Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The White and Yolk of the Cosmic Egg

Creation myths probably have this in common. First, they sound reasonable within their own cultures because children learn them and get used to them. As  they grow up they shrug off the odd or primitive features of the myth but retain their essence. That essence is the feeling of wonder the children had when they first heard the tale. That essence has value for life. It’s a poetic truth. Second, to people in other cultures the same creation myths will sound humorous, illogical, charming, or like some ordinary explanation wrapped in myth: motherhood, craftsmanship, kingship. If the foreign culture is wealthy and dangerous, the myth must be scorned. If the culture is backward and weak, a patronizing smile's in oder.

But do humans really have a clue? We use words like time, space, and eternity. These are sounds assigned to enigmas. Their definitions are circular. If matter produces both space and time, the child wants to know what is outside of space? And the child also insists on knowing: What happened before time began? If time began with the Big Bang, what caused that bang to bang? What’s it like to be outside of time? The child is right.

Last Friday at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory a talk revealed something old and something new. Collision experiments have seemingly confirmed a bias in nature already long a doctrine within physics, namely that particles are ever-so-slightly favored over anti-particles. As this news now reaches the laity, the press commits cosmology, as in this sentence in the New York Times today:

According to the basic precept of Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics, equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created in the Big Bang and then immediately annihilated each other in a blaze of lethal energy, leaving a big fat goose egg with which to make stars, galaxies and us. And yet we exist, and physicists (among others) would dearly like to know why.
Well, the physicists already know the answer. If particles are the yolk and antiparticles the white of the cosmic egg (the one Pan Gu found himself inside “in the beginning” according to the Chinese creation myth) then there was more yolk than white. End of story.

The point here? Our myths don’t sound like myths. They sound awesome and sophisticated. But we no more explain what gave rise to the Big Bang than the Chinese myth explains how the cosmic egg came into being. We claim to understand what happened in the earliest nanoseconds of the Big Bang—an event we presume happened because the most distant stars and galaxies appear to be receding from us faster than other stars and galaxies. Yet some nearby galaxies are coming toward us, which seems odd if all things are moving away from all other things. We are amazed by the prevalence of matter over antimatter only because our theories teach us that they ought to have occurred in equal quantities. But that a Big Bang actually happened is an unprovable hypothesis.

Francis Crick, venerated in biology as Einstein is in physics, was, with James Watson, the discoverer of the structure of DNA. (Rosalind Franklin, who crucially discerned DNA’s shape, gets mention but not credit.) But Crick could not imagine how life could have originated on earth. Hence he embraced a theory of panspermia, the notion that life was seeded here from elsewhere. Where explanation fails, myth will serve.

The myths of the future will undoubtedly continue to be, like all myth, culturally sanctioned approximations—resonating with the character of the cultures that will hold them. But ours will also, in some future time, get the patronizing smile—the more so because, swallowed by the past, as we shall then be, we shall neither inspire awe nor threaten those who smile.

Swallowed by the past? Well, yes. I imagine Time to be this, this huge, monstrous Snake, its body stretching back into eternity. We live our lives in its huge maw, and all our troubles are explained because the Snake is chewing, chewing, chewing. And swallowing. And as it swallows, we slide down its slimy gullet into its infinitely huge belly, which is what we might call “the past.”

2 comments:

  1. I was with you all the way... until the monstrous snake arrived!

    Nice post.m A sort of softer take on the blindness described in "A Trailer for the Dark Ages."

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  2. I hope we do get the patronizing smile... or at least, at very least, some scorn. What I really, really don't want is is the future to treat us and our myths as if we were Hannibal Lecter, down at the end of that slimy corridor in prison.

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