Personal Cosmology

Let me end this chapter by recounting how personal experience has taught me that change in beliefs can happen, even in matters as big as the universe. As a child growing up in the 1950s and '60s, I developed a personal cosmology. I believed that we humans are truly making progress in understanding how the universe operates and that eventually we will know all there is to know. Granted, that could take millions of years, but there didn't seem to be anything to stop this advance, if we didn't blow ourselves up first. Armed with such knowledge, I expected that we would eventually be able to build more and more complex and sophisticated things and control more and more of our environment. Following this theory to its apparent conclusion, I came to believe that eventually we would not have anything new to learn or do. This rather depressing thought was compounded by the belief that if there were life after death, you'd eventually get pretty bored after a few billion years of cavorting.

The oscillating universe seemed to present a neat way out of all these conundrums. In the first place, we wouldn't have to worry about having nothing to do, either here or hereafter, because eventually everything in our present universe would be destroyed by collapsing together. The best part of this idea was that by the time of the "big crunch," as it is called, our descendants would be so advanced that they could take part in determining a new and better set of laws of physics for the next universe. I wondered whether our present laws of physics had been designed in part by life forms in the last incarnation of the universe.

You'll notice that my ideas about the future of the universe were derived from a deeply anthropocentric point of view—what is best for humans. That belief presupposes that the universe was made for us, which is a pretty egocentric, though not uncommon, belief. While the origins of my personal cosmology faded into recollections of my childhood, the resulting belief in the oscillating universe became fundamental to my view of the cosmos. I even carried it into my professional career. Every time observations suggested that the universe would expand forever, I felt confident that a few months later, results confirming the recollapse would be made, and they were. Then, in 1998, in the face of compelling observations that the universe will expand forever, I sat back to rethink my belief in the oscillating system.

The first thing I discovered was that my anthropocentric motivations for the universe were gone. I no longer believed that the universe was "made" so that we can be here. Furthermore, I no longer felt it necessary to worry about the job prospects of my descendants. It was a very liberating experience to realize that I didn't need to believe something (the oscillating universe theory) that was inconsistent with observations. Granted, I would have to change some other beliefs, but that seemed an adventure, going against the unacceptable ideas I had once held. Would they trip me up? Yes, from time to time they did and do, but at least I wouldn't have to try to make excuses for believing in something that would never happen.

This freedom of thought allowed me to consider something else that had been bothering me for a while, namely, eternity. The oscillating universe had allegedly existed forever. I get a headache from trying to figure out how anything could have been around that long. It seems to be the ultimate "something for nothing." Granted, we don't yet know how to explain the origin of a single Big Bang, but our scientific theories of nature are bringing us closer and closer to understanding that event. So I feel comfortable with the belief that some scientific mechanism for the creation of the universe will be discovered. A single Big Bang that expands forever no longer seems unacceptable. It still holds out the prospect of a barren future, but that is hundreds of billions or trillions of years down the road. Perhaps we will learn ways to enter different universes or create new ones. Who knows what discoveries will be made in that time?

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