Origins

If the Big Bang theory is correct, the universe began 14 billion years ago.

If fundamentalists are correct, the universe was created seven thousand years ago.

If I’m correct, the universe always existed.

The question of origins arose as I was reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I think the title is a euphemism for “people who want the Reader’s Digest version of astrophysics because they’re too lazy or dumb to plow through a scientific tome.” That pretty much describes me.

The book is small, about paperback sized, and has only 218 pages. But still, I was lost by the end of the first paragraph, the one introducing the Big Bang theory:

“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.”

Huh? All the matter and energy of the universe crammed into the volume of a pin point? (It almost makes me want to ask how many angels could dance on the head of it.) But if such a micro dot really existed, where did all this matter and energy come from (there was no universe, after all, to forge it from), how was it constructed (given its inherent instability), why did it suddenly materialize, and just how the heck did everything fit inside it?

However, if scientists have posed a theory that raises as many questions as it answers, their religious brethren seem to be in the same boat (or ark, as it may be). For if gods created the universe, where did they come from? Did they always exist, as logic would suggest, indicating there really is no ultimate origin? Where do they live, outside of the universe, given they couldn’t very well have existed inside a universe they hadn’t yet created?

From a less cosmic and more human perspective, why did gods create mankind on a tiny speck in a universe billions of light years across? If mankind is the pinnacle of creation, why create such an enormous universe to obscure and endanger our presence? (Remember we’re probably talking about gods existing outside this universe, and if they’re looking in on us, they’d have to have uncommon visual skills to see us at such incredible distance and behind all the monstrous galaxies and dark matter that surround us.) And why put us on an orb destined for inevitable extinction from flying cosmic debris?

To my mind, the faithful and the scientists are looking at the universe through opposite ends of a telescope, the former seeing our world blown up to a significance well beyond its size, and the latter seeing the universe shrunk infinitesimally small in order to explain its origin. Me, I’m wondering if maybe we should set the telescope aside for a minute.

The intractability of the origin question leads me to wonder if maybe we’re anthropomorphizing the issue. People are born, we all have origins, so maybe we’re trying to see the universe in the same way. But what if the universe always existed? What if the universe’s expansion, as detected by scientific instruments, is simply part of a recurring cycle of repeated expansion and contraction over endless cycles of billions of years?

To me that makes as much sense as time and space having a beginning. If you can believe that gods existed forever (as it seems they must), you can just as easily believe that the universe existed forever. The recurring formation and destruction of stars and other objects through collisions of cosmic matter under the influences of nuclear, electro-magnetic, gravitational, and dark energy forces in the universe might argue against true beginnings and ends, just the perpetual metamorphosis of matter and energy.

Tyson’s book is a nice synopsis of current astrophysical science, I recommend a reading of it. It explains, among other things, the reasoning behind the Big Bang theory in layman’s terms. It’s perhaps my shortcoming that I couldn’t logically grasp the universe in a microdot. But if nothing else, it also served the purpose of getting me to thinking about my own concept of origin: namely, what if there were none?

P.S.: Tyson is also a fountain pen fan. An interview with him on his collection is on YouTube.

Generational History

A few years ago I ran across an idea espoused by William Strauss and Neil Howe that history repeatedly runs in a four-season pattern spanning about eighty years. Every winter of that cycle is marked by a crisis. Recent winters have included the American Revolution (1770s-80s), the Civil War (1860s), and the Great Depression/WWII (1930s-40s), all about eighty years apart.

It’s an interesting interpretation of events that believes that the cycling of four generational types (heroes, artists, prophets, and nomads) through their stages of life (childhood, early adulthood, maturity, elder years) creates a recurring pattern of crises and awakenings in history. In effect, the theory says that history isn’t linear, like we may have been taught. It’s cyclical, moving forward in time like the turning of a screw.

According to the theory, the 20-year generational seasons show a pattern of growing trust in collective governmental institutions (such as we saw in the last crisis of the Depression and World War II),  followed by conformity to the institutions (as exemplified by the Organization Man of the late 1940’s-early 60’s), then a rebellion against institutions (seen in the cultural upheaval of the 1960’s-80’s), and eventually distrust and unraveling of institutions (as seen in the individualism, bitter partisanship, and distrust of government of recent years). Stauss and Howe point out in their book The Fourth Turning, that we have gone through the first three seasons and are now poised to head into the next major crisis.

They argue the case pretty convincingly, citing instances of this recurring pattern in America since it’s inception, and in the West since the Renaissance. The idea has a certain innate attraction in that it mirrors the natural order of seasons and the cyclical nature of economics and politics we observe throughout life.

If their theory is correct, the recent political partisanship and dysfunctional government was inevitable. We needn’t wonder about the widespread distrust and disdain of our institutions, they are all symptoms of an inexorable season of unraveling. Unfortunately, what we have to look forward to is even worse:  an economic, environmental, political, and/or military crisis that will result in a rebirth or in destruction. We’ve been fortunate in previous crises to have wise and temperate leadership. I’m not  sure we’re as well positioned for the next.

Do I buy into this concept of generational history? Some of it makes sense. One only has to look at our inability to learn from the past and our tendency to repeat its mistakes to see that history isn’t linear. Time is not a long march of progress, but a meandering journey through wars, renaissance, repression, and rebirth. Whether this is a random walk or the cyclical path proposed by Strauss and Howe is hard to say. History, unlike physics or chemistry, doesn’t appear to be a science governed by immutable laws.

And yet, this is great food for thought. The study of history is man’s attempt to make sense of man: figure out how we got here, what we’re doing now, and where we’re headed. I recommend a reading of the book or a perusal of articles on the theory.

The concept of generational history could also open an avenue of exploration into family history that looks at our ancestors through the lens of generational types (heroes, artists, etc.) to see if our forefathers and mothers really do display the predicted generational traits. That analysis is for another time, though.

More information on the concept of generational history can be found on Wikipedia, the book’s website, or a recent Forbes magazine article, among other sources.