Every month or so it seems like another eminent physicist publishes a new book claiming to go beyond or "before" the Big Bang. Roger Penrose, Brian Green and Stephan Hawking have all gotten into the game putting their stamp on the “Death of the Big Bang”.
Cosmology, it would seem, is at a precipice and we appear to be living at the twilight of Big Bang as a theory of the Universe’s origin. But would replacing time's beginning at the Big Bang with something stranger like the infinite existence of a multiverse really matter very much for anyone else other than cosmologists? Reading popular books and magazine articles (my own included) one gets the sense that revolutions in cosmology naturally infer revolutions in human culture and even human experience. Is this really true? Does cosmology really alter the way any human being experiences the world on a day-to-day level? How can abstractions like relativistic Space-Time manifolds or String Theory landscapes ever effect anyone other than physicists in the Academy and the informed readers of magazines like this one? In others words, what would a true revolution in cosmology change?
The answer, in a word, is everything and everything begins with time.
When I started working on my new book “About Time. Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang” I thought I would simply be writing an account of current changes in cosmology. While it is true that cosmology in the age of Big Bang theory has become an exact science, that triumph refers to its astonishing account of what happened “after” time and the Universe’s origin. The scientific narrative of a universe expanding, of CMB photons decoupling and of matter cooling and congealing into galaxies over the last 13.7 billion years is, without a doubt, secure. It’s the bang in the Big Bang that has come up for grabs.
In light of new observations (i.e.Dark Energy) and new theoretical developments (i.e. the push for quantum gravity) a wild west of new cosmological ideas has emerged. My new book would, I thought, solely be an exploration of the development of ideas like the multi-verse or the new cyclic models of Steinhardt and Turok. But as I started my research into cosmology’s history the broader history of human time began to make its appearance in my questions. Looking back 100, 1000 or 10,000 years, it became clear to me that time in cosmology (be it of the scientific or mytho-religious variety) has always been tightly braided with the human experience of time.
To understand what I mean by the “human experience of time” you need do nothing more than answer the simple question “What time is it?” Your answer will likely take the form of something like 8:45 am, 10:32 am, or 3:07 pm. But what is the “3:07 pm” you read off your computer screen or cell-phone? Mechanical clocks did not appear until the fourteenth century, and they did not even have minute hands (an invention that would take approximately another three hundred years to appear). So did “3:07 pm” even exist one thousand years ago for peasants living in Dark Ages Europe, Song Dynasty China, or the central Persian Empire? Was there such a thing as “3:07 pm” in the long millennia before the vast majority of human beings had access to any form of timekeeping device? The answer is no. The best folks could say 1000 years ago when asked the time would have been “after lunch”.
But 3:07 is something you know very well. More importantly minutes are something you have been taught to experience be it in the boredom of clock-watching at the end of a class or the frustration of waiting for an overdue bus. The experience of time – as opposed to abstract notion of time in-and-of-itself – is something human beings have invented and re-invented many time across our history.
The invention of a specific version of cultural time (a specific “time-logic” may be a better way to describe it) has, however, gone hand in hand with inventions in cosmological thinking. Consider the case of the clock. Clocks first made their appearance around 1300 (no one is sure who invented the first one) and within 100 years they swept across Europe. The abstraction of rigidly measured, numbered hours was used by Europeans to completely rewire culture by metering work-times, determining market openings and setting the operation of courts. But more than changing the flow of daily life clocks also offered scientists and thinkers new ways of conceiving nature. By 1377 the clock as an idea was so powerful that philosopher Nicole Oresme could use it to frame a new cosmology in the image of a clockwork universe. Later, Isaac Newton's science of mechanics was built on this abstract clockwork time, becoming the foundation for a new celestial physics and new real-world machines that set the industrial revolution in motion.
As historian Peter Galison has masterfully shown, the braiding of cosmic time and culture was just as important to evolution of that paragon of modern physical cosmology - the Theory of Relativity. In the late 1800s railroads and telegraph cables were binding far-flung localities together in a way that had never been experienced before. Simultaneity - a single shared now - became the dominant concern of culture. It was just at this moment that the young Albert Einstein took a job at the Swiss Patent Office.
Einstein's day job kept him deep in the trenches of real world concerns with simultaneity as he evaluated one design for an electromechanical time-coordination device after another. Rather than “time-off” from physics (like a job at McDonalds) Einstein's Patent Office work fed directly into private work weaving simultaneity into a theory of relativity that would change cosmology forever. Sixty years later the big bang — a theory built from Einstein's relativity — was spectacularly confirmed. That confirmation would come through a microwave antenna designed for satellite telecommunications – a technology that soon rewired cultural time uniting the world into a single global present.
What was true a century ago is just as true today. A culture’s dominant cosmology is always a public affair. But culture doesn't change just because science does. Instead, there is what might be called an enigmatic entanglement between the two. Their mutual influence sloshes back and forth, each responding to each other as well as their own imperatives.
Technology – what we can do with the stuff of the world – is often the fulcrum on which the balance of influence swings. Technology has always been the middle ground — the shop floor — where new time and new time-logics are hammered out. Mechanical clocks, steam engines and silicon chips each provide culture with new ways to imagine its organization in time. These technologies also allow the Universe to be investigated in new ways or to be imagined through new metaphors. Cosmology has swung through conceptions of the Universe being like a clock, like a heat engine and like a computer. These swings have been in synch with culture using these machines to reset the contours of everyday life and time.
So now, in the era of the Multiverse, Eternal Inflation and Quantum Gravity does cosmology matter? Yes but its influence goes far deeper than just its effect on theological debates over the existence of God, Genesis or Intelligent Design. Every culture needs a cosmology to justify itself and set its own time against a broader background of “the ways thing are”. People don’t need to know the details of the Big Bang for this background to influence them anymore than a medieval peasant needed to know the details of a biblical cosmologies made of demons, angels, heaven and hell. Dominant cosmologies and their ontologies are always an aether people move through. They are a background that does not need to be explicitly questioned. In the same way the time-logics people learn through cultures, implicitly taught in school and work, may never be questioned.
We are accustomed to thinking of science operating in some kind of vacuum. A true theory could arise at any time and any place independent of the cultural perspectives of the people who find those theories. The truth is far richer and more interesting. Without a doubt the world pushes back in the remarkable dialogue we have with it through science. We learn more than we knew before. But understanding the braiding of cosmic and human time shows us that science really is a dialogue. We can’t be taken out of the picture. Perhaps someday we will find the true ultimate theory of the entire Universe – a perfect vision of the objective world. Or, perhaps, the Universe is like an infinitely faceted diamond. As we move through our own changes and our own learning we always get a different view. This perspective, I believe, is far closer to the historical truth of science’s wondrous beauty and power. The dialogue will always continue shaping us, the Universe (through our perspectives on it) and time in the process.
What could be more exciting.