8. The Big Bang, Science, Death, and the Unknown
Suddenly, Einstein lifted his head, looked upward at the clear skies and said: “We know nothing about it all. All our knowledge is but the knowledge of school children.” “Do you think we shall ever probe the secret?” “Possibly we shall know a little more than we now know, but…”
— R.W. Clark,The Life and Times of Albert Einstein
One of the very few textbooks I kept from college is my Halliday and Resnick Physics for Students of Science and Engineering. On its side remain, in very faint but still readable pencil, the words “Physics is a fraud,” which I wrote as a freshman. It was the culmination of one of the first of a long series of ambivalent encounters I have had over the years with science. I wrote those words as an act of blasphemy and liberation towards what was then, essentially, disillusionment with my first religion: physics. I majored in physics in college not so much for practical knowledge but under the presumption that I was dealing with truth, and not just simple truths, but ultimate Truth. To me, attending lectures, doing the experiments, learning the mathematics, reading the books and doing the problems were equivalent to Talmud study. Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Maxwell, Planck, Heisenberg, Galileo … these were the prophets. Feynman was our hero.
In high school one day, a fellow student told me of Einstein’s quest for a unified field theory while we awaited the shuttle bus to our AP physics class at another high school. He described it, more or less, as a series of equations that explained everything. He may have told me a little more of the details of this hypothetical equation, which I surely didn’t understand, but what excited me was the idea of an underlying unity in the universe, which it could be mathematically described and discovered through physics. I was hooked.
However, as I learned more and understood more—and even in undergraduate physics courses, there is a lot to be learned—I began to see that physics dealt only with certain kinds of questions. For example, it dealt with space and time and forces and energy, and their relationships. I understood how the “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the universe was derived from observational data and the understanding of wavelength shifts and so on. It could hardly have been more exciting for, essentially, I was in spirit a cosmologist.
But, on that fateful day when I wrote, “physics is a fraud,” I realized that while observation and theory might be able to explain the universe as we know it, it could never explain where it came from. From where did the energy and the subsequent matter from the “Bang” originate? It seemed that physics could never explain where it came from. From where did the energy and the subsequent matter from the “Bang” originate? It seemed that physics could not answer this question, nor did it even seem to be a legitimate question for physicists to ask! In the “creation story” that physics was developing, there was a crucial gap, an unbridgeable gap, and in that gap was the real essence of my questioning. A reasonable theory could account for events after the first 10-43 second, an inconceivably infinitesimal time. However, it was that t = 0, the so-called “initial condition,” an unrepeatable singularity, that contained the essential question. It was less the how of it all than the fact of it all and, perhaps, even more crucially, the why of it all that concerned me. As I reflect back, I think that my real question had less to do with the origin of the universe and more to do with how I fit in: I needed a creation story that was believable and included me and my life. Isn’t that what we all need when we are 19 years old?
Physics seemed to have little to say regarding that.
Though I remain committed to science as one way of understanding reality, the memory of that moment came back to me soon after experiencing my own personal singularity, another kind of “Big Bang.” On August 20, 1995, during one of Chicago’s hottest summers, I suffered a heart attack as I was working out in the heat. While in the emergency room being prepared for an angioplasty, I began to hear a sound like cicadas, very loud, and asked the emergency room physician what it was. He advised me not to worry, saying that some people heard it when they received lidocaine. From that remark, I concluded that I must be having an arrhythmia, or abnormal heart beat, because that would be the only reason for me to get an infusion of lidocaine.
That was the last thought I had before I entered a different reality. It was dark, but illuminated like a star-filled sky, and I felt a movement towards three lights, which seemed to me to be a welcoming presence. I had a feeling of such extraordinary alertness, peace, and lightness of being that words cannot inadequately describe. I experienced a sense of waking up and release without any awareness of time or awareness of anything happening in the immediate physical world around me. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life,
I later learned that I had gone into ventricular fibrillation, and only multiple electric shocks to the heart, along with CPR by the emergency room physician, had saved my life. I also learned that I had experienced a well-studied phenomenon called the “near death experience” or NDE. We had not studied the NDE in medical school, so my only knowledge of it came from popular depictions that filled me with skepticism. Yet I now knew that something very important had happened, but how it fit into the standard medical worldview was not so clear. I felt that in some visceral way, not just intellectual, I had encountered the Unknown, something that made me question my whole worldview.
A number of years later, a friend introduced me to the local chapter of the International Association for Near Death Studies. Many of the group’s participants had had such experiences, which, for most, were sacred, transformative, and religious, as mine had been. There was a subversive sense to the group: the non-material world, the world of mind, consciousness and spirit, was embraced here as very real and profoundly experienced. Death, the absolute end of consciousness, seemed to be different from the medical materialist authorities’ conception. Our shared experiences had a quality of reality and meaningfulness that was too strong to be dismissed. Indeed, our minds seemed to be separable from matter. Reports, for example, of people observing verifiable events from perspectives above the body while clinically dead posed a real challenge to prevailing understandings of perception, that is, of light coming to our brains via the eyes. Perhaps the modern worldview as exemplified by the modern medicine I practiced and the physics I once studied and thought of as Truth was incomplete.
One of the seminal lectures in physics I recall was about the origins of Einstein’s theory of relativity. By the end of the 19th century, it seemed to most of the physicists that most of the important problems of physics had been solved. Gravity, optics, the nature of light and electromagnetism had all been pretty well worked out. A few troubling phenomena were outstanding, but they seemed mere details in an otherwise complete picture of the physical world.
One of the details was the so-called Michelson-Morley experiment, which failed to show changes in the velocity of light relative to the ether, as predicted by theory of that period. (Light was thought to be waves propagated in the ether, which was the “material” of which the waves were made. Current paradigms could not explain the result of the Michelson-Morley experiment, and it was explained only by Einstein’s special theory of relativity, published in 1905. Among many other things, the theory showed both that the ether did not exist, and that our entire picture of the physical universe was incorrect . Indeed, Einstein brought about an entire paradigm shift in our understanding of physical reality. His theory was so challenging that it was only accepted many years later.
The way I remember this story may not be exact, but it is fairly close. The lesson I drew from it was how small, anomalous observations may not be just a minor lack of understanding, but an indication that we must reject accepted wisdom. This lesson is continually reinforced in medicine during the diagnostic process, when a small detail—a blood test result, an enlarged lymph node, something we could easily pass over—is the one clue to a life threatening and otherwise hidden disease .
To me, the lack of a satisfactory explanation for the NDE phenomenon seems similar to the puzzling results of the Michelson-Morley experiment. Current theory does not explain NDE, despite much speculation, attempts at reducing it to chemical changes in brain function, and much effort to discredit those who have reported it. Perhaps continuing work in cognitive neuroscience will reveal some new paradigm, and perhaps quantum mechanics and non-local field theory really do apply to the macroscopic world in which we live. Maybe the multiple dimensions of reality hypothesized in string theory really do exist—or maybe the physical world arises from a more basic dimension, the implicate order of David Bohm, a renegade physicist whom we certainly did not study in college.
The “Big Bang” is a pretty good explanation for the physical universe, and observations are consistent with the theory. But the mystery of that singularity, that t = 0, the origin of it all, where all the equations cannot explain, seems to have something to do with the “little bang” that is our own personal mysterious singularity called death. The conception that we are strictly material beings just doesn’t seem to carry as much weight. I have no certainties about what comes next in the soul’s journey, but many questions. How does consciousness arise out of matter? How to explain the credible past life memories of individuals? As I have worked in hospice for the past seven years and have spent much time at the bedsides of loved ones and dying patients, these questions are not abstract, nor are they for anyone who has seriously contemplated his or her own mortality. These are immediate, feeling-filled questions: ultimate questions.
Perhaps someday we will know a little more than we do now.
For now, there is only faith: faith that there is more to reality than meets the eye.
The essence of science seems to me to be the humility to recognize what we don’t know and engage in the spirit of discovery to try to reduce our ignorance. Science is a multi-generational project, so that at any particular moment, our knowledge is just the edge of the Unknown. It’s hard-won, valuable knowledge, but incomplete.
Recently I restarted trying to understand quantum mechanics, and the more I have read the more I have realized that even the physicists who work with it daily don’t have a great handle on it either. As he was dying of cancer, Richard Feynman, one of the most brilliant, hardnosed and least philosophical of theoretical physicists, whose work in quantum electrodynamics won him the Nobel Prize, adopted an openness to the Unknown and commitment to the truth that attracted me to science in the first place. He said:
You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here…
I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things…
Clark, R. W. The Life and Times of Albert Einstein. New York: Avon Books.
1971. Gleick, James. Genius: The Life and Times of Richard Feynman. New York: Pantheon Books. 1992. p 418.