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Why the Origins of the Universe Matter Today

• April 15, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: MarcelClemens/Shutterstock)

If you look at it a certain way, any step closer to figuring out the world’s beginnings is a step toward understanding ourselves.

A few weeks ago, a team of astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics made huge strides toward confirming a pretty major hypothesis. In 1979, the physicist Alan Guth conceived of a force that essentially facilitated the Big Bang, allowing the universe to spread itself outward like a balloon inflating indefinitely.

This is important for a major scientific reason: It explains how the Big Bang is possible, an explanation that scientists, despite their faith in the Big Bang as a hypothesis, did not previously have. This idea is, fittingly enough, called “inflation,” and the scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center discovered “ripples in the fabric of space-time,” as the Times put it, which would seem to indicate what Guth suspected: At just about the very first instance of our universe, it expanded faster than the speed of light.

Watching Hawking, a transcendent mind in a redefined body, it’s hard not to wonder where the conscience stops and the world starts. In fact, it’s possible that this notion of a dividing point isn’t even relevant.

Michael White recently wrote about the biological origin of our fascination with the discovery. Why were so many people interested in science that wouldn’t cure cancer or negate global warming? Our drive to know more about the universe and its nature, according to White, “mainly satisfies our curiosity.”

One of the questions that this very good point raises, though, is where, for human beings, curiosity ends and utility begins.

The idea of utility is a complicated one when you’re talking about mortals. Even if we cure cancer, we’ll still die, eventually. Even if we curb or defeat global warming, we’ll still die, eventually. Possibly at some point, we as a species will conquer death. But that would be such a new reality, such a re-definition of the most undeniable part of being human, that it would require a fresh system of morals and ethics to be created from scratch.

IN ERROL MORRIS’ JUST-RECENTLY re-released 1991 documentary A Brief History of Time, we are asked a pair of questions. The first is the question of the cosmos. Our guide is Stephen Hawking, the genius and author of the book from which the movie takes its name. But Hawking’s guidance is less that of Virgil’s—all-knowing, pedantic—and more that of a Sherpa’s: Hawking understands the territory of space and physics as well as, if not better, than any other living human being, but he is still feeling his way through it, his knowledge incomplete.

One of the beauties of the film is that the particular question of the cosmos is never narrowed to a crippling specific: We interrogate the existence of black holes, the nature of the Big Bang, and the dilemma of scientific consensus—all with Hawking running point.

The second question is that of Hawking, a quadriplegic, a man possessed of one of civilization’s most creative and intelligent minds whose body has failed him. Hawking communicates through a machine that allows a robot voice to be his mechanism for speaking with the world. But for the viewer fully possessed of her body, or as fully possessed as anyone can be, it’s impossible not to wonder what life would be like in the position of Hawking: immobilized, in need of perpetual assistance, and, to some extent, caged in by the thing that is supposed to be the vehicle for our freedom.

MIGHT THE TWO QUESTIONS Morris’ film asks of its viewers actually be the same thing? Watching A Brief History of Time, and watching Hawking, a transcendent mind in a redefined body, it’s hard not to wonder where the conscience stops and the world starts. In fact, it’s possible that this notion of a dividing point isn’t even relevant.

The theoretical physicist David Bohm used quantum physics to reconcile the supposed divide, dating back to Descartes, of the mind and mental reality existing apart from physical reality. Instead, Bohm suggests that both physical matter and the stuff of thought share wave-particle duality, a central tenet of quantum physics. And so, the action of the mind, and the way it gradually and subtly affects the body, is not just similar to quantum activity on the particle level: It’s the same process, the same subtle layering of interactions.

Bohm is building here on a previous idea he had established, that of the “implicate order,” which states:

The whole universe is in some way enfolded in everything and that each thing is enfolded in the whole. From this it follows that in some way, and to some degree everything enfolds or implicates everything, but in such a manner that under typical conditions of ordinary experience, there is a great deal of relative independence of things. This enfoldment relationship is not merely passive or superficial. Rather, it is active and essential to what each thing is. It follows that each thing is internally related to the whole, and therefore, to everything else.

This is like a more scientifically intricate version of chaos theory: Every particle can—probably doesn’t, but can—affect any other particle. Supposing Bohm is correct, it means that, when we study the universe and phenomena like inflation, we aren’t just looking at something foreign, ancient, and irrelevant. We’re studying ourselves. And in a world whose viability is by no means guaranteed, the significance of discoveries like inflation or those of Hawking, barely fathomable concepts like black holes and bent space-time, take on a more essential hue. We are satisfying our curiosity, but we’re also investigating the way that the universe put us here, and where it will take us—even if that’s  a million or a billion years away—going forward.

Kevin Lincoln
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a writer living in Los Angeles. He also contributes to The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Grantland.

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