Articles: Stuff of the Universe

By Máire McKay

Man's nature is to question. The answers depend on the background of the enquirer. One question that has been and is still being asked is 'What is the basic stuff of the universe?' and coming from that; 'Where did that stuff come from?' and 'How did it change and become the variety of things we see around us?'

Tribal peoples have always been interested in the origins of their world and have encapsulated their beliefs and answers in their sacred myths and stories taught to their people. We have also had our myths though the celtic creation myth has been forgotten. We now rely on our religious teachings, which themselves are based on the myths of the East Mediterranean and on science, which more or less began with the Greeks.

So, how do we decide what is the basic stuff? Is there only one original material as many Greeks thought? (water - Thales, air- Anaximenes and Diogenes, fire, always moving and changing - Heraclitus) or is it a kind of soup of 4 main elements (water, air, earth and fire) mixed together in a balance as Anaximander believed? Are the changes we see a variety of objects real in themselves, or an illusion (Parmenides), or is everything illusion and there's actually nothing 'real' at all? as Georgias held.

As we experience many things, perhaps the underlying essence is also 'many'. Democritus called the myriad essential parts which make up the whole object we see, 'atoms' which means 'indivisible'. He thought of them as being in perpetual motion in the empty vacuum/space. This theory of course, greatly influenced science thereafter and although we've now learnt to divide the atom into ever smaller parts, it is essentially the basis of todays scientific thought.

Because change was so unsteady and always shifting, Plato put forward the idea that there are two realms; the perfect ideal world where the original unchanging things are, and this world where all we see and experience is a copy of the original 'forms' in the ideal world. (If this reminds you of Heaven and Earth, it's because the Christian Church was greatly influenced by Plato's ideas).

The Greeks laid the basis for all future thought on the question and any thinker since then has really just enlarged those ideas. Descartes (1596-1650) followed Plato's line and held dualist views of mind and inert matter, which has led to our industrialised mind-set, that matter is there to be exploited by mind (us) and this in turn has led to the calamitous state of the planet we see today, where Man is destroying the earth as fast as he can. Leibniz ((1646-1716) developed Democritus' atomic theory, but called the atoms 'monads' and set them in order in a hierarchy going from the simplest to the most complex. Berkeley (1685-1753) agreed with Plato and added that things only exist when seen by a person, which gave rise to the limerick by an English writer and RC priest, Ronald Knox.

There once was a man who said; God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no-one about in this Quad'

-to which there came this anonymous reply;

Dear Sir, Your astonishment's odd
I am always about in the Quad
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by,
Yours faithfully. God.


Our beliefs were once again shaken by Einstein, who discovered that energy and mass are the same thing in a different form, so we're back to ONE basic stuff.

So where do we stand today? Quantum physics has allowed us to understand a little better about conditions at the beginning of our universe. Some physicists hold that the basic things are elementary particles as Democritus thought but now much smaller - the smallest indivisible ones to date are 'quarks'. However, they are no longer inert but behave very strangely, leaping in and out of existence in the seething 'abyss of potentiality' which is what used to be thought of as 'the vacuum'. Other scientists, concerned about how galaxies formed, postulated instead of points or particles, very energetic one-dimensional cosmic strings which thrashed about in the space foam, some of them miles long. Where they crossed themselves, they curled up into loops, from where matter could congeal into galaxies. These strings, or 'branes', may have more than one dimension, if they have two, they are membranes and they can even have 11 dimensions, curled up somehow.

Take your pick- branes, strings, quark particles, whichever, they arose from the 'empty fullness' or 'fecund nothingness' at the beginning of the Flaring Forth of the Primordial Energy (sometimes called the Big Bang) As Halliwell and Hawking suggest - 'All was Negative Gravitational Energy and some was borrowed to form positive matter.'

We may have answered one question, but another arises;

If our world as we know it arose from a space-time foam of particles which are sometimes real and sometimes only 'virtual' or possible, presumably things are being created all the time, so was there ever a beginning or did this fecund abyss always exist? And if so, where is God? This is what the New Cosmology seeks to answer.


This article is Copyright © to the author named at the top, and Midlands Astronomy Club. If you wish to reproduce this article, please seek permission from the author through the Club. Your consideration is appreciated.