Universal mysteries are revealed

At some point in the distant past, one of our ancestors developed the interrogative. Initially this fundamental grammatical form was relegated to only the simplest usage: “What’s for dinner?” for example. Time passed and we evolved to a point where our questions became slightly more interesting — “Who are you?”, “Are you part of my tribe?”, “Would you like to go out for dinner?” Finally, humans reached their interrogative pinnacle with four very simple questions — (1) Where are we? (2) How did we get here? (3) How will it end? and (4) Why are we here?
Of course the first primitive cave conversations centering around these questions were not particularly exciting or illuminating.
Fred: Where are we?
Barney: We’re at Vim’s party. Are you smashed already?
Fred: No! By the way, how did we get here?
Barney: We walked from your place, you moron.
Fred: How will it end?
Barney: You’ll get drunk, make an ass of yourself and pass out. Everyone else will be disgusted and go home.
Fred: Then why are we here?
Barney: To meet some women and drink a lot. Now let’s go find the keg.
Once our ancestors moved out of the caves, these questions took on new, more complex meaning. They were not asked by the hunter, gatherer, farmer or politician. A new professional, the philosopher, sought answers to these questions. But when the philosopher asked them, it was not in any particular context. The philosopher was looking for the big answers — the hows and whys of the universe and man.
As we answer each of the great questions, we more precisely position ourselves in the universe. Unfortunately it took several thousand years just to answer the first. A few hundred more saw the answer to the second. And in the past few days, we have answered the third.
Early philosophical answers were very creative — “The world rests on the back of a giant turtle” or “The world will end when a giant wolf devours the sun” — but not very helpful. Such initial theories were lost when the Catholic Church rose to supremacy. The Pope and his minions became sole arbiters of the truth. Science, faith and philosophy were an inseparable juggernaut from the ancient Greeks until the 1500s.
All this changed in 1543. Nicholas Copernicus didn’t surprise anyone when he published “On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs.” The evidence before his eyes convinced him that the Earth revolved around the sun. This heliocentric view departed from the conventional, geocentric, theories of the time that held the Earth central to the universe.
To avoid trouble with the church, Copernicus offered his theory merely as a model for explanation, not as a true representation of the way things are. His successor, Galileo, was not so smart. (Myth-buster ##1: Copernicus did not discover that the Earth moves. This idea had been proposed at least as early as ancient Greece.)
When the middle-aged physicist, Galileo, started spreading the word that the Earth moved around the sun and was not the center of the universe, he found out how tough the church could be. The Catholic Church added his “Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems” to its index, effectively banning its publication, and convicted him of heresy in 1833.
Although it seemed that the church had won, scientific truth rapidly won over theology and the Copernican system gained in popularity. Science was finally divorced from philosophy and faith. (Myth-buster ##2: It did not take until 1992 for the church to recognize the correctness of heliocentrism. In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV granted an imprimatur to “The Complete Works of Galileo” and in 1822 to a book that directly treated the motions of Earth as fact.)
The first question had been answered. Where are we? On a planet orbiting a star nowhere near the center of the universe.
It took about 300 years of diligent scientific investigation to reach an answer to the second question: How did we get here? Part of the delay resulted from the fact that this one question contains two very specific inquiries: What is the origin of human life, and what is the origin of the universe?
Thanks to the biological and chemical sciences, the origins of life were revealed. Darwin’s evolutionary theory as applied to humans in 1871’s “Descent of Man” and the development of genetic theory based on the double-helix structure of DNA described by Watson and Crick in 1953 paved the way for an answer. Science explained how simple organic molecules formed in the primordial slime and joined together to form primitive life forms. Evolution then took over, resulting in humans after millions of years of the survival of the fittest.
Likewise, astronomy and cosmology revealed the origins of the universe during the 20th century. Scientists like Einstein, Hubble, Gamow, Penzia and Wilson formed links in a larger chain of discovery leading to the development of the Big Bang theory. About 15 billion years ago, an extremely dense ball of matter and energy exploded, creating the universe.
How did we get here? There was a sudden explosion. Over time, the expanding universe cooled, allowing planets, stars and galaxies to form. Five billion years ago, our own solar system formed, providing a planet on which life would eventually rise from the muck and evolve to become us.
Pay attention, these are exciting times. Copernicus changed the way we view the world. Darwin changed the way we view ourselves. Einstein and friends changed the way we view the origins of everything. Each of these moments helped define us and our relation to the universe. Two of the original philosophical questions have been answered by analytic science.
And now the third has fallen.
Since the development of the Big Bang theory, it has been a point of contention whether there is enough matter floating about in the universe to counteract the outward expansion. If there is more than about one hydrogen atom per cubic yard, gravity will beat out the expansion and someday there will be a Big Crunch — the universe will stop spreading outward and collapse back into another super dense ball. This ball would then Big Bang again, and a cycle of universes would continue.
Last Thursday at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, five separate research teams announced that they had determined — using three independent research methods — that the mass present in the universe is a mere 20 percent of what is required for a Big Crunch.
How will it all end? It won’t. The universe will expand forever.
This may be a relief to some, but the universe won’t be very pleasant down the road. Everything will cool; all the stars will burn out and a dark universe full of rocks and black holes will be all that remains. The universe will become a black boring place, devoid of life, and continuing to exist for eternity. There will be no cycle back to a singularity leading to a new Big Bang. This, ours, is the only, or at least the last, universe.
Now only one of the four great questions is left: Why are we here? This question will remain beyond the grasp of science. The other three questions were about the physical world, not about our purpose. Discovering mankind’s relation to the universe remains the task for philosophers and theologians. Moreover the discovery that the universe will expand forever gives us a certain motivation to answer the final question. Science has done what it can. If the philosophers or theologians can give us an answer, we should listen carefully. We only have one shot at getting it right.

Chris Trejbal’s column appears every Tuesday. He can be contacted at [email protected]