The Thing About Bubbles is . . .


Ever wonder why those naturalistic explanations of the universe are ultimately so unsatisfying? Professor Bob Berman has something to say on the matter.

[W]hat existed before the Big Bang? I get that question a lot from students, and I'll admit to being guilty of reciting the standard speech. "The Big Bang," I explain grandly, "created time as well as space. Since there was no time before the Big Bang, your question is meaningless."

The student is silenced. The class continues. The professor obviously knows something wonderfully profound. But I can't do it any more. The next time some one asks, I'll tell the truth: "Nobody has the foggiest idea what happened the Tuesday before the Big Bang. That whole domain is part of Bubbleland." Then the class will nod, and really understand. Ah, yes, Bubbleland. The realm beyond the present reach of science.

Anyone attending a cosmology lecture can tell when the speaker arrives at Bubbleland. "It's not galaxy clusters that travel outward," he'll say pedantically, "but space itself that grows larger. The galaxies don't actually move."

So here I am thinking, wait a minute. Are we at a Daffy Duck convention?

The late Carl Sagan, whom I love and admire, nonetheless said "Now that we've explained how life began, there's no place for G0d." Well, let's leave G0d out of this and just address science's explanation of life's genesis. The prevailing account posits a mixing of organic molecules, the arrival of amino acids on comets from space, some accidental combinations, and then the great denouement: "and somehow life arose."

Beep! Hold it! That "somehow" may be only one little word embedded among the thousands comprising the "explanation," but it changes the whole thing to: "We haven't a clue." How consciousness or self-awareness can arise from amino acids remains as deep a mystery as it ever was. But since we do not want our experts to stand mute and nonplussed, we have now supplied an out. They do not have to utter the dreaded "I don't know."

Finally they can explain our origins. We come from Bubbleland.

4 thoughts on “The Thing About Bubbles is . . .

  1. This is an interesting article, but as with a lot of writing of this sort (‘religious author decries brazen scientism’) I feel it thoroughly oversimplifies the reality of the situation.
    What actually did come before the big bang? Really, the prof’s first answer to that question is precisely correct. The big bang was the origin of spacetime, nothing came before it. The question he now seems to be answering is, “What caused the big bang“, which is very different to what came before it. Causes don’t have to come before effects; in fact with quantum theory we know that the concepts of before and after are meaningless, if we take them to refer to an arrow-like time as we understand it. Indeed, it’s precisely the reason we don’t know what caused the big bang that no one knows how to merge relativity (our theory of time and place) with quantum mechanics (our theory of stuff occupying that time and place).
    The same thing goes for the origin of life. It is most emphatically not as big a mystery as it ever was. For one thing, before recently we didn’t even know what life was (we’re still iffy about it), let alone how it started. It wasn’t so long ago that there was a widespread, well-founded scientific position holding that life was a method of defying thermodynamics, that living forms broke the laws of physics! I mean, how do you get a big oak from a small acorn? Well clearly you do it by making mass inside the acorn! Only recently have we learned of the complex energy pathways that life is made of.
    I think Douglas Adams put it well when he said, “There is no longer a deep mystery [to life]…. When I say there’s no mystery, it’s rather as if, if you imagine taking a detective from the 19th century, teaming him up with a detective from the late 20th century, and giving them this problem to work on: that a suspect in a crime was seen one day to be walking down the street in the middle of London, and the next day was seen somewhere out in the desert in the middle of New Mexico. Now the 19th century detective will say, ‘Well, I haven’t the faintest idea. I mean it must be some species of magic that’s happened’, and he would have no idea how to begin to solve what has happened here. Now the 20th century detective, he may never know whether the guy went on British Airways or United or American, or where he hired his car from and all that kind of stuff, he may never find those details, but there won’t be any fundamental mystery about what has happened.
    So now we understand that living forms are composed of these immensely complex energy pathways, pathways which are fundamentally the same as those found in ordinary chemical reactions, only vastly, mind-numbingly articulated and elaborated from the simplicity we find in inorganic chemistry (and we have a growing, ever more comprehensive though still incomplete understanding of the sort of process by which you get that articulation and elaboration over long periods of time).
    What’s flabbergasting to me is the response of some of these authors to this sort of scientific progress! These are deeply satisfying explanations for things we formerly had no idea about. I don’t know any scientists who wouldn’t concede the current limits of scientific understanding. A scientist who doesn’t readily concede what she doesn’t know isn’t a scientist; because science is an ongoing process of accumulation of theory, when there is nothing left for which there does not exist a fully satisfactory explanation, science stops! The fact that we lack fully satisfactory explanations for most things is the only reason why science exists at all. Who exactly are these authors talking to?
    The fact that we happen to know (or at least have very strong reason to believe) that nothing happened before the big bang in no way precludes the possibility of further explanatory elaboration, especially since we also happen to know that there are many things about the big bang we do not understand.
    But stepping backward a little bit, to touch on a note of aesthetic instrumentality – I’d like to know (I guess I’m addressing this to Jerry since he posed it this way) how this new understanding is unsatisfying. In what way are naturalistic explanations not satisfying, because it’s very intriguing to me that somebody would say that.

  2. Hi, JM. Look, please don’t take this too far. I get it. Knowledge good. Ignorance bad. Scientific inquiry is the key to understanding our natural world.

  3. Actually, JM, you miss the metaphysical question, and with it, the forest for the trees: the creation of spacetime may have occurred at the Big Bang, but it begs the question of the generation of matter. That is to say the singularity must have existed, which only says: really, now? If so, what is the time dilation here, what is the history of matter prior to its explosion.
    You’ve provided a really lazy answer complete with enough semantic gymnastics to make a contortionist hurl.

  4. I think you’re misunderstanding the big bang, Michael. It’s not an explosion, in fact I think probably the single worst thing about the big bang theory is that we’ve latched on to calling it the big bang, because it’s so misleading.
    There was nothing like what we’d think of as an explosion, or at least, it was an explosion of a kind we don’t have the theoretical underpinning to describe yet. Think of the sorts of explosions we know of, – they fundamentally break down into two kinds – chemical explosions and nuclear explosion.
    In chemical explosions you get energy by breaking up chemical bonds, which are fundamentally interactions of electron clouds which means that the energy involved is mediated ultimately by photons. In nuclear explosions you get energy by breaking up nuclear bonds, which are fundamentally the work of the residue of the strong interaction of gluons upon quarks, antiquarks, and other gluons, which means that the energy involved is ultimately mediated by the gluon. For brevity I’m leaving out things like antiparticle annihilation here, and I’m going to avoid getting all semantic and arguing for the existence of mechanogravitational explosions, which would consist of things like objects rolling down hills and games of KerPlunk.
    Anyway, though, the big bang goes much further than this, since you can think of the electron shell as the relatively low energy outer region of quantum electrodynamics, and the nuclear world of quantum chromodynamics as the high energy inner core of matter as we know it. However, the big bang theory holds that, as per our observations, the universe seems to be expanding from a hot, dense primordial state, and presumably if it really has been expanding in this way uninterrupted (so let’s assume nothing completely unpredictable happened, such as the universe having spontaneously formed in some sort of relatively cool, dispersed state similar to what we see today), then at some point it must have been the case that everything in the universe occupied simultaneously a single state called a singularity (this would have been much smaller than the nucleus of an atom).
    The problem with singularities (and this one in particular), is not that they’re metaphysical entities or that they have a strange metaphysical tendency to leap into existence, nor even that they have a strange metaphysical tendency not to leap into existence, but that we just don’t understand what they are. They play havoc with the two principle theories we have for understanding the physical universe. So at some point in the distant past the universe collapses into a state we know very little about.
    Brian Cox had an excellent analogy for this – he said you can think of it like water. Imagine you’ve got a snowflake; in fact, imagine you’ve got a whole lot of snowflakes. Maybe even a lake of ice. And you’re spending all your time studying and analysing the minute structure of all your snowflakes or your ice lake, and eventually you come up with a simple, elegant theory of crystallisation, where you can explain the structural properties of all the snowflakes and all the ice in your lake as being elaborations of the same basic substance.
    Now, what you don’t have is a general theory of water. You only know that everything you are studying is made of the same substance and that it behaves predictably under a broad range of temperatures. You just don’t know what’s supposed to happen at those high temperatures, where the equations governing the crystallisation process cease to apply.
    Now, getting a little closer to what you said, it’s important to point out that there is nothing comparable to a “history” that existed “prior” to the singularity. It’s a bit hard to explain if you don’t know how spacetime is determined according to the properties of light, but in our analogy, the question you asked (about the history of matter prior to the ‘explosion’) would be like asking what the structure of the crystal was like prior to the crystallisation process.
    There was no crystal, and there was no spacetime/history/matter in the sense that we currently understand. That doesn’t mean there was nothing, it just means our current theories are inadequate to the task of explaining.
    That’s why we’re so keen on finding this Higgs boson – because it’s a particle predicted by the standard model of particle physics that we haven’t discovered yet, but it’s necessary to the whole rest of the theory producing the very good results that it is able to produce. Moreover, what the Higgs actually does is it gives us mass, and the special property of the photon (the particle of light, and remember, light is how we define spacetime) is that it’s massless. That’s why photons whiz around at the speed they do and can’t be slowed or stopped – they define the frame of reference for everything else. So understanding the properties of the Higgs (if it’s there) should help us understand the big bang and everything else in a lot more detail.

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