by, 4th November 2008 at 01:20 (5397 Views)
First, I will make an admission - religious fundamentalists fascinate me. They have a worldview so completely alien and opposite to mine that to read their screeds that are frequently posted on Fundies Say The Darndest Things is to take a glimpse into a strange and terrifying (and to me at least) new world. These are people that genuinely believe they have an all-benevolent cosmic father watching over them, that He has a plan for the human species. Many of them also believe that the universe is (approximately) 6000 years old, and I very much suspect that their conception of the size of the universe as a whole is a hell of a lot smaller than mine.
The Christian Toy Universe
But I find such a universe cloying, claustrophobic, so limited. It is not just the breathtaking arrogance and astounding hubris that presupposes that our vast and mysterious universe was constructed, by a being that shares all too many of our petty human foibles, for the aggrandisement of itself that bothers me. The universe as presented in the Bible is a toy of a world, a tribute to the massive ignorance of the peoples who concieved it. It is as linear and predetermined as a movie on a video tape, that plays once only before the endless blank screen that is God's Kingdom to reign "forever and ever". And believe me, God's Kingdom is a blank screen, a static, unchanging picture with no dynamics or stimulation whatsoever. It is a living death, where all surviving humans are rendered into mere organic assemblages for praising that narcissist of truly cosmic scale, Jehovah God.
The Godless Universe
Compare that with the so much more grand and subtle view of the universe that I personally have, if you'll permit me this indulgence. I don't expect any of my speculations to turn out to be true, and I certainly don't claim them to be any sort of one truth. Let's just say the following is how I would like the universe to be.
The Multiverse and Other Universes
Before I even start on the Big Bang, one question that I feel we may eventually be able to answer is whether there is a multiverse, an Ur-Universe, or some other kind of seething primordial chaos that forms that basis of all that exists, not just in our own universe but in others also. My suspicion is that other universes in the multiverse would be genuinely different places with different physical laws and constants, rather than just alternate universes on a different time-stream where Hitler won WWII as popularly depicted in science fiction. However, one or both types of alternate universe may turn out to exist. What seperates these universes may be electron spin resonances, divergent timestreams, or they exist suspended in some kind of Ur-Space or Hyperspatial Matrix, or spacetime bridges across which one could theoretically access different universes simply by travelling in a certain trajectory. Whatever the truth of the matter, if the multiverse or other universes do exist then discovering them will likely not be an easy task, and accessing them in any meaningful manner will be a commensurately harder task.
Let there be E=mC2
The Big Bang is certainly the most well-supported of all the theories on the origin of the universe, but the presence of the Multiverse or other universes presents other possibilities. A possible alternative to the Big Bang, termed the Ekpyrotic Universe model, involves two 4-dimensional branes colliding in a 5-dimensional spacetime in order to produce the observed mass-energy of the universe. Didn't understand that? I don't blame you. Here it is again; imagine two sheets, or branes (short for membrane) that are approaching each other in 3D space. You can think of the two sheets as two seperate, empty universes, devoid of matter and energy. As these two sheets approach, they become creased and crinkled, so that when they eventually collide, the different areas of the sheet do so at slightly different times. This collision produces matter and energy much like the standard Big Bang model, and the creases and kinks account for anisotropy or lumpiness of the created mass-energy. This anisotropy allows for the formation of stars and galaxies, for without it, the universe would be a steadily expanding and cooling cloud of photons and hydrogen.
This is a conceptually simple model, especially compared to proposed mechanisms for the currently accepted Big Bang theory. Now this is where I let down the side because I cannot remember the details, but one idea basically involves our universe creating itself using quantum fluctuations and closed time-like curves. No, I can't explain it to you. It's been too long since I've read the book.
But isn't that stunning? The idea that our universe was created by vast cosmic forces that we do not yet understand, or the even more astounding idea that our universe created itself. In fact, if the origin of life and the prevelance of chaotic order and structure is to be any kind of indication, then it is a common occurance for complex objects like people, planets, galaxies and universes to self-form through natural laws and blind physical forces. The universe as we know it appears to be the ultimate free lunch.
I've already talked about the Multiverse and other universes, which is deeply hypothetical territory in itself, and here I'm heading across the border where all bets are off scientifically speaking. First, I'll start with the idea of a thing which I will call Threadspace. You can think of it as the tapestry on which the whole of existance is woven, with matter, energy, space and time all being threads within that tapestry. But unlike a typical tapestry, the threads move and interact, and via this dynamic movement and interaction the universe as we see it appears. If one could tug and twist at certain threads, one could travel faster than light, reduce mass, produce anti-gravity, turn spacetime into mass-energy and vice versa, and all sorts of wierd and wonderful stuff. These 1-dimensional threads construct and control our 4-dimensional universe.
From one dimensions to no dimensions - that is the nature of the Aether, an extra spatial dimension that has collapsed to zero size yet permeates the entire universe. An Aether like this would be too small to let anything as large as a photon pass through it, yet it's non-local nature means that if one could prise it open to traversable scales, then one could have a pretty handy system for interstellar travel. The Aether could also be used for communication and power broadcasting by setting up "vibrations" or some other rapidly oscillating change of some sort with it.
What about the space between the branes that I mentioned earlier when discussing the Ekpyrotic Universe model? What the hell is that place? Possible names include extradimensional space, brane space and superspace. There may be more than two branes within this superspace, seperated by unimaginable distances. My speculations as to the nature of this domain are somewhat limited, but one idea involves using it as a truly cosmic-scale source of power; a sufficiently advanced civilisation could take a cosmic string in one brane, extend it through the extra fifth spatial dimension and attach it to another brane, and use the tension changes as those branes move about as a mind-bogglingly huge source of power.
Now for the old favourite, hyperspace. Hyperspace involves extra spatial dimensions, perhaps at right angles to the extra fifth dimension of superspace mentioned earlier, or be somehow "above" or "below" it. There could be multiple "levels" of hyperspace, each with different topological and geographical properties, some of which may facilitate feats such as FTL travel or teleportation. If hyperspace and it's levels is anything like normal space, then it will have hyperobjects or maybe even life. String theory posits extra dimensions that are "compactified" down to below sub-atomic sizes, and access to hyperspace may involve widening these dimensions to traversable radii.
Tachyons are particles that travel at speeds greater than light and which have imaginary rest mass. An interesting idea concerning tachyons is that they are standard slower-than light particles (also known as bradyons) which are travelling backwards in time relative to the observer. If significant quantities of tachyons are ever detected, then that raises the interesting possibility that the universe that we currently see is only half of the picture - the half that we are familiar with is going forwards in time with respect to our observations, while the other half is going backwards, appearing to travel at speeds greater than light. As well as the potential applications for interstellar communication, it raises the possibility of enabling a starship to travel FTL (and through time also) by "time reversing" it's particle content in some manner, perhaps through quantum-scale manipulation. Even if this is remotely possible, it doesn't sound easy by a long shot. Perhaps a warp drive would be easier.
Light Matter, Dark Matter, Mirror Matter
As well as the new realms of explorational potential opened up by the above mentioned spatial concepts, previously undiscovered forms of matter may reveal a universe more intricate and subtle than we ever first imagined. Most of you are no doubt familiar with baryonic light matter, the stuff which makes up you, me, our planet, and the stars of the night sky.
Baryonic Dark Matter (BDM), on the other hand, is very much unfamiliar stuff to most folks. Mostly formed out of things such as faint stars, black holes, neutron stars and white dwarves, as well as more exotic objects such as brown dwarves, exoplanets and black dwarves, this is the invisible universe within our universe. BDM may serve an important function in the colonisation of the universe, providing important stepping stones between the stars. If the rotation curves of galaxies are to be believed, then there is also a significant amount of BDM in between galaxies, providing further stepping stones for extragalactic colonisation.
Mirror matter is even stranger stuff. It is the "mirror image" of ordinary matter and is completely undetectable except through gravitational means. Mirror matter and ordinary matter pass through each other as if they don't exist, interacting only through gravity. Convert your spaceship along with it's crew and contents to mirror matter and you might as well have entered another universe.
The Fate of Humanity
So it's potentially a bigger universe than we first imagined, and so it will take us a considerable amount of time to explore it, especially if it turns out we can't thumb our nose at Einstein and cheat Relativity. Three million years is a good innings for Earth species, and we could probably colonise the Milky Way before our time would be up. But this has the assumption implicit within it that we do not decide to take conscious control of our own evolution. If we did, then the human species would likely disappear a whole lot sooner than 100,000 years, let alone three million. A future humanity that takes direct control over it's genetic destiny would rapidly diversify into any number of subspecies, dependant on the type and variety of environments that turn out to be common throughout the universe.
Note how this vision of the human species deciding for itself it's own fate and spreading out and diversifying is in almost total opposition to the Christian eschatological vision of humanity's future. God's Kingdom is a sterile, unchanging realm, while Transhumanity is a messy, diverse and constantly evolving milleu. The Heavenly City is a ghastly bauble, a golden cube 1500 miles each side, while the sprawling Transhuman civilisation could stretch across galaxies. God in the Bible creates Man, while Transhumanity creates god-machines and reshapes the heavens to it's own tastes.
The Fate of our Universe
Entropy is ceaseless, merciless, and not even the grandest of the grand are immune - universes too have their end. The only question is whether our universe will end in fire, or in ice.
The Big Crunch posits that our universe will end in fire. The collective gravity of the universe's mass-energy will halt expansion, and our universe will start to shrink. For a while, this won't matter all that much. But the sky will get steadily hotter, and eventually all organic life will be cooked. Soon after that, it will become too hot for stars to remain stable, and they will be blasted apart by the steadily increasing heat. Then it will get hot enough to break apart atoms, the universe becoming a shrinking ocean of photons and plasma. It then gets too hot even to confine quarks within baryons and mesons, and free quarks will roam until everything collapses back into the initial singularity. Blip.
The heat death of the universe, despite it's name, is the scenario for our universe dying in ice. Put simply, the heat death of the universe involves everything simply running out of energy to do useful work. First the star-making material will run out, meaning that no more new stars will form. Once the remaining stars have run out of fuel, the universe will turn darker... much darker. Even the stellar remnants will eventually disappear through proton decay, and the black holes remaining afterwards will, in a stupefyingly long period of time, evaporate away in the form of hawking radiation. Ultimately in this scenario, the universe will become an ocean of extremely red-shifted photons of a uniform temperature. It will be dead.
There is a third potential end for the universe, which depends on there being significant amounts of dark energy in the universe. Called the Big Rip, it posits that universal expansion will accelerate at an ever faster rate, which will paradoxically decrease the size of the observable universe. When the size of the observable universe is smaller than that of a given structure, then the four fundamental forces will have no hold over that object. This means that the first structures to be torn apart will be the galactic superclusters. That's not so bad. But then galaxies start flying apart, and that's definately a cause for concern. You'll really start worrying when star clusters split en masse, start panicking when your solar system unravels, probably briefly scream as your planet is torn apart, by which point you'll have stopped screaming because your atoms are no longer connected to each other, and they'll soon be gone too.
Now that's a thought to take to bed with you.
Cheating Fate and a Brave New World
But humans are nothing if not resourceful, and doubtless our descendants will inherit our resourcefulness. So even the death of our native universe would not necessarily mean the death of intelligent life. If travel to alternative universes or other places in the multiverse is possible, then we'll do it. If our universe turns out to be cyclical and there is a way of surviving it's rebirth, then doubtless we'll do that too.
It's such a grand vision of the future of our species, and what irks me the most is not those who ignore it and concentrate on more present matters, but those who actively reject it. Those who say we shouldn't play God.
Considering God's alleged track record, and humanity's proven record, I think we'd do a far better job than Him.
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