A Scientist's Meditation on "The Beginning"
A Commentary on the Perceptions of Stephen Hawking
by Greg Kagira-Watson


      Stephen Hawking was the theoretical physicist who, along with RogerPenrose in 1970, was the first to mathematically prove that the universe had a beginning in time.  He holds the physics chair at Cambridge University that Sir Isaac Newton once held.  His observations on "the beginning" in his book, "A Brief History of Time," remind one of some of the words found in the world's religious scriptures.  These different descriptions of the beginning of the Universe show the unity of the knowledge that comes from science and the knowledge which comes from Revelation.  Both descriptions are of interest to the mystic as well as the scientist because they approach the limits of our understanding about the nature of our existence in this mysterious universe.

  "This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man's development."    

Selections and Commentary

      How mysterious the forces of life!  The scientist's description of our 20 billion years (or so) of cosmic evolution paints a picture not much different than that of the chronicler of Genesis in the Bible or the authors of the Upanishads.

     The scientist says: In the beginning of the universe there was nothing... then intense heat and light unfolding a design according to laws, it seems, we CAN largely understand.  At the same time, the apogee of knowledge attained by the most learned is their confession of their helplessness to fathom the incomprehensible nature of this design.

    So it is that Stephen Hawking and other scientists ponder a number of questions which they confess are unanswerable, questions such as "why was the early universe was so hot?"

Hawking suggests:

"God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons we cannot hope to understand.  This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being, but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand?  The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order. . ."
He points out that this order and design of the universe had to be very precise and finely tuned:
"The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron...  The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.  For example, if the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size...."
And again,
    ". . .  if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars either would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would not have exploded.  Of course, there might be other forms of intelligent life, not dreamed of even by the writers of science fiction, that did not require the light of a star like the sun or the heavier chemical elements that are made from stars and are flung back into space when stars explode.

      Nevertheless, it seems clear that there are relatively few ranges of values for the numbers that would allow the development of any form of intelligent life.  Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty.  One can take this... as evidence of a divine purpose in Creation and the choice of the laws of science...."

     "In the big bang model described above, there was not enough time in the early universe for heat to have flowed from one region to another.  This means that the initial state of the universe would have to have had exactly the same temperature everywhere in order to account for the fact that the microwave background has the same temperature in every direction we look.  The initial rate of expansion also would have had to be chosen very precisely for the rate of expansion to still be so close to the critical rate needed to avoid recollapse.  This means that the initial state of the universe must have been very carefully chosen indeed if the hot big bang model was correct right back to the beginning of time.  It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us."

Quoted from A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking)
Unification of Forces
    During the late seventies, physicists and astronomers began to apply new theories about the behavior of elementary particles to the process that went on before the first microsecond.  These new theories concerned themselves not so much with the constituents of matter, but with the ways that bits of matter interact with each other -- the phenomena we call "force."
    Physicists recognize four distinct forces in nature.  Two of these -- gravitation and electromagnetism are familiar in everyday experience.  The other two were discovered in the twentieth century and concern elementary particles.  They are called the strong and the weak forces.  The strong force acts between particles to hold the nucleus together against the repulsive electrical forces trying to push individual protons away from each other.  The most common manifestation of the weak force is in some of the slow radioactive decay we see in nuclei and elementary particles. (Materials which are radioactive are in the process of this "decay."  The attribute of radioactivity is the result of this decay.)  Scientists believe that everything that happens in the universe happens because of one or more of these four forces.
    On the one hand, being able to reduce every observed change to a manifestation of one of only four forces may seem like a tremendous simplification. To a physicist this multiplicity is suspicious because the existence if four forces implies four separate and disjointed theories which, in turn, implies that the marvelous interconnectedness of nature is lost. Put another way, physicists believe--as did Einstein that when we find the correct theory of the universe we will see that it is beautiful and elegant.  Elegance implies simplicity, not multiplicity. Having four separate forces is definitely not up to the standard of elegance that we find in the design of our universe.
    We see a historical precedent for reducing the number of forces in nature. We saw how Newton managed to unify the seemingly different forces of heavenly and earthly gravity, showing that there was only one force responsible for both the fall of the apple and the orbit of the moon. Many great scientists, Albert Einstein among them, believed that the present multiplicity of forces could be resolved by the development of a so-called unified field theory, a theory in which all of the forces are seen as identical at some level.  In this case, the apparent differences we see are due to our inability to look beyond the surface of things.
    The first step toward a modern realization of this old dream of unity was, taken in by Steven Weinberg (then at MIT) and, independently, six months later by Abdus Salam in London. Their work was ignored for a period of about five years, and it wasn't until the early seventies that people began paying attention to it. In essence, they had produced a theory in which the electromagnetic and the weak forces were seen as basically identical. The differences between the forces was a result of observing them in a relatively frigid era. If the temperature were high enough, the underlying identity would be manifest.      (Source: Smithsonian Book--SpaceTimeInfinity, by Trefil 1985)
    Science and divine revelation are complementary forms of knowledge.  Many peoples of different religious traditions do not believe that the "big bang" theory contradicts the idea of God "creating" the universe.  There exists a curious concept in Hindu mythology that seems to correspond to the oscillating universe theory of some modern physicists, and it is not inconsistent with the idea that the creation has always existed, even though it is also possible to say that there was a time at which God created the world--as revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The scientific theory of the oscillating universe seems to echo in ancient Hindu mythology.
     The concept of a kalpa or an eon marks the beginning of time, so far as we can perceive it.  The "big bang" is defined as an "event horizon" -- a point beyond which we cannot see or measure events, just as we cannot see over the earthly horizon.  The present "eon" (period of time), or cycle of creation in which we are now living, is considered as only one of an endless number of possible cycles.  However, we can measure only the events inside the cycle we are in -- thus the creation seems to have a beginning because from our physically limited point of view we cannot see past the beginning of our own cycle.  Considering what we imagine to be the illimitable power of God to generate an endless number of creations (displaying His capacity as "Creator" to manifest the universe in any number of possible matrices or forms), we are inside only one.  If, in the "beginning," the universe explodes from a single point into one of these grandiose designs and then recollapses back into a single point, only to explode again into another magnificent display of God's handiwork, then every possibility for these "creative" expressions resides within the "mind" of God from the beginning that has no beginning.... "when" all was with God alone (al-one).
     The Hindu story of this creative act or display is followed by God folding up his wares (articles manufactured with specific materials according to a unique set of rules) into nothingness -- as if God takes a rest in between cycles of creativity.  The creatures can experience billions of years existing within each cycle, yet in the mind of God an instant and an eternity are the same.  In each cycle, consciousness evolves out of matter until the universe becomes cognizant of itself -- "star-stuff contemplating the stars," as Carl Sagan once said -- perhaps until matter realizes its nature as pure light.  The board is erased and the whole thing starts over, again and again, endlessly.  One can imagine that in every burst of creative display God could demonstrate different materials, according to an entirely different set of rules or physical laws.  Of course this interpretation is speculation on my part, since the idea is completely incomprehensible.  Only the human spirit can transcend this purely physical point of view and hope to have a glimpse of the truths beyond physical existence. 

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