12 October 2010

Our whole universe was in a hot dense state

Last night I found myself with some unexpected time to spare and a lack of willpower to do anything more strenuous than shlumphing around on a couch, and so I settled in to watch Horizon on BBC2. Last night's program was on alternative theories to The Big Bang (the 'start of creation' thing, not the 'TV show that is to comedy as anti-matter is to matter' thing), and was misleadingly entitled "What Happened Before the Big Bang?"

This was misleading for a number of reasons. To begin with, many of the theoretical physicists interviewed did not accept that there was in fact a Big Bang at all, preferring to advance the notion of a slowly expanding universe continuously inflating like a balloon. Others, Like Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute for Fundamental Physics Research near Toronto (home to many of the competing physicists interviewed and the closest thing to one of Neil Stephenson's concents that I have seen in a long time) picture reality as being two parallel membranes (or 'branes') that occasionally bump into each other at a point along an unknown dimension that lies sandwiched between them, such bumps producing universes like our own.

Those who did accept an event that was both Big and Bangy were more concerned with what caused the Bigging and the Banging, presenting various permutations on the theme that there was basically Something Else in existence before the Bigging and the Banging that either contracted into near nothingness or expanded out like a balloon blown up to maximum capacity, before bursting out again into the current universe that we all know and love. Most theories posited that this is a continuous cycle of expansion and collapse, and that not only is our current universe just the latest in a near endless cycle of birth and rebirth, but that there are probably a hella-lot of other universes going through this cycle in parallel with our own, and thus the whole of reality resembles nothing so much as a block of Swiss Cheese with universes expanding inside like the bacteria bubbles that give the cheese its holes.

These second set of theories also contributed to the erroneous naming of the program in a chicken and egg way, in that when asked what existed before our own universe the physicists replied, "another universe", and before that one, "another universe", etc etc, without coming up with a credible answer as to what started the whole process. Thankfully no-one suggested God, but Michio Kaku (America's answer to Brian Cox, not in terms of scientific achievements, more in terms of possessing the necessary funky haircut and willingness to appear on nearly any science show at the drop of a hat, walking across a landscape and looking moodily into the distance like he's posing for an album cover) did relate this cycle to Buddhist notions of death and rebirth.

In any event the underlying theme of the program seemed to be that the theoretical physicists in question had numerous competing theories for what happened immediately before the birth of our universe, but none wished to be drawn on what the ultimate source for all creation was, only on the source for our current creation. One physicist even suggested that asking what happened before the Big Bang was a meaningless question, since all our current dimensions including Time only came into existence at the Big Bang (or similar Beginning Event), by definition there was no "before" such an event, since time did not exist yet. Which seemed like a bit of a fudge to me.

Engaging as all this was, it was unfortunately not enough to distract me from events currently happening in a rather small and ultimately insignificant corner of our universe roughly 70,273 km2 in size and usually covered in a thick low blanket of doom-laden clouds. When asked a question the physicists gave an answer to a slightly different question that they found more interesting (or easier to answer) than the actual question posed. The actual start point for Existence was rarely addressed, only what happened (in cosmological terms if this universe is but the latest in an endless cycle of expanding and contracting births and rebirths) a moment or two ago, asking what happened before that was viewed as missing the point.

(do you see where I'm going with this yet?)

It has struck me that our current Government is a big fan of this most blatant form of obfuscation. When asked to give account of, and to be accountable for, the decisions that they themselves made in the past that led to our current economic collapse, they reply with the stock answer, "Looking backwards isn't helpful right now, we should all concentrate on looking forward". They want to draw a line in the imaginary sand and say everything on one side is no longer relevant. The trouble with this, of course, is that we are being asked to believe that the same people who have systematically destroyed our country over the last thirteen years will suddenly and magically come up with brand new ideas that will make everything better. Their track record, the history of their decisions, is the only thing that is relevant right now.

Understanding what happened before Ireland's Big Bang is the only way that changes can be made to our economic, political and social systems to rectify the situation and ensure that we do not live through such a nightmare again. If cycles are the natural order of things and this collapse will be followed by another expansion, then by repairing the flaws that caused the collapse we can shape the subsequent expansion into something greater than the original.

The silver lining of our current national nightmare is that we have the collective opportunity to create something better than has ever gone before, but this can only happen if the country moves in a new direction, and not down the well-trodden path it has walked for the last thirteen years. The Opposition parties are right to reject the Greens' attempt to cobble together some form of undemocratic party-consensus over the Government's proposed four-year plans. The citizenry must have their say in any such measure that will impact on every aspect of our lives in the years to come, and for that to happen an election must be called, each party go to the country with a detailed plan for recovery, and let the voters decide which they want to work with. Any attempt by the current government to impose a long-term plan upon the nation, a plan that they themselves will not have to implement but to which Brussels will hold us accountable, will not be just an act of craven cynicism, it would be an attack on the very fabric of democracy.

Luckily politics are not the only answer. Like the expanding universe bubbles in our Swiss Cheese of reality, there are alternative and parallel routes that We the People can take. On October 30th TASC, Is Féidir Linn, ICTU, Social Justice Ireland and others are hosting a one day conference in the RDS entitled "Claiming Our Future", seeking to bring together people from all aspects of civil society to develop workable alternatives to our current Government's mantra of "There Is No Alternative". The work of the conference will be continued throughout the country by a series of local and regional groups, with the ultimate goal of building a widespread support for an alternative non-political series of recommendations that will enable a more inclusive, equal and sustainable Ireland. The conference is free, but advance registration is required, which you do at their website.

I'll be going along, let me know if any of ye are too; who knows, maybe we could have a Booming Back meet up? That way, even if we don't solve all the nation's problems, at least ye will all have the opportunity to highlight my numerous spelling mistakes in person, rather than via Twitter, email, the comments threads, etc, etc.


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