea from a slightly different (although still physics) approach.

  • Quantum fluctuations notwithstanding, my money’s on the Great Green Arkleseizure, and I fear The Coming of the Great White Handkerchief.

  • Mike_W

    Thanks for writing about this Bob. This is the subject that I am both most interested in and also know the least about. I read Victor Stenger’s book God the Failed Hypothesis recently and he comes to the same conclusion: We live in a universe that has a sum of zero energy because the positive and negative forces balance out evenly.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but having a sum of zero energy and having no energy at all seem to be two different things. It did take some initial energy at some point to create mass, so it seems to me that we’re back where we started: where does the energy come from? I’m definitely not trying to throw god in there, but this is the question that keeps me up at night.

  • ordinary girl

    Nice article, Bob. I read an article recently in Scientific America that touched on the topic as well that gave me a new perspective into the theories about the beginning of the universe. I think it ties in nicely with what you’ve also said.

  • I’m glad everyone enjoyed the post.

    Ian, nice job!

    ordinary girl, Thanks for the link. I’ll definitely give it a read.

    Mike_W, I’ve come across many sources that describe the energy of the universe being contained in the curvature of space itself. According to general relativity, even a universe devoid of matter and radiation would contain this bound-up energy. Apparently, it was the rapid expansion during the inflationary period that “wrung out” the virtual particles which then became real because they couldn’t get close enough to annihilate each other. Of course, that’s when things really started to get interesting.

  • cogito

    The question that got the post going is a toughie–it’s mind-boggling to try to imagine either possibility. But the theist has no answer either–it’s even harder to imagine that an intelligent, all-powerful, all-good God has been around forever than to imagine eternally existent matter. Forced to pick between a causeless universe and a causeless (or self-caused, whatever that means) anthropomorphic God, the choice is easy (for me).

    The question is interesting to think about, but I wish theists would realize that it’s not a gotcha for their debates, but a challenge to their own view of an eternal God–a challenge that they probably realized in their childhood (“But mom, who made God?”). In most cases they’ve suppressed the wisdom in that childhood curiosity by either “growing up” (read: ignoring the question) or turning to Aquinas and his theological progeny. That progeny possess a venerable tradition and a learned jargon, but in the end they can’t look the five-year-old in the eye when she asks, “Venerable scholar, who made God?”

    cheers,

    – moh

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