Cosmology and the Big Bang

By David Pratt

Part I

Most cosmologists today believe that the universe we inhabit exploded into being some 15 billion years ago in a titanic fireball called the big bang. Contrary to popular belief, the modern big bang theory does not state that a concentrated lump of matter located at some particular point in space suddenly exploded, sending fragments rushing away at high speed; rather, it holds that space itself, along with time, came into being at the moment of the big bang. The birth of the universe is said to have happened in the following manner (P. Davies & J. Gribbin, The Matter Myth, Simon & Schuster/ Touchstone, 1992, pp. 162-73). In the beginning, a tiny bubble of spacetime, a billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimeter across, popped spontaneously into existence out of nothing as the result of a random quantum fluctuation. It was seized by an intense anti-gravitational force which caused it to expand with explosive rapidity. In scarcely more than a billion-trillion-trillionth of a second the universe swelled to about 10 to the negative 33rd cm, the size of a grapefruit. The anti-gravitational force then disappeared, and the inflationary phase of accelerating expansion came to an abrupt halt amid a burst of heat. The heat energy and gravitational energy of expanding space then produced matter and, as the universe cooled, more and more structure began to "freeze out" -- first nuclei, then atoms, and finally galaxies, stars, and planets.

Big bang theorists used to believe that at the moment of the big bang, the entire universe was concentrated in an infinitesimal point of infinite density and temperature known as a "singularity." In reality, however, quantities cannot become infinite or infinitesimal because these are mathematical abstractions. The latest thinking among cosmologists is that singularities cannot exist: before 10 to the negative 43rd seconds after the big bang, when the universe measured 10 to the negative 33rd cm across, the distinction between time and space is said to become blurred as a result of quantum fluctuations, with the result that an infinitesimal point can never form and the origin of the universe does not occur at a precise moment but is "smeared out."

The big bang theory -- the standard creation story of modern science -- is based on three main pieces of observational evidence. Firstly, in the early decades of the century it was discovered that the light from distant galaxies is "redshifted," i.e. shifted towards the red or long-wavelength end of the spectrum. This was interpreted as a sign that the galaxies are rushing apart at great speed and that the universe is expanding; from this it was inferred that the universe originated in a huge explosion. Secondly, in 1964 it was discovered that the universe is bathed in a uniform wash of microwave radiation of just under 3 degrees kelvin. A microwave background of up to 30 degrees kelvin left over from the big bang had earlier been predicted. Thirdly, the big bang theory is believed to explain the relative abundances of hydrogen, helium, and other light elements in the universe. Commenting on the evidence for the big bang, an editorial in the New Scientist stated: "Never has such a mighty edifice been built on such insubstantial foundations" (New Scientist, December 21/28, 1991, p. 3).

As far as the redshift is concerned, it is certainly true that the spectral lines in the light from stars in our galaxy are redshifted if the stars are moving away from us and blueshifted if they are moving towards us, resulting from the stretching and compressing of light waves respectively. Since the light from all the galaxies, except for a few nearby ones, is redshifted, this could mean that the universe is expanding. The big bang universe is said to have been expanding ever since its creation, from 300,000 km across after one second to tens of billions of light-years across today. The redshift of the light from distant galaxies increases with distance, and this is interpreted to mean that galaxies are moving apart at a velocity which also increases with distance, with the velocity of the furthest galaxies approaching closer and closer to the speed of light. In actual fact, galaxies are not believed to be moving apart from one another through space, but space itself is said to be expanding, so that the gaps between the galaxies are stretched like a rubber sheet. Cosmologists frequently cite the analogy of a balloon with spots spread evenly over its surface; as the balloon expands, the spots "move" further apart. The spots act like clusters of galaxies and the balloon like the structure of spacetime.

There are, however, other possible interpretations of the redshift, the main one being the "tired light" hypothesis, according to which the redshift is produced by light losing energy as it travels through space. There are two versions of this theory. The first states that light particles lose energy when they collide with dust particles in the intergalactic medium. However, to account for the whole of the observed redshifts, the intergalactic medium would have to be 100,000 times denser than has been observed locally. The second possibility is that light loses energy as it passes through the ether, a subtle medium pervading all space and forming the substratum of all physical matter (including the intergalactic medium of physical gas and dust). The existence of the ether has been asserted by mystic philosophers throughout the ages; it corresponds to what most modern physicists prefer to call the "quantum field" or "quantum vacuum," though a few of them are beginning to use the term "ether" again. This explanation of the redshift has been proposed by G. de Purucker, and more recently by Jean-Paul Vigier, a leading French physicist (The Esoteric Tradition, Theosophical University Press, 1973, pp. 435-8fn; E. J. Lerner, The Big Bang Never Happened, Vintage Books, 1992, p. 429). At present there is no conclusive evidence that the expanding universe interpretation is correct. As one big bang cosmologist remarks, "the nagging thought lingers: Could we be completely wrong?" (J. Silk, The Big Bang, W H. Freeman and Company, 1989, p. 396.)

According to the big bang model, the uniform microwave background radiation indicates that matter in the early universe was distributed extremely smoothly. For a long time there was no evidence of any fluctuations or "lumpiness" out of which galaxies could have condensed. However, in April 1992 it was announced that NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite had found tiny inhomogeneities or "ripples" in the background radiation. While some scientists hailed the results as the discovery of the Holy Grail, others took a more sober view because the fluctuations are much too vast in size to be the ancestors of the galaxies and clusters observed today, and the fluctuations are only about 30 millionths of a kelvin -- far too minuscule to act as the seeds for structures to form from. So although COBE's findings were welcomed by big bang theorists, they "simultaneously relegated most of cosmologists' specific models for the formation of the universe to the trash bin" (Scientific American, July 1992, p. 9).

In addition to the microwave background, there is a uniform background of radio waves, x-rays, gamma rays, and cosmic rays, none of which are explained in terms of the big bang. The main source of the cosmic ray background, for example, is thought to be supernova explosions, while the diffuse x-radiation may be emitted by intergalactic gas or by a very large number of extragalactic x-ray sources. Several scientists have suggested that the microwave background could also have an origin other than the big bang. If all the observed helium were produced in stars, the energy released would be just the right amount to generate the microwave background. To smooth out large variations and leave only the tiny fluctuations seen by COBE, the radiation would have to be scattered by a process of absorption and re-emission. Chandra Wickramasinghe and Fred Hoyle have suggested that this could be done by tiny iron whiskers in intergalactic space (New Scientist, March 2, 1991, p. 51). Plasma physicists Eric J. Lerner and Tony Peratt believe that it could also be done by high-energy electrons spiraling around magnetic field lines in intergalactic space. The existence of such a "radio fog" between the galaxies is backed up by other observational evidence. If it does exist, it would rule out a big bang origin for the microwave background since it would produce distortions in the black-body spectrum of a microwave background which resulted from a big bang, but no such distortions have been observed (The Big Bang Never Happened, pp. 50-1, 268-78).

The bulk of the chemical elements in the universe is believed to have been produced through nuclear reactions in stars, but this explanation cannot account for some of the lightest elements. These could have been produced in a big bang, and the big bang theory predicts what their abundances should be. However, recent observations have shown that there is less helium and far less deuterium and lithium in the universe than the theory predicts (Ibid., pp. xviii-xx). The main challenge facing opponents of the big bang is to account for the 24% helium abundance, which could not have been produced by existing stars alone certainly not in the time allowed by the big bang theory. It could, however, be explained if, as some astronomers believe, a generation of massive, short-lived stars formed in the early stages of galaxy formation and then exploded as supernovas, scattering the helium throughout space (Ibid., pp. 266-7).

Big bang theories clearly contain many highly speculative and rather exotic ideas, many of which are completely untestable. But the fact that a certain scenario is theoretically possible and that intricate mathematics can be devised to support it, does not necessarily mean that it ever happened, even if it is consistent with features of the universe we observe today. G. de Purucker points out that although mathematics is a very valuable instrument of human thought, it cannot of itself manufacture truth, for "the mathematical mill produces only what is put into it"; the results depend on the premises, but the premises may be wrong. He also states:

scientific theory and speculation in certain respects are becoming so highly metaphysical that they not only are beginning to merge at certain points with the teachings of the esoteric philosophy, but in some instances are actually crossing these teachings and going off at a tangent. -- Fountain-Source of Occultism, Theosophical University Press, 1974, p. 80.

De Purucker rejected the theory proposed by the Belgian priest and cosmologist, Georges Lemaitre -- the father of the big bang who argued that the observable universe has expanded to its present size from a "primeval atom," and suggested instead that the redshift may be caused by light undergoing some form of retardation as it passes through the ether of space before reaching earth. He wrote:

Occultism affirms that in all things both great and small, whether a universe, a sun, a human being, or any other entity, there is a constant secular cyclical diastole and systole, similar to that of the human heart. [This cosmic heartbeat] is nothing at all like the expanding universe. The framework or corpus of the universe, whether we mean by this term the galaxy or an aggregate of galaxies, is stable both in relative structure and form for the period of its manvantara [active lifetime] -- precisely as the human heart is, once it has attained its full growth and function (Ibid. pp. 80-1).

Thus even if it could be proved that all galaxies are receding from one another at this moment, this would not necessarily mean that we could simply extrapolate backwards and conclude that in the remote past all the matter in the universe was concentrated in a single microscopic point.

The big bang hypothesis has clearly not yet been proven and it is therefore important for all the alternatives to be discussed with an open mind. Unfortunately the big bang seems to have become an article of faith for a great many scientists; in 1951 it even received the blessing of Pope Pius XII Geoffrey Burbidge points out that astronomical textbooks no longer treat cosmology as an open subject, and that cosmologists are often intolerant of departures from the big bang faith. Researchers who question the prevailing orthodoxy tend to find it more difficult to obtain access to funding and equipment and to get their articles published. A few years ago Halton Arp was denied telescope time at Mount Wilson and Palomar observatories because his observing program had found evidence contrary to the standard big bang model (Scientific American, February 1992, p. 96).

An alternative model which once enjoyed equal status with the big bang is the steady state theory, first proposed in 1948 by Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold, and Fred Hoyle. This model, too, assumes that the universe is expanding, but proposes that it has no beginning or end in space and time. The universe maintains a constant average density, because matter and energy are continuously created to form new stars and galaxies at the same rate that old ones become unobservable as a result of their increasing distance. When the cosmic microwave background radiation was discovered, it was quickly hailed as the dim afterglow of the big bang, and the steady state model ceased to attract much attention.

Cosmologists Fred Hoyle, Geoffrey Burbidge, and Jayant Narlikar have recently developed a detailed "quasi-steady state" model of the universe. As in the original model, they propose that the universe has always existed, but they abandon the idea of the continuous creation of matter, suggesting instead that a series of large creation events, or little big bangs, occurred 10 to 15 billion years ago, which caused our part of the universe to expand. Since then smaller creation events have continued to occur, producing energetic objects such as quasars and radio galaxies. However, in the future the expansion of our part of the universe will weaken, allowing the formation of new creation centers and another episode of large creation events. Hoyle and his colleagues say that the new model "is not intended to give a finished view of cosmology (but) to open the door to a new view which at present is blocked by a fixation with big bang Cosmology" (New Scientist, February 27, 1993, p. 14).

There is plenty of evidence for the continual formation of astronomical structures. Stars are still being born today, as in the Orion Nebula in our own galaxy. The standard big bang theory predicts that galaxies themselves all formed within a relatively short period, and should all be between 10 and 15 billion years old. However, surveys by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) show several cases of galaxies that are "young" in terms of the stars found within them. Astronomers have also discovered extremely old galaxies that apparently formed long before the big bang universe could have cooled sufficiently. The time scale for the formation of galaxies is clearly more complicated than at first imagined.

In 1986 it was discovered that in addition to clusters and superclusters of galaxies, there are also supercluster complexes -- huge sheets of galaxies stretching over a billion light-years of space, separated by enormous voids. Since no version of the big bang predicted the existence of such gigantic structures, cosmologists viewed the new finding with alarm. By measuring the speeds at which galaxies move today and the distance they would have traveled to form such structures, it has been estimated that it would have taken at least 100 billion years to build these complexes -- 5 to 12 times the age assigned to the universe by the big bang theory. It is possible that matter moved much faster in the past and later slowed down, but this deceleration would have produced distortions of several percent in the black-body spectrum of the microwave background and no such distortions have been observed (The Big Bang Never Happened, p. 31).

Part II

According to the big bang theory, we live in an expanding universe which originated in a gigantic explosion, and this explosion marked the origin not only of matter and energy but also of space and time. This hypothesis is accepted by the majority of contemporary cosmologists but by no means all. An alternative to the big bang which is slowly gaining ground is plasma cosmology, a theory pioneered by the Swedish astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Hannes Alfven beginning in the 1950s. Like the steady state theory, it proposes that the universe is infinite in space and time and is continuously evolving. Alfven, too, interprets the redshift as a sign that the galaxies are flying apart, but believes that this may apply only to our own part of the universe, having been produced by a series of matter-antimatter explosions billions of years ago. However, Eric J. Lerner, another supporter of the "plasma universe," believes that far more work needs to be done to test the different interpretations of the redshift.

Plasma -- also called the fourth state of matter -- is an electrically conducting gas consisting of a high density of electrons and ions. Over 99% of the ordinary matter in the universe exists in the plasma state, including stars, the outer atmospheres of planets, and interplanetary, interstellar, and intergalactic media. Largely thanks to Alfveen's pioneering work, the importance of plasmas, electric currents, and magnetic fields in the formation and evolution of the solar system is now well established. However, most cosmologists still believe that electrical and magnetic forces are of minor significance in explaining the formation and evolution of galaxies and multigalactic structures. Indeed, the big bang theory predicts that galactic magnetic fields should be weaker the more distant the galaxy and the younger it is in relation to the big bang, but observational evidence so far contradicts this prediction (New Scientist, March 28, 1992, p. 24).

In explaining the large-scale structure of the universe, big bang cosmologists prefer to invoke gravity alone, together with dark matter, most of which is believed to consist of as yet undiscovered physical particles (WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles) and flaws in the fabric of spacetime (such as one-dimensional cosmic strings) left over from the big bang. However, two very distant galaxy superclusters have recently been discovered and, according to astronomer Ken Croswell, cosmologists will find it very difficult to explain how such vast chains of galaxies could have formed so soon after the big bang.

Finding such objects at record-breaking distances challenges the idea that most of the Universe is made of cold dark matter -- slow-moving subatomic particles, so far undetected. In this model, large structures in the Universe slowly assemble from smaller ones. The presence of two superclusters so soon after the big bang could completely destroy the model, which is already in trouble. -- New Scientist, March 6, 1993, p. 16.

It has been known for some time that cold dark matter models are unable to accurately simulate the structure of the universe on both galactic and multigalactic scales simultaneously. Many cosmologists believe that "One way to fix the models is to mix in a smidgen of hot dark matter with the cold dark matter" (Scientific American, January 1993, p. 14). Hot dark matter would consist of fast-moving particles, and the most likely candidate is the neutrino. However, the latest calculations show that the neutrino does not have a sufficient mass to play a significant role in the formation of galaxies (New Scientist, June 12, 1993, p. 18).

According to the current "inflationary" model of the big bang, the universe underwent a very brief period of accelerated expansion in the first split second after the big bang. This model was first proposed in 1980 to explain the smoothness of the microwave background radiation and to solve a number of other problems. The model dictates that the matter in the universe must have a certain critical density, and since the density of visible matter is only a fraction of this value, big bang cosmologists conclude that there must be about one hundred times more dark matter than visible matter in the universe. There is no observational evidence for such a huge quantity of dark matter. Observations of the speeds at which galaxies rotate and the speed at which they move in clusters have led most astronomers to conclude that galaxies are embedded in an envelope of dark matter consisting of five to ten times the amount of visible matter they contain. But even this view has been challenged by a few scientists who have interpreted the evidence in other ways that do not require the existence of any new, exotic forms of physical matter (W & K. Tucker, The Dark Matter, Quill, 1988, pp. 194-204; E. J. Lerner, The Big Bang Never Happened, Vintage Books, 1992, pp. 36-9, 240-1).

Plasma cosmologists envision a universe crisscrossed by vast electrical currents and powerful magnetic fields, ordered and controlled by electromagnetism as well as gravity. The inhomogeneous and filamentary structure of the universe is no surprise, for almost any plasma generates inhomogeneities naturally, pinching itself together into dense, swirling filaments, and these have been observed in the laboratory, in the sun, in nebulas, and at the heart of our galaxy. Tiny plasmas fired at high speed towards each other in the laboratory pinch and twist themselves into the graceful shapes of spiral galaxies, suggesting that galaxies themselves might have been created by vortex filaments on a much larger scale.

According to the big bang theory, the universe may be "open" or "closed" depending on how much matter it contains. If the density of matter is above a certain value, gravity curves space round onto itself so that the universe is closed and finite but has no boundaries or edges. If the density of matter is below the critical value, space is open and infinite. In either case, space expands even though there is nothing outside the universe for it to expand into! The fate of the big bang universe is said to depend on whether it is open or closed. If it is closed, the force of gravity will eventually cause the universe to stop expanding and then to start contracting until all the matter is recompressed into a tiny volume, culminating in a "big crunch" -- a catastrophic implosion like the big bang in reverse. The universe might then rebound in another cycle of big bang and big crunch. If, however, the universe is open, it will expand forever; eventually stars will burn out, matter will become utterly cold, all forces will fade out, and the universe will suffer a "heat death." According to astrophysicist Joseph Silk the latter is the most likely scenario (The Big Bang, W. H. Freeman and Company, p. 367).

Hindu mythology speaks of the inbreathing and outbreathing of Brahma, the cosmic divinity, when worlds are evolved forth from, and later withdrawn into, the bosom of Brahma. Some people have drawn parallels between this idea and that of an oscillating universe which alternately expands and then contracts. But there is an additional interpretation. In The Secret Doctrine, when discussing the origin of worlds, H.P.Blavatsky quotes the following from the Stanzas of Dzyan: "The mother [Space] swells, expanding from within without like the bud of the lotus" (Stanza III.1). She adds the following explanation:

The expansion "from within without" of the Mother, called elsewhere the "Waters of Space," "Universal Matrix," etc., does not allude to an expansion from a small centre or focus, but, without reference to size or limitation or area, means the development of limitless subjectivity into as limitless objectivity. . . . It implies that this expansion, not being an increase in size -- for infinite extension admits of no enlargement -- was a change of condition. -- I:62-3

In other words, expansion can refer also to the emanation or unfolding of steadily denser planes or spheres from the spiritual summit of a hierarchy, until the lowest and most material world is reached. At the midpoint of the evolutionary cycle, the reverse process begins: the lower worlds gradually dematerialize or etherealize and are infolded or indrawn into the higher worlds; the heavens are "rolled together as a scroll" (Isaiah 34:4).

The evolution and involution of worlds does not mean that space itself pops into existence out of nothingness, expands like elastic, and later contracts and vanishes into nothingness. It is the worlds within space -- planets, stars, etc. -- that materialize and etherealize. Our physical senses allow us to see only physical-plane objects composed of the same type of matter as ourselves. But if the matter of the physical universe makes up only one tiny range in an infinite continuum of possible grades of matter, there must be countless interpenetrating worlds and planes, both grosser and more ethereal than our own, that are beyond our range of perception, each with its corresponding scale of time and space. The infinite totality of worlds and planes not only infill space but are space.

In theosophy, no thing or entity -- whether atom, human, planet, star, galaxy, or universe -- appears randomly out of nowhere. A physical entity is born because an inner entity or soul is returning to imodiment, and each new imbodiment is the karmic result of the preceding imbodiment. There is no absolute beginning or end to evolution, only relative starting places and stopping (or resting) places. During the lifetime of a solar system, planets are said to reimbody many times on many different planes, making arcs of descent into material realms, followed by arcs of ascent into spiritual realms. By analogy, stars reimbody many times during the lifetime of a galaxy. The observable universe contains about l00 billion galaxies. It may be that this collection of galaxies forms a relatively independent whole, which is just one of an infinite number of such "universes," and that during the lifetime of a universe the galaxies composing it go through many reimbodiments. These universes may, in turn, be collected into " superuniverses," and so on, ad infinitum.

This suggests that the formation of galaxies as well as stars takes place more or less continuously during the lifetime of our universe. Around 1920 the scientist Sir James Jeans suggested that in the depths of space there were "singular points," through which energies and substances entered our own world from another "dimension" or realm. In theosophy, the same function is performed by "laya-centers" (literally "dissolving centers"). There is a constant circulation of energy-substances through the various planes, and substances pass through a laya state when moving from one plane to the next.

In the far distant future the lifetime of the observable universe will draw to a close. There is no need to assume that all matter and energy will be compressed into a single point in a "big squeeze." Another possibility is that physical matter etherealizes and "radiates away," and that when planets and suns die and disintegrate their constituents "dissolve" into invisibility and enter a dormant, homogeneous condition.

The rest period of our universe will last untold aeons. At the dawn of the next cycle of activity, we can imagine life impulses from inner realms entering the physical plane through laya-centers, impregnating the cosmic womb of space, and sweeping outwards, not creating matter from nothing, but reawakening sleeping matter back to life, after which it begins to differentiate and condense into galaxies and solar systems, which then go through many imbodiments during the lifetime of our universe. Once the various worlds or globes have been formed by the most spiritual kingdoms working with the elemental and mineral kingdoms, the other kingdoms of nature -- plant, animal, human, and superhuman -- can gradually make their appearance, as their sleeping prototypes on the astral plane reawaken, and physicalize, becoming once more the dwellings of evolving souls.

According to the big bang theory, the universe was created about 15 billion years ago. Recently, plasma cosmologist Eric J. Lerner has suggested that the observable universe may actually be trillions of years old. He describes a scenario in which the current cycle of evolution began over 3 trillion years ago with the stirring into life of a primordial homogeneous hydrogen plasma, which then differentiated and agglomerated into astronomical structures (The Big Bang Never Happened, pp. 295-301). The figure of trillions of years begins to approach the vast time periods suggested in theosophy, according to which the current major cycle of evolution -- of which our own solar system forms part -- has been in progress for over 155 trillion years. During this period there have been many planetary and solar reimbodiments (See G. de Purucker, Studies in Occult Philosophy, Theosophical University Press, 1973, pp. 357-60; Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, TUP, 1979, pp. 184, 468).

In the middle of the seventeenth century Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland made the startling revelation that God created Heaven and Earth on October 22, 4004 BC, at 8 o'clock in the evening! This was later modified by the English biblical scholar Dr. John Lightfoot, who gave the date for the creation of Adam as October 23, 4004 BC, at 9 o'clock in the morning! Our understanding of the physical world has increased immeasurably since then, thanks mainly to advances made in the physical sciences. However, it cannot be denied that tremendous gaps in scientific knowledge remain, and when all is said and done, physical science can shed little light on the nonphysical factors which in occult philosophy are said to play a crucial role in shaping and organizing the physical world. At present there is no cosmological theory of any type that can account for all the observational evidence. Scientific understanding of stars and solar systems is still very incomplete and the formation and evolution of galaxies remain a mystery, as do quasars and "black holes." Many big bang theorists may believe that they know what was happening during the first trillionths of a second after the moment of creation of the entire universe, but as one scientist has remarked, "Every generation thinks it has the answers, and every generation is humbled by nature" (Scientfic American, July 1992, p. 12).

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, June/July & August/September 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Theosophical University Press)

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