This three part post is the first chapter of my book, Unraveling the Universe’s Mysteries. Here is part 1. Enjoy!

How did the universe begin? Did it even have a beginning, or is it eternal? Scientists and philosophers have been asking these questions for thousands of years. Theologians have been providing supernatural explanations that require a supreme being and, in several religions, numerous supreme beings. For example, Christians believe in one God, and in accordance with their belief, their God created the universe. The Egyptians, on the other hand, believed in many gods, and attributed the creation of the universe to them. However, in the early part of the Twentieth Century, a scientific answer began to emerge.

The entire question of the “birth” of the universe was brought into scientific focus when, in 1929, Edwin Hubble determined that the universe was expanding. The expanding-universe discovery led to what most scientists ascribe to as the Big Bang theory of the universe.

The Big Bang theory holds that the universe started 13.7 billion years ago as an infinitely dense energy point that expanded suddenly to create the universe. This is an excellent example of why the Big Bang theory belongs to the class of theories referred to as “cosmogonies” (theories that suggest the universe had a beginning). The Big Bang is widely documented in numerous scientific works, and is widely held as scientific fact by the majority of the scientific community.

The Big Bang theory provides an excellent framework of how the universe evolved, but it does not give us insight into what predated the Big Bang itself, or what caused it suddenly to go “bang.” Indeed, these are two serious issues of the Big Bang theory, which are widely acknowledged by the scientific community.

Although the Big Bang has won the hearts and minds of most of the scientific community, other theories compete with the Big Bang. Of all the new theories, none has captured more attention than the multiverse theory. The multiverse theory is speculative, which means that it lacks direct experimental confirmation.

The multiverse theory holds that this universe is but one of a set of disconnected universes. There are numerous theories about the multiverse itself, which we will discuss in later chapters. None of the theories under serious consideration by the scientific community explains the origin of energy to create a Big Bang or a multiverse. The crucial question is deceptively simple. Where did the initial energy come from to fuel a Big Bang or create a multiverse? This is the largest mystery in science.

To unravel this mystery, we will start with an unusual phenomenon observed in the laboratory, namely spontaneous particle production or “virtual particles.” The explanations below may become intimidatingly technical at times. Please do not be put off by the technical terms. Providing the scientific basis for virtual particles is crucial to understanding the next chapter. As you read on, most of your questions regarding the technical terms and the science will likely be resolved. You may consult the Glossary at the end of this book for further information on the technical terms and theories used throughout. You are not alone if you become confused. We are on the edge of science, where even scientists argue over the interpretation of observations and theories. With this in mind, we will continue with understanding spontaneous particle creation.

Spontaneous particle creation is the phenomenon of particles appearing from apparently nothing, hence their name “virtual particles.” However, they appear real, and cause real changes to their environment. What is a virtual particle? It is a particle that only exists for a limited time. The virtual particle obeys some of the laws of real particles, but it violates other laws. What laws do virtual particles obey? They obey two of the most critical laws of physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (it is not possible to know both the position and velocity of a particle simultaneously), and the conservation energy (energy cannot be created or destroyed). What laws do they violate? Their kinetic energy, which is the energy related to their motion, may be negative. A real particle’s kinetic energy is always positive. Do virtual particles come from nothing? Apparently, but to a physicist, empty space is not nothing. Said more positively, physicists consider empty space something.

Before we proceed, it is essential to understand a little more about the physical laws mentioned in the above paragraph.

First, we will discuss the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Most physics professors teach it in the context of attempting to simultaneously measure a particle’s velocity and position. It goes something like this:

  • When we attempt to measure a particle’s velocity, the measurement interferes with the particle’s position.
  • If we attempt to measure the particle’s position, the measurement interferes with the particles velocity.
  • Thus, we can be certain of either the particle’s velocity or the particle’s position, but not both simultaneously.

This makes sense to most people. However, it is an over simplification. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle has greater implications. It embodies the statistical nature of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is a set of laws and principles that describes the behavior and energy of atoms and subatomic particles. This is often termed the “micro level” or “quantum level.” Therefore, you can conclude that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle embodies the statistical behavior of matter and energy at the quantum level. In our everyday world, which science terms the macro level, it is possible to know both the velocity and position of larger objects. We generally do not talk in terms of probabilities. For example, we can predict the exact location and orbital velocity of a planet. Unfortunately, we are not able to make similar predictions about an electron as it obits the nucleus of an atom. We can only talk in probabilities regarding the electron’s position and energy. Thus, most scientists will say that macro-level phenomena are deterministic, which means that a unique solution describes their state of being, including position, velocity, size, and other physical attributes. On the other hand, most physics will argue that micro level (quantum level) phenomena are probabilistic, which means that their state of being is described via probabilities, and we cannot simultaneously determine, for example, the position and velocity of a subatomic particle.

The second fundamental law to understand is the conservation of energy law that states we cannot create or destroy energy. However, we can transform energy. For example, when we light a match, the mass and chemicals in the match transform into heat. The total energy of the match still exists, but it now exists as heat.

Lastly, the kinetic energy of an object is a measure of its energy due to its motion. For example, when a baseball traveling at high velocity hits a thin glass window, it is likely to break the glass. This is due to the kinetic energy of the baseball. When the window starts to absorb the ball’s kinetic energy, the glass breaks. Obviously, the thin glass is unable to absorb all of the ball’s kinetic energy, and the ball continues its flight after breaking the glass. However, the ball will be going slower, since it has used some of its kinetic energy to break the glass.

With the above understandings, we can again address the question: where do these virtual particles come from? The answer we discussed above makes no sense. It is counter intuitive. However, to the best of science’s knowledge, virtual particles come from empty space. How can this be true?

 Stay tuned for part 2.