Big Bang image inspires scientists in quest to solve the mystery of creation
A US cosmologist says we are now closer than ever to solving the puzzle of how we came to be
When European space scientists released an image of the Big Bang afterglow, US cosmologist Lawrence Krauss wrote that no one could look at it without being awed and inspired.
The 13.7 billion-year-old universe was then just 380,000 years old; that is, a baby!
Most people would probably feel as Krauss did. The computer-generated image represents - almost - a picture of creation itself.
Like another famous atheist-scientist Richard Dawkins, Krauss believes science is on the verge of finding "The Answer". As he writes in The New York Times: "We are plausibly exploring realms of nature that previously may have been thought to be in the domain of philosophy or theology."
He is certainly right about that. What he describes is not even a recent development. Modern science has been pushing the boundaries of philosophy and theology at least since the Scientific Revolution. It is as good a description as any of Western modernity itself.
But Krauss wants to go further and claim that contemporary physics and cosmology is close to solving the mystery of creation and the origin of existence itself. If these can be explained scientifically, there will be no more mystery and nothing left for religion.
Can he be right?
A sense of the mystery of the cosmos is probably as human as can be and has been with us since cavemen put paints to walls to represent reality.
The French dramatist Romain Rolland, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1915, coined the phrase "oceanic feeling". But it gained currency through the works of Sigmund Freud and Arthur Koestler.
Can science solve this mystery, and will the feeling it inspires go away once it is solved? Krauss thinks relativistic quantum field theories, his speciality, provide the answer. His recent book, A Universe from Nothing, argues that contemporary physics can explain how something can come out of nothing.
Hitherto the most philosophical of questions, Krauss believes it should now be handed over to, and be answered by, cutting-edge physicists like him while know-nothing philosophers should retire or shut up.
Instead of Newton's particles or 19th century physics' particles plus electro-magnetic fields as the ultimate "stuff" of matter, Krauss and his colleagues' theory is that it's all quantum fields, all the time.
Their physics works out rules to explain why some field arrangements are allowed and others not allowed, and how some arrangements give rise to this and that elementary particle; and this and that number of particles.
Now, there are field arrangements in which no particle arises. These are called "vacuum states", emptiness or if Krauss is right, true nothing. This is way beyond empty space. You don't even have space.
But quantum field theory says vacuum states are unstable. So voila! That's why you have something - non-vacuum fields that give birth to particles - out of nothing!
I flunked first-year university physics, and never got past special relativity. I have no idea what Krauss is talking about but, whatever it is, it's absolutely riveting stuff. You can see why someone super-smart would be fascinated by it. And if a person spends a lifetime studying this, her life would not be wasted.
But as hard as I have tried, I don't see how we can have true nothing on Krauss' theory. We still have those field arrangements, which are not nothing. And why those laws - the laws of nature - that dictate the arrangements of those fields?
In any case, most professional physicists agree field theories are highly promising but still unconfirmed.
Krauss, if I understand him correctly, admits relativistic quantum field theories only explain the phenomena but not why those theories work. In other words, they don't contain within themselves a meta-theory explaining how those theories work in explaining those field phenomena.
Even if centuries from now, some super-smart physicists work out a meta-theory, some smart-ass philosopher can still point to the need for a meta-meta-theory. And calling him stupid and a know-nothing about maths won't shut him up.
The possibility of an infinite regress argument, as Aristotle pointed out, is a sure warning sign that some questions cannot really be settled.
Stephen Hawking is another physicist who thinks the Big Bang explains creation. The Big Bang is an example of what he calls a singularity, a point at which space-time is so dense its curvature becomes infinite.
These are the points at which physical laws like general relativity break down.
Perhaps modern western philosophy worries too much about the limits of what is knowable. But it seems those theories of Krauss and Hawking don't solve the Mystery at all - far from it. Rather a philosopher will say they mark the limits of what's knowable - when all physical laws break down and stop explaining things.
The plot thickens. By pushing the frontiers of knowledge, science deepens the Mystery, giving rise to our oceanic sense.
Alex Lo edits the Science and Technology page