What Do We Make of The Big Bang?

Antarctica: South Pole Telescope

Guest List

Prof. Alan Guth, the theoretical physicist at MIT who predicted cosmic inflation more than thirty years ago;
Prof. Max Tegmark, at MIT, the specialist on the cosmic microwave background;
Prof. Robert Kirshner, the observer-physicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Clowes Professor of Science.


In the beginning was the Bang. We’ve got visible proof of it now, thanks to blockbuster discoveries made at Harvard and predicted at MIT. But are our heads too cluttered with creation myths, and the matters of the day, to come to grips with the beginning of everything? We’re clearing our heads to listen to the wisdom of the physicists, in their words and images, to get to the bottom of some pretty basic questions.

Our “Top Ten” Questions:

1. Where did it all come from?
2. Where is it going?
3. What is it made of?
4. What is driving it all?
5. How big is it?
6. How will it all end?
7. What is real?
8. How do we know?
9. Where do we come into it?
10. Is there any meaning to it?


A page from Alan Guth’s 1979 notebook, in which he theorizes cosmic inflation


Guest List
Alan Guth
the theoretical physicist at MIT who predicted cosmic inflation more than thirty years ago
Max Tegmark
at MIT, the specialist on the cosmic microwave background  
Robert Kirshner
the observer-physicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Clowes Professor of Science

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  • Jim Salman

    Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” This seems more true than ever, now that scientists are able to make educated guesses about what the universe was like one-trillionth of a second after the big bang.

    As for Mr. Hicks’ dismay with readers shutting down, perhaps it is not only about their impatience with the difficult scientific concepts and language. It may also have a lot to do with a certain discomfort that naturally arises in many of us who would attempt to contemplate the sheer grandeur and awesome strangeness of our unfolding 13 billion-old universe.

  • Steve Fernandez

    “Our engineer, George Hicks, told us he looks on with dismay as readers shut down when it comes to quantum physics, “god particles,” dimensions beyond four and universes beyond one.”

    I have to admit to being “dismayed” on hearing a scientist, top in his field, arguing that the earth is 6000 years old.

    But, part of what has led to some of the greatest advances in science has been skepticism of what was generally, and the creation of alternative explanations.

    Additionally, the math involved in some of these theories is hard. Try working through the 16 coupled hyperbolic-elliptic nonlinear partial differential equations that comprise Einstein’s theory of general relativity or N-point scattering in superstring theory.

    There is also no concensus on all the Physics. I’ve even heard well regarded Physicists disagree on the interpretation of some fundamental principles of Quantum Physics – Is momentum only conserved on aggregate but not conserved in individual particle interactions or is momentum always conserved but unable to be precisely specified in individual particle interactions?

    Looking forward to hearing more theories that offer explanations of what space, time, matter, and energy are the mathematical nature of our reality.

  • I have always encountered difficulty with people shutting down, even discussing philosophy and belief systems i.e. religions/pantheism/monism/indigenous beliefs/prophesy/theories on Atlantis/Lemuria?pangea and our hidden ancient past. Add to that: alternative health, environmental matters, and definitely physics (particle/quantum)and cutting edge science in general. Funy though, for what people thought I an my cohorts were “crazy” to suggest twenty or thirty years ago in some lines has now become more accepted or even proven- for example Climate Science. Many concepts and areas of related research are still too nascent for most people to want to even delve into, for fear of ridicule, lack of time, or plain complexity. Yet we are making progress as a species in my view with concepts such as whole systems (Holistic) thinking and approaches to things like land use and development, mind/body medicine. Still throw out a concept like vibrational medicine, and many in the west still poo-poo homeopathy, many do not realize that research is being done on the frequency or “note” of everythings from bones to cancer cells in the hopes of finding non-invasive, non-chemical “cures”.

    Our societies are set such that many people are so very caught up in day-to-day living and survival, that “high thinking” is a luxury. Not to say there is not awe and wonder, but for billions it’s easier to relegate contemplation of a complex nature, whether physics, mathematics, cosmology etc to others… Yet the questions above are THE BIG TEN and the answers are a work in progress that will change everything as surely as a public disclosure of first contact would.

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  • I want to add a contrarian’s seemingly ornery caveat to the cosmology discussion:

    Go back to 1927.

    Heidegger’s “Being and Time” has been published as half of Husserl’s “Philosophy Yearbook”. (Edmond Husserl was Heidegger’s German-Jewish teacher). The other half of this yearbook is devoted to Oscar Becker’s “Mathematical Existence.” (you can see an original of this Husserl “yearbook” in Robbins Library, Room 211, Emerson Hall, Harvard)

    “Being and Time” argues and implies that science cannot be the ultimate description of the human situation (“being-in-the-world”) since science is about stuff and its motions ie the present-at-hand dimension.

    In 1927 also, Heisenberg reveals his “Uncertainty Principle” and Heidegger whose original university training was in science, discusses the potential implications with Heisenberg.

    Notice that when you discuss science, you are no longer in the domain of science but have switched to philosophy which asks “so what”? questions which are outside of science itself.

    The quest for certainty via mathematical science—ie the Descartes vision—is the modern. This very quest is both admired and overturned by Heidegger (as well as Wittgenstein coming down another avenue.)

    Eugene Wigner, the great Hungarian physicist, was insightful when he said that the efficacy of mathematics in explaining science was “unreasonable”. That’s a part of this puzzle. The other part of it is the existential caveat that science can never give us an “Archimedean point” to understand ourselves via science.

    Thus Big Bang Theory, is both completely enthralling and destined to serve as a kind of “false god” in the end.

    It is more correct to say that science is downstream from human “being-in-the-world” and its cultural embodiment than the other way. (obverse or converse or reverse.)

  • Potter

    The kids responses to the Big Bang question were hilarious and precious. It made me feel that children should discuss cosmology, have it as a subject in school, and then too comparative religion. But as Stephen Hawking noted in his conversation with the Pope, it is unfortunately not acceptable to ask too many questions or seek answers. Richard Feynman said, “I can live with doubt”. As Chris noted, most of us want a story. But what is so amazing to me is that beyond the physics and math, which I don’t understand, I can grasp this. Is it getting simpler and simpler?… or maybe I am.

    We forget that we are part of everything. We are stardust (the Joni Mitchell version). I also love that huge painting at the MFA by Gauguin that asks the questions “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”.

    We are such amazing creatures to be able to ask and try to understand and to allow our minds to be blown.

    The guests were wonderful, thank you.

  • Jim Salsich

    Is there a book or article to explain the usefulness of pi in theoretical thinking?
    How is it that a ‘simple’ two-dimensional relation, that is, the ratio of circumference to diameter, can be used in so many
    theories? Is this ratio a kind of ‘shorthand’ for the implications of calculus? (Obviously this is a question put by a non-math person… but this seems a very ‘elemental’ question!)

    • Kunal Jasty

      It seems amazing, doesn’t it? Two quick thoughts: circles are everywhere (and pi is of course used in higher dimensions as well, a simply example being V = 4/3(pi)r^3), and pi is used in calculating any type of periodic motion, such as waves and oscillation. From there it’s not too hard to see why pi shows up in so many physics and engineering contexts.

      The wikipedia article on pi is actually quite interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pi#Use_in_mathematics_and_science

      And don’t miss http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euler%27s_formula

  • I wish to contextualize inflationary modifications to Big Bang Theory.

    Notice the Radio Open Source Ten questions of which these four are directly relevant to this comment that follows:

    7. What is real?
    8. How do we know?
    9. Where do we come into it?
    10. Is there any meaning to it?

    This contextualization is outside of science completely and does not deny that Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1965 (confirmation of the Big Bank via radio telescopes) temporarily refuted Fred Hoyle (anti-Big Bang).
    Robert Dicke (see Dicke paradox as mentioned in Guth notes reproduced in Radio Open Source Intro) commented (to his colleagues and students) on Penzias-Wilson in 1965, “Boys, we’ve been scooped.”
    That is all fascinating and wonderful to behold.

    The contextualization I have in mind comes from Michel Foucault (French philosopher, Heideggerian, died in 1984):

    “All knowledge is rooted in a life, a society, and a language that have a history….
    (this allows) interhuman communication against a background of social structures…”

    “The Order of things: An Archaeology of the Human sciences”
    Vintage Books, paperback edition, 1973, page 372-373

    In other words, humans produce songs, theories, jokes, quips, puns, neologisms, puzzles, conjectures, fashions as they live and go through the days and decades.
    All are “time-bound.”

    Steven Hawking’s credo and prediction “we’ll know the mind of God” (“A Brief History of Time, 1988, conclusion) is not defensible from a Foucault context.
    Foucault’s grounding of knowledge as just stated, should be a deep flashlight you use when you ponder the four ROS questions given above.

  • Final Exotic Comment on Big Bang Discussion:
    To existentialize means to relate some phenomenon to the human “life-world”
    to get its real proportions by humanizing it.

    To existentialize science, the Big Bang, inflationary physics a la Professor Guth, consider this analysis from Pascal’s 17th century “Pensees” which is the “locus classicus” of existentializing, as explained above:

    “ This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition and yet most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.
    Let us, therefore, not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it.
    If this be well understood, I think that we shall remain at rest, each in the state wherein nature has placed him. As this sphere which has fallen to us as our lot is always distant from either extreme, what matters it that man should have a little more knowledge of the universe? If he has it, he but gets a little higher. Is he not always infinitely removed from the end, and is not the duration of our life equally removed from eternity, even if it lasts ten years longer?
    In comparison with these Infinites, all finites are equal, and I see no reason for fixing our imagination on one more than on another. The only comparison which we make of ourselves to the finite is painful to us.
    If man made himself the first object of study, he would see how incapable he is of going further. How can a part know the whole? But he may perhaps aspire to know at least the parts to which he bears some proportion. But the parts of the world are all so related and linked to one another that I believe it impossible to know one without the other and without the whole.”

    Pascal’s profound strictures should help the ROS listener “perspectivalize”
    scientism ie the ideology that cosmology and evolution will “ultimately” explain you to yourself.