Spontaneous creation out of nothing
June 4, 2015 7:12 PM   Subscribe

I have a physics question, but my googling hasn't been able to provide anything satisfactory tonight. It's about cosmological models of creation in which NO initial conditions whatsoever are assumed.

Assume I know almost nothing. My line of inquiry would be something like this: "What created the universe?" "Oh, read the Big Bang theory, that's the prevailing model, though it will no doubt be updated and revised as we learn more about quantum theory etc." "Okay, cool. But the Big Bang theory has some initial starting conditions, some physics/cosmological conditions that caused the Big Bang to happen." "Right." "So what created those conditions?" That's where things get fuzzy for me. Every explanation and theory would lead me to say "so what caused that to come into existence?" Hawking explains that the question "what happened before the Big Bang" becomes meaningless, like asking what's North of the North Pole. But my question has nothing to do with time or "before", it's just about what sparked something from nothing. But that is itself a meaningless question, because "something" and "nothing" are information conditions that must have come into existence somehow, right? So - is this line of questioning ultimately unknowable (by science or otherwise) because we have no tools to answer it, aside from musing about things in a metaphysical way? Or are there, in fact, cosmological models that assume NO initial conditions whatsoever? Can those cosmological models be explained to a layman? I can't even imagine what they might consist of. (Note that I'm not interested in arguments for or against the existence of "God". I merely want to learn about cosmological models as if I'm a toddler who says "where did that come from?" over and over until we get to the very first "where did that come from?" conceivable, if that makes sense.)
posted by naju to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think this is one of those things we just don't know, necessarily. But I will say, the assumption that nothingness must have preceded somethingness is possibly human-centric projecting. Why can't "something" have literally always existed? We can't imagine this because we live in time, but is time necessary for existence? Maybe not.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:30 PM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

First off, one of your problems is that there isn't any consensus on this issue. You can't find an answer because physicists haven't settled on one.

But one possible answer is "quantum uncertainty". In empty space, it's possible for matter/antimatter pairs to spontaneously appear, and then annihilate each other. This kind of thing happens all the time but it doesn't leave any trace behind when it does -- except...

Except that if it happens right at the event horizon of a black hole, it's possible for one of the particles to fall in and leave the other one outside. This is known as "Hawking radiation".

One current hypothesis for how the monobloc came into being is that it simply spontaneously appeared due to quantum uncertainty, and it lasted long enough to detonate. If it hadn't detonated then it would have vanished again, and this may have happened an unfathomable number of times before one finally went off and created the Big Bang.

Understand, this is just a "scientific wildass guess" at this point. That's all we have currently, and that may be all we'll ever have.


A footnote: the reason this is possible is that at the quantum level, conservation of energy is subject to a limited exception. Energy can come into existence and then go away again, as long as the product of the quantity of energy and the time it existed is less than Planck's Constant. This is one explanation for "tunneling": an electron can cross a high potential barrier because the electron borrows energy from nowhere for a brief period, long enough to get all the way to the other side. Then the energy goes away again.

The quantity of energy that appears this way usually is very small, and even so it doesn't usually last all that long. But it can last arbitrarily long if the quantity is absurdly small, and that turns out to be how electric fields work. The charge causes "virtual photons" which are created by borrowing energy, and they can (and some do) travel arbitrarily far at the speed of light; they can exist for millions of years.

The other side of that is that the energy can be immense, but in that case the duration will be astoundingly short. But it could even be as big as the total energy in the universe, or at least that's what theory says.

By the way, I am not a physicist, and I probably got some of this wrong.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:45 PM on June 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

One of the things that's difficult to understand is that everything you have to describe "before" the Big Bang is literally here in the universe and not "somewhere else." There's no way to describe "before" because time itself -- or rather, space-time -- was created in this instant. Before the Big Bang? There is no "before." Even our understanding of the very concept of "before" was created by it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:06 PM on June 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

Here's another way to look at how the idea of "before" breaks down when you think about it: Where is the center of the universe?

If everything started at a single point and blew outward, where is the single point?

And the answer is, everything was in the single point, so there's no "center" of the universe because there's no place that is not the center. And everything is still flying away from everything else in every possible direction.

So where's the center? You are the center. Every atom in your body is the center. So are all the atoms in that chair you're sitting on. So are all the atoms in the Andromeda Galaxy.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:22 PM on June 4, 2015

Response by poster: I think I'm comfortable with the concept of time and "before" being meaningless, because time is a post-Big Bang concept. Is everything else, like causation and existence, also similarly premised on the Big Bang... such that there are no meaningful questions to even ask prior to that point?
posted by naju at 8:26 PM on June 4, 2015

The concept of causation depends on the concept of time.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:29 PM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So it sounds like this is ultimately unknowable, and will always be unknowable. Do theoretical physicists acknowledge this among themselves, as a matter of course? I guess I'm trying to wrap my head around where the field decides it can't discuss things anymore.
posted by naju at 8:37 PM on June 4, 2015

It's not unknowable, or even unknown, it's just not a meaningful question. What shape is the cross-section of a sphere by a plane that does not intersect that sphere?
posted by nicwolff at 9:01 PM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Instead of quantum uncertainty, there's another possibility: the "Big Crunch". The universe began with the Big Bang and it might end with a Big Crunch in which it all collapses again back to a hyperdense point -- which, then, might explode again.

It is not yet known if that's what will happen. It really depends on how much mass there is and how fast it is expanding. (This is one of the reasons there's so much excitement about "dark matter". The amount of bright matter we can observe definitely is not enough. But maybe there's enough additional dark matter to bring it about.)

The other possibility is that it will keep expanding forever. But even if it does crunch, that doesn't imply it will explode again.

But if the universe ends with a Big Crunch leading to a Big Bang, the end of the universe might also be what starts it. The universe might be a closed loop, and like the legendary Phoenix it may be born from the ashes of its own life.

I should mention that this idea is another SWAG.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:25 PM on June 4, 2015

There is a book about this specific question.
posted by hz37 at 2:18 AM on June 5, 2015

A reasonable definition of the universe would be in terms of causation - if something in the past occurred in a position and time which could possibly have an affect on me now, then it's in the same universe as me. This makes sense from an empiricist viewpoint, because it is a fundamental precondition for a measurement to occur.

If we take the traditional view of the big bang, then it makes no sense to discuss what came before it in these terms, since as we understand it, at the moment of the big bang the universe contained no information about what came before it. As we can't make any measurements of what came before the big bang, it is fundamentally unknowable, and outside the remit of physics, and we can only speculate rather than theorise.

However, there are some physical theories that don't make all of the assumptions above. Some posit that our universe is one of many, which are very weakly causally connected (e.g brane cosmology). If this were the case, what happened before the big bang becomes a meaningful(ish) question again - our ideas of space and time are going to be tied up with the 'traditional' universe, but higher dimensional equivalents would exist. However, these theories are a long way from being verified experimentally, let alone being used to make huge leaps in our understanding.
posted by Ned G at 3:11 AM on June 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Do theoretical physicists acknowledge this among themselves, as a matter of course?

Pretty much, yes.
posted by Ned G at 3:12 AM on June 5, 2015

You might be interested in the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis.
posted by tomcooke at 5:49 AM on June 5, 2015

But my question has nothing to do with time or "before", it's just about what sparked something from nothing.

As I see it, there are two fundamentally faulty assumptions here:

1: That the word "nothing" has a well defined referent. It doesn't; it's a mere linguistic placeholder, allowing tidy formulation of thoughts that would otherwise need to be more clumsily expressed.

2: that "what sparked something from nothing" could in fact mean anything at all absent a conceptual framework including the notion of "before". Sparking is an action and the notion of time is inherent in the notions of action and change.

As well as the fundamentally faulty assumptions, there are a couple of deeply questionable ones:

3: That every event is necessarily the effect of some cause or set of causes. However, we know from studying phenomena like nuclear decay that some events are spontaneous and have no immediate cause. Quantum physics also introduces the idea of spontaneous creation and destruction of virtual particles, with the creation and destruction events linked by virtual photons; it may well be that uncaused events outnumber caused ones by quintillions to one.

4: That our ability to label physical events with time values that are positive with respect to some posited earliest possible event implies that time values negative with respect to that same event must also be in some way meaningful or useful.

When considering this last assumption, you might find it helpful to muse on the idea of considering time values as logarithmic; this raises the possibility of considering t=0 as an asymptotic limit for time values attached to physical events without implying that any actual event must perforce have occurred with a time value of exactly zero.

is this line of questioning ultimately unknowable (by science or otherwise) because we have no tools to answer it, aside from musing about things in a metaphysical way?

No, this line of questioning cannot yield answers because it's incoherent. The question of why there is something rather than nothing is not a real question; it's a set of words assembled in a manner that superficially resembles one, like "why is a mouse when it spins?"

You can react to this question either by making up some equally meaningless Just So story that you accept as the stock answer to it, like "because the higher the few"; this is the approach taken by those who ascribe the creation of the Universe to a God who exists in some ill-specified way prior to it. Or you can pick the question itself to pieces until you convince yourself that this particular emperor is not actually wearing any clothes. Your call.
posted by flabdablet at 9:26 AM on June 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

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