It was about 14 billion years ago, when the whole thing began in a kind of very special tiny shell. Tiny? I should say microscopic, maybe. In fact, this shell was slightly larger than a proton, one of the essential parts of the nucleus of an atom. Inside this shell, there were zillions of rogue particles, aimlessly wandering around, which gave the view of a restless “ocean” to the contents ; like a primeval sea, or if we choose a more mystical metaphor, “the waters of existence.”
Suddenly, something extraordinary happened inside this spooky shell and a crucial process began: It was a gigantic explosion which came along with the brightest possible light and caused the lightning-fast expansion of this “particle ocean.” In the first 10-33 seconds, the shell reached the size of a golf ball then kept on expanding further in a crazy speed. This was the very moment when time began, as we know it. The rest of the story passes through eons and comes to present day, still ongoing in an ever-expanding environment we call “the universe.”
Everything we can see, feel and detect around us, including (but not limited to) planets, stars, clusters and galaxies, could fit in an extremely tiny shell 14 billion years ago. Sounds like magic, but equally reflecting the truth: The adventure of our universe started in a restless microscopic shell, with an extraordinary event we call “The Big Bang,” and it has kept on expanding and expanding. But for how long? This is the critical question.
In The Beginning…
When we talk about the expansion of the universe, we suggest an effective energy which should surpass the power of gravitation; the still accelerating expansion make the scientists think about a mysterious force which they call “the dark energy.” But, since there cannot be an “infinite source of energy,” be it “dark” or “light,” a time will come when the power that drives the expansion eventually becomes exhausted, and gravity will take the reins back. This will simply reverse the process and our universe will begin to shrink—very slowly in the beginning—but it will accelerate as the time passes. The dramatic result as scientists call it is “The Big Crunch”; a situation when all the matter shrinks and fits in that tiny shell, where it all had begun. Also, it means a critical moment when time stops again.
Some theoretical physicists, such as Paul Steinhardt from Princeton University and Neil Turok from Cambridge University, present a very interesting model which suggest a cyclic process in which the universe endlessly expands and shrinks back; an infinite set of Big Bangs and Big Crunches. Named after the scientists who introduced it, The Steinhardt-Turok Model brings an exciting view to the nature of our universe: The “day” begins with a Big Bang and ends with a Big Crunch; in this gigantic scale of time, all living things including humanity can only witness a single day in which they exist.
Almost every human being asks the questions—who am I, where am I, when and how did everything start—to themselves at least once in a while. For the human mind, these intriguing questions and assumptions about existence have always been attractive and mind-blowing, regardless of the ages, philosophical schools, belief systems or the level of advancement in science. Since the very beginning of our civilization, our ancestors tried to put the data together and forge a systematical explanation that would help to conceive the “killer questions” of existence. So maybe it is the right time now for putting aside the theories of our high-tech science and direct our attention to the ancient conceptions about the creation of our universe.
The Sumerian cosmology and cosmogony could be a good starting point, since it is generally accepted that they were among the first civilizations to develop a consistent and coherent philosophy that would explain how all things came into existence. What did the wise men of this Mesopotamian people think about the mysterious nature of the universe and how did they identify the principles and/or the processes that defined the way this huge system works?
“In the beginning, there was Nammu,” replies a Sumerian cosmologist, through the ages. This feminine word is the name of the eternal goddess of creation and considered the essential source of everything—an immense potential which appears to be inactive for an uncertain time, just before creation. Nammu has all the raw materials that would help to fashion the physical universe, but before she commences her divine act, these “ingredients” aimlessly wait in a chaotic situation. Sumerians define her as the “primeval sea” and “the mother of all gods.” When a certain moment comes, Nammu creates AN (the heavens) and KI within herself and the creation story begins. This resembles the moment of the Big Bang in the Sumerian account of creation.
From Maat to Dharma
When we go beyond the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea, we find very similar conceptions about the beginning of the universe in Egypt, a contemporary of the Sumerian civilization. In Heliopolis (Iunu, in Ancient Egyptian) theology, the act of creation takes place in Nun, the cosmic ocean, who is the Egyptian counterpart of Nammu. Just like the former, Nun has all the necessary elements of the physical universe but dispersed (or dissolved) in the waters of wisdom, thus wandering around inactively in a chaotic situation. When the crucial moment comes, Nun, the cosmic ocean, forms Atum using this potential; Atum, in turn, creates the divine couple Shu (the air) and Tefnut (the moisture). In later theological developments, Atum also represents the divine light of the universe (Ra) which Egyptian cosmologists believed to appear during the moment of creation. That is to say, Nun’s powerful act in the darkness of the “inactive ocean” to bring forth Ra-Atum seems to be the moment of the Big Bang in Egyptian cosmogony.
Creation myths of Ancient India are by no means less intriguing. Hindu philosophy, which probably took its roots from the much older Harappan civilization that had flourished along the Indus Valley millennia ago, sees the history of the universe as the endless cycles of creation and destruction. Each cycle equals to a single day of Brahma, the supreme god of the Holy Triad, called Kalpa in Sanskrit language, but this “special day” actually lasts around 8.6 billion years!
The whole process begins in the eternal waters of the “cosmic ocean” which possesses all the necessary elements of the physical universe, but appears as a dark and inactive source like Sumerian Nammu and Egyptian Nun. Within the first moments of the divine day, Brahma emerges from the depths of this chaotic ocean in a lotus flower, and the holy process of creation starts. The supreme god then forms the universe using the potential of the cosmic ocean and sets the order with the power of his divine light. When the “night” falls for Brahma after 4.32 billion years, Shiva, the second important deity of the triad takes his turn and starts the destruction process which is necessary for the next creation. Finally, when Shiva is done with destroying the physical universe, Vishnu steps in just before the dawn of a new “day.” He helps the cosmic debris to dissolve in the waters of the eternal source again and makes sure everything is ready for a “fresh start” for Brahma. The works of Shiva and Vishnu lasts another 4.32 billion years which makes the total cycle, or as Hindus call it, “a day of Brahma” 8.64 billion years.
Each of these three creation accounts of the ancient world clearly have some essential concepts in common which give us a brief idea about how our ancestors thought of the universe thousands of years ago. First of all, the time concept is cyclical (and even spiral) contrary to our “linear time” understanding. In ancient philosophies, there is neither a beginning nor an absolute end for the universe; instead, they underline a cosmic system with continuously repeating “creation” and “destruction” processes.
Second, in almost all ancient cosmogonies, we come across the unique concept of the “primeval sea”: the eternal source of existence neither created nor destroyable. It is always the starting point of the physical universe, and also, the environment where it dissolves after the destruction process. That is to say, in ancient cosmogonies there is not an omnipotent and transcendent god—like the one in monotheistic religions—who creates the universe from scratch or completely destroys it when “the end of times” comes. The primeval sea or the “cosmic ocean” is the only eternal being that carries the essential elements of the universe which in turn forms the seeds of life.
Finally, all these ancient traditions assume a set of essential principles which define the rules of all the processes between creation and destruction. In Sumer, these “golden guides” were called the Me’s; Egyptians named the universal rules Maat and depicted it as the goddess of truth and justice; the Hindu’s named it Rta, and the Buddhists chose the title Dharma, both terms meaning “wisdom and truth.” Hence, there is no supreme being above the cosmic ocean and the universal rules. The principal gods were actually symbolizing the forces of the universe, which could only act according to Me/Maat/Rta/Dharma and emerged from the chaotic darkness of the primeval sea in the beginning of each cycle.
The Big Bang and the Big Crunch
The amazing part appears when we compare the basics of these cosmogony and cosmologies with the present achievements of our modern science. If we scrape off the esoteric casings wrapped around these ancient stories about the nature of our universe, what we obtain is a simple and logical comprehension of the cosmos which is surprisingly compatible with what our physicists have been telling us in the Standard Model (Big Bang) and the cyclic universe. The modern terminology does not employ terms like “cosmic ocean” but the contemporary theories tell about numerous inactive particles which probably presented a view of a “quantum sea” in that tiny shell we mentioned previously. The emergence of Atum, Brahma, An and Ki (or Pangu in Chinese cosmogony) signifies the critical moment of the Big Bang, and the destruction that comes with the acts of Shiva seems similar to what the physicists call “The Big Crunch.”
But how could the ancient cosmologists know about the processes which the modern scientists theorized taking the advantages of high-tech equipment and the accumulated knowledge that came from the huge pile of experiments in the last couple of centuries? Actually, there is no mystery here, and no need for hypothetical “lost continents” or “galactic visitors.” We should not underestimate the power of the human mind and the capability of imagination when no dogmas prevent its curiosity and flexibility. In ancient times, before the religious bigotry took over the reins in the fourth century and launched prosecution campaigns against those who were defined as heretics, the philosophers enjoyed the benefits of free thought and imagination. What remains from them are the bits of thought which we began to discover only in this last century.
Most mind-boggling questions start with a “what if” clause. So maybe it is time to put one of them forward to add some spice to our voyage in the stormy waters of the cosmic ocean: What if our universe is not the only one? What if we live in an immense “multiverse” where our own universe is just one of many tangential “bubbles” appearing as a “honeycomb”? Should we then revise our conception about the “cosmic ocean”?
Since the strong winds of the quantum theory began shaking the scientific world in the mid-twentieth century, physicists have been convinced about a multiverse consisting of numerous different universes, where ours appears to be one of them. In a recent article on The New Scientist web site, Marcus Chown writes: “The multiverse idea is not without theoretical backing. String theory, our best attempt yet at a theory of everything, predicts at least 10500 universes, each with different laws of physics. To put that number into perspective, there are an estimated 1025 grains of sand in the Sahara Desert.”
I admit it does not make you feel comfortable to think about living in a grain of sand where billions and billions of them just sit there in a huge desert. One can feel themselves very unimportant and much less valuable, to say the least. But, this picture can change a little when we think about the branching of possibilities and alternatives that pave the way of a system, consisting of numerous “parallel universes.” You are not less important or less valuable because there may be a different “you” in many of those possible cousins of the universe we live in. Sounds confusing, huh?
Let us make it simpler: You could have decided to quit your job years ago and choose another career for yourself which could have dramatically changed your life, but you did not. Or you could have married your high-school love and had children at a young age, but your education was more important for you, so you chose to go to the university in another city, leaving your home town behind. Now, that girl is married to another man. If you had not fallen down and broken your leg while repairing the roof, you could have played in that very important college basketball game and got the chance to be recruited for one of those major league teams which could have radically changed your life. You get the idea.
Well, the multiverse theory presents you a picture in which every possibility occurred in a different parallel universe: You left your job and began a very different career; you married that girl years ago, and now have been living with your wife and kids in your small town; you averted that accident and brilliantly played in that game, so now you are a very famous NBA player. All of these happened in different parallel universes. In one of them, maybe you wrote this article and I have been reading it in The Wise magazine. But in many of them, probably you were not born. To make things more interesting, we can safely assume that in some of those universes the rogue asteroid did not strike the earth and destroy the dinosaurs, so the planet is still dominated by those gigantic reptiles. Or in some of those, the basic elements of life have not appeared yet; so, there are no “witnesses” to observe what is happening. And even a more disturbing assumption: In most of those universes, the laws of physics are quite different than those in our own, thus making them look really weird to us.
Just in an “Ordinary Day”
Could the ancients also predict such a fantastic cosmic situation? We cannot be sure of it, but we can remember those myths telling about the underworld, the netherworld or similar depictions of imaginary places which they mentioned “to be beyond the time we can perceive.”
The universe is built upon certain circumstances that are driven by a vast amount of certain possibilities. If and when a different possibility appears, it occurs in another parallel universe. The “big picture” changes dramatically: Imagine you are sitting at the seaside watching the full moon as the waves touch the sandy beach. You see many sparkles on the surface of the sea, which shine for a moment and then disappear in a continuous light show caused by the moon. Now think of each sparkle as a different universe: When it shines, it is the Big Bang; when it disappears, it is the Big Crunch. Maybe we should think about a “supreme cosmic ocean” that creates and destroys billions and billions of different universes in endless cycles. For this immense ocean, a day of Brahma, which is 8.64 billion years for us, lasts only a moment. Can you imagine how many universes are born and destroyed in an “ordinary day” in this cosmic ocean?