Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

Dear Physics Guy:
I have had an amateurish interest in subatomic particle physics and cosmology for quite some time. I was brought up to believe the universe was created by the BIG BANG. That was this incredible explosion emanating from a point or singularity that flung all we know of the universe in all directions. The mutual attraction of the galaxies means that gravity would bring the expanding BANG to a halt and then begin to draw everything back to the original point or singularity. And as gravity had an increasing effect this would occur at an increasing rate until it regained singularity and then again BANG! This became the BANG BANG BANG theory. Scientists have argued continuously about how long all of this would take: How long was one cycle?

But then STOP! About three years ago three physicists won Nobel Prizes for (independently, I think) detecting objects at the edge of the universe that were actually increasing in speed. YOW! I said. This completely turned everything upside down for me and it was quite hard to accept. My view of the structure and workings of the universe was destroyed. I was very upset!

These Nobel Prize Winners don’t seem to be worried at all that they’ve provided convincing evidence that the universe will expand forever, and do it faster and faster.

Scientists say this increased rate of expansion is caused by “dark energy,” but it seems more like “transparent energy” since we see right through it. Whatever you call it, it means the universe is going to continue to expand and it is going to become increasingly dark and lonely. DARK and LONELY! Wow! This does not sound very inviting, and certainly not warm and fuzzy, not what I was hoping for.

Now what the hell does any of this have to do with Buddhism? In The Tao of Physics, I had learned that modern concepts of subatomic particles closely resemble Buddhist concepts of matter and energy that were developed centuries ago. Buddhist views of cosmology also had many parallels to how physicists understood the universe. Some believed each BANG cycle was an eon in spiritual terms. A new Buddha would be introduced in each of these cycles. It all kind of sounded neat and cool and seemed to make sense.  

But now, NO! I don’t want to go to DARK and LONELY with dark energy having the upper hand. So Physics Guy, would you please find fault in my understanding of current cosmology? Show me the error of my ways. Shoot holes through all of this so I can have my WARM and FUZZY universe back! PLEASE! I will be eternally in your debt.
Yours in desperation,

Dear Steve –

You think modern cosmology sounds bleak? Check out the helping hand provided by Dasui:

Blue Cliff Record Case 29 – Dasui’s Fire at the End of the Kalpa

A student asked Dasui, “It’s clear that the fire at the end of this kalpa1 will completely destroy the universe. I’m still not clear whether there’s something that won’t be destroyed.”
Dasui said, “It will be destroyed.”
“It’ll leave along with everything else?”
“It will leave along with everything else,” said Dasui.

One good thing about everything being destroyed is that “Dark and Lonely” would naturally “leave along with everything else.” I can see D&L shuffling out of town, alongside their boon companion, Bereft.

But the discovery that the universe is expanding more rapidly now than in the past, which we call “Dark Energy,” doesn’t disprove the Big Bang’s existence. It’s just quite unexpected. There’s plenty of evidence that the universe was much hotter and denser than it is now, and that at least one Big Bang has occurred. So that’s a start.

You’re right, though, about the recent discoveries. Looking at distant supernovae has shown us that the universe is expanding at a faster rate now than in the past. This “expansive” dark energy is unlike familiar forms of gravitational interaction—such as between you and the earth. Indeed, if ordinary matter acted the way Dark Energy acts, then when you jumped from the ground, you would not return to earth. Rather, you would continue to ascend, your speed increasing as you rose into the sky.

Our Milky Way Galaxy, reconstructed from what we can observe from our position within its galactic plane. At this local level dark energy has essentially no effect. Good ol’ normal gravity holds sway.

It does appear that Dark Energy is getting the upper hand. Assuming things continue as they have apparently been continuing for the last 10^9 odd years, all evidence of the Big Bang will eventually vanish in the relentless expansion. Of the hundreds of billions of galaxies we can currently see, no trace will be left, and the universe will return to apparent stasis.

Some say there will still be records of our time, but I’m betting that billions of years is too long to remember. Whoever, or whatever, is then present will forget, and their technology will forget. In a way, the universe itself will forget, since almost all galaxies will be losing one another at a separation speed faster than light.

I’m guessing that cosmologies will arise that demonstrate the necessity of the universe consisting of our single island galaxy. Proofs will be offered, both philosophical and mathematical, as to how the universe could not be composed of anything other than our home galaxy. Of course, it is also true that the embodied creatures doing all this cosmological speculation will be as biologically far removed from humans as we are from algae.

As Lawrence Krauss says, “We live in a special time. And part of the specialness is our knowledge that it is special.”

The Hubble UltraDeep Field image, taken of a particularly “dark” (and lonely?) region of space. The region shown is the size of a square 1mm x 1mm held 1 meter away from your eye, i.e. damn small. It is filled with ~10,000 galaxies, the light arriving at the Hubble having left these galaxies billions of years ago.

You say it’s the Dark and Lonely eventuality of the universal dynamics that prompts you to write. My experiments have shown, however, that there is no need to wait a near eternity for sufficient galactic expansion to feel the D&Ls. Estrangement from others, the consequence of delusional separateness, can occur at speeds far surpassing those of light. No special technology is required. One can feel the isolation of deep space here and now.

Luckily, as Dasui says, the whole show comes down at the end of the kalpa: problem solved! And when does the kalpa end? Sooner than we thought. That’s the latest finding: kalpa ending sooner than expected.

Your brother in universal expansion,
Physics Guy

  • A kalpa is an inconceivably long age. In Chan cosmology, the universe undergoes endless cycles of emptiness, formation, existence, and destruction, called great kalpas, each of which ends in an all-consuming fire. It’s a bit like asking, “What will be left of me when the sun has expanded and swallowed up the earth in a few billion years?” (John Tarrant)

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