Why is the Universe the way it is?

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

 

If thinking is hard, how to fight my own bias. If thinking is hard, should I stop my inquiry and throw in the towel? If thinking is hard, should I be afraid to make a mistake? Our view of the Universe is shaped by our perception. Asking why the Universe is the way it is underscores the fact that what unfolds before our eyes is based on our limited window of understanding. We ought to strike a balance between what the observer’s Consciousness knows and what might still be beyond the spatiotemporal horizon of the Universe. It appears that we are all in awe of so much beauty: “Why do galaxies exist at all? Why do the basic laws of nature come together to produce a Universe filled with these ridiculously vast – and incomparably beautiful – structures?” From the blindness of our eyes to the blindness of our brain, beyond distance, time and complexity, why would we find beauty in the Universe? I believe that it is our anthropocentric feeling of empathy towards the life cycle of a galaxy, a star or a thimbleweed flower... that allows us to be filled with wonder.

NGC 7773 (ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Walsh)

NGC 7773 (ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Walsh)

Thimbleweed

Thimbleweed

 

 

Some of my bias include my taste for the exotic and my obsession for impenetrable walls. No matter how interesting are the countless details put into the new Deep Time exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in D.C., I can't stop going back to the very beginning when the first life form produced a proton gradient and even before when the first abiotic processes occurred. The Universe is an existential structure. Its horizon is a line drawn in time and space. To paraphrase Karl Löwith, only as history can the Universe be related directly to man and his purposes. Causality is key to understanding life in the Universe. Out of the 13.7 billion years, the Deep Time exhibit on view in the newly renovated Hall of Fossils has chosen to narrow its focus on the 3.7 billion years that separate us from the long beginning to our present times.

We are accustomed to the idea of geology and astronomy speaking the secrets of ‘deep time,’ the immense arc of non-human history that shaped the world as we perceive it

David Farrier

 

Surprisingly this Deep Time exhibit does not simply stick to its subject displaying some 700 fossil specimens, it looks back to previous mass extinctions and highlights warning signs in the Anthropocene, even posting a quote from biology expert E.O. Wilson on a wall in the back of the exhibit – “If we were to wipe out insects alone...the rest of life and humanity with it would mostly disappear from the land. And within a few months”.  How can we tell what is looming on the horizon? Over the course of evolution, the mind developed an ability to see patterns and so we are searching for similarities in the past with the aim of reframing the story of humanity into the “logos of the kosmos”.  How far away can we see in time and space?

...our patch of the universe has only existed for fifteen billion years; consequently, the maximum distance that can be observed is about fifteen billion light-years, referred to as the “horizon distance”. Most likely, the space within our horizon is only a tiny, infinitesimal corner of a much larger universe...Is it really possible to understand the universe entire when we are constrained by causality from observing most of it?

P.J. Steinhardt,“Cosmological Challenges for the 21st Century”, Critical Problems in Physics:Proceedings of a Conference Celebrating the 250th Anniversary of Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, October 31, November 1, November 2, 1996, edited by V.L. Fitch and R. Marlow, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1997 , p.125-126

 

The horizon slowly moves away, for space is infinite. We’re told that the farthest we can observe is in fact 42 billion light-years, greater than 14-15 billion light-years because cosmic expansion has lengthened distances. Beyond the horizon and back, I found myself wondering about cosmic coincidences. They are numbers in the world of statistics, collected after-the-fact in the vast volumes of data, labeled as such for lack of better understanding. When it comes to the cosmological coincidence,  researchers imagine new physics beyond the standard cosmological model in order to answer the why and when. I found myself bouncing back and forth between the bio-logical possibility of unlikely events to happen within the theory of a multiverse and the alternative of a Universe upon which free will is bestowed, that would explain the ”reasons not understood” why our universe “began to expand and cool” (P.J. Steinhardt, ibid., p.124).

 

In our Universe, the Hubble constant - that is the rate at which the Universe is expanding - is somehow intrinsically connected to the division of cosmic history into three epochs. The initial state of the Universe was determined by the radiation component which dominated the total energy content. When the equality of radiation and matter densities occurs, the matter-dominated epoch begun.

... the Universe made use of this matter dominance to form structures like stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters by gravitational instability. This process would be endless if a third epoch had not arrived “recently”. This is the current dark-energy phase which started at the moment where the matter density had dropped to the same value as the dark-energy density... Since then the Universe experiences an accelerated expansion phase where gravity is no longer able to efficiently form super-galaxy clusters.

H. E. S. Velten, R. F. vom Marttens, W. Zimdah

According to a paper published in March 2019,  the Universe is expanding at present about 9% faster than inferred from the cosmic microwave background. Another paper suggests that early dark energy  that behaves like a cosmological constant at early times and then decays away like radiation or faster at later times may solve the discrepancy.

Interestingly, the time scale defined by the (effective) cosmological constant is not only of the order of the present age of the Universe but also of the same order as the scale that is relevant for heavier elements being produced. So, anthropic arguments necessarily enter the discussion.

H. E. S. Velten, R. F. vom Marttens, W. Zimdah

The anthropic arguments relate to the observer’s point of view that “Time is bio-logical - completely subjective and invariably emergent from a unitary co-relative process. All knowledge amounts to relationships of information, with the observer alone imparting spatio-temporal meaning.” (Robert Lanza, Beyond Biocentrism, p.155, BenBella Books, Inc., 2016). Why the Universe is the way it is leads to why life is the way it is. When biochemist Nick Lane asserts that “we can reasonably conclude that complex life will be rare in the universe - there is no innate tendency in natural selection to give rise to humans or any other form of complex life. It is far more likely to get stuck at the bacterial level of complexity “ (The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, p.289. Norton & Company, 2015), is such a claim an anthropic view of the Universe or an objective conclusion?

 

Why ask why questions? I have borrowed the title of this post from Steinhardt’s 1996 talk on the cosmological challenges for the 21st Century, not realizing at the time that it became the title of a book by Hugh Ross in 2010. Among the many whys,  Hugh asked a question that never really crossed my mind before: why such a dark Universe?

 

 

Would a blind mouse wonder why there is darkness in the universe?

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