pp17-24 Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, by David Christian


Viola: What country, friends, is this?
Captain: This is Illyria, lady.


How did everything begin? This is the first question faced by any creation myth and, despite the achievements of modern cosmology, answering it remains tricky.
  At the very beinning, all explanations face the same problem: how can something come out of nothing? The problem is general, for beginnings are inexplicable. At the smallest scales, subatomic particles sometimes emerge instantaneously from nothingness. One moment there is nothing; the next moment there is something. There is no in-between state. Quantum physics can analyze these odd jumps into and out of existence with great precision, but it cannot explain them in ways that make sense at the human level. These paradoxes are captured beautifully in a modern Australian Aboriginal saying: "Nothing is nothing."1
  Awareness of the difficulty of explaining origins is as old as myth. The following passage poses these questions with great sophistication and a surprisingly modern skepticism. It comes from one of the ancient Indian hymns known as the Rig-Veda, and was probably composed ca. 1200 BCE. It describes a precreation realm that was not really present, but was not entirely absent either.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?

There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.  .  .  .

Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was no impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen--perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not--the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows--or perhaps he does not know.2

Here we have a hint that there was, first a sort of potent nothingness--waiting, like clay in the potter's yard, to be formed into something. This is very much how modern nuclear physics views the idea of a vacuum: it is empty but can nevertheless have shape and structure, and (as has been proved in experiments with particle accelerators) "things" and "energies" can pop out of emptiness.
  Perhaps there was a potter (or potters) waiting to shape the vacuum. And perhaps the potter and the clay were somehow identical. According to the Popol Vuh, or "Coucil Book," a sixteenth-century Mayan manuscript, "Whatever might be is simply not there: only murmers, ripples, in the dark, in the night. Only the Maker, Modeler alone, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, the Bearers, Begetters are in the water, a glittering light. They are there, they are enclosed in quetzal feathers, in blue-green."3 But where did the Maker come from? Each beginning seems to presuppose an earlier beginning. In monotheistic religions, such as Christianity or Islam, the problem arises as soon as you ask, How was God created? Instead of meeting a single starting point, we encounter an infinity of them, each of which poses the same problem.
  There are no entirely satisfactory solutions to this dilemma. What we have to find is not a solution but some way of dealing with the mystery, some way of "pointing at the moon," in the Zen metaphor. And we have to do so using words. Yet the words we reach for, from God to gravity, are inadequate to the task. So we have to use language poetically or symbolically; and such language, whether used by a scientist, a poet, or a shaman, can easily be misunderstood. A French anthropologist, Marcel Griaule, once questioned a Dogon wise man, Ogotenneli, about a mythic detail according to which many animals were crowded together on a small step (like the animals in Noah's ark). Ogotemmeli replied, with some irritation: "all of this has to be said in words, but everything on the step is a symbol. .  .  . Any number of symbols could find room on a one-cubit step." The word translated here as "symbol" could also be translated as "word of this lower world."4 At the very beginning of things, language itself threatens to break down.
  One of the trickiets problems concerns time. Was there a "time" when there was no time? Is tie a product of our imagination?5 In some sytems of thought, time does not really exist. Places become the source of everything significant, and the paradoxes of creation take different forms.6 But for communities that see time as central, there is no way of avoiding the paradox of origins. The following is an Islamic summary of a Zoroastrian attempt to deal with these riddles. In it, the creator is an unchanging entity called Time, who creates a universe of change. It is dominated by two opposite principles, those of the gods Ohrmazd and Ahriman.

Exept Time all other things are created. Time is the creator; and Time has no limit, neither top nor bottom. It has always been and shall be for evermore. No sensible person will say whence Time has come. In spite of all the grandeur that surrounded it, there was no one to call it creator; for it had not brought forth creation. Then it created fire and water; and when it had brought them together, Ohrmazd came into existence, and simultaneously Time became Creator and Lord with regard to the creation it had brought forth. Ohrmazd was bright, pure, sweet smelling, and beneficient, and had power over all good things. Then, he looked down, he saw Ahriman ninety-six thousand parasangs away, black, foul, stinking, and maleficent; and it appeared fearful to Ohrmazd, for he was a frightful enemy. And when Ohrmazd saw this enemy, he thought thus: "I must utterly destroy this enemy," and he considered with what and how many instruments he could destroy him. The did Ohrmazd begin the work of creation. Whatever Ohrmazd did, he did with the aid of Time; for all the excellence that Ohrmazd needed, had (already) been created.7

Time, like pattern, means difference, if no more than the difference between then and now. So this story, like most creation stories, is really about the emergence of difference from an original sameness. In this version, as in many creation myths, difference begins with a fundamental clash of opposites.
  One of the more poetic solutions to these paradoxes is to think of creation as a sort of awakening. A story of the Karraru people of southern Australia describes how, originally, the earth was still, silent, and dark. However, "Inside a deep cave below the Nullarbor Plain slept a beautiful woman, the Sun. the Great Father Spirit gently woke her and told her to emerge from her cave and stir the universe into life. The Sun Mother opened her eyes and darkness disappeared as her rays spread over the land; she took a breath and the atmosphere changed, the air gently vibrated as a small breeze blew." The Sun Mother then goes on a long journey during which her rays awaken all the various creatures and plants that have been sleeping.8 Such a story suggests that creation is not a single event but has to be constantly repeated; and, as we will see, this is a truth that we all experience. The paradoxes of creation are repeated each time we observe something new, from galaxies to stars to solar systems and life. And many of us also experience our own personal origins, the moments of our earliest memories, as a sort of awakening from nothingness.
  Modern science has approached the problem of origins in many different ways, some more satisfying than others. In A Brief History of Time (1988), Stephen Hawking suggests that the question of origins is just badly posed. If we think of time as a line, it is natural to ask about its beginning. But what if the universe has a different shape? Perhaps time is more like a circle. There is no sense in asking if a circle has a beginning or an end, just as there is no point in asking what is to the north of the North Pole. There is no beyond, no boundary, and everything about the universe is perfectly self-contained. As Hawking puts it: "The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary."9 Many creation myths adopt a similar approach, perhaps because they arise in societies that do not think of time as a straight line. As we look back in time, the past seems to fade away into what modern Aboriginal myths call a "Dreamtime." It is as if the past turned a corner beyond which we cannot see it anymore, however hard we try. the same is true if we look forward, so it seems as if in some sense the future and the past may meet.10 Mircea Eliade describes similar visions of time in a difficult but fascinating work, The Myth of the Eternal Return (1911)11.
  In modern societies, which usually envisage time as a line rather than a curve, such solutions may seem artificial. Perhaps, instead, the universe is eternal. We can look back along the line of time as long as we like, but we will always find a universe, so the problem of origins does not really arise. Religions of the Indian subcontinent, in particular have tended to adopt this strategy. So has the steady state theory, the most serious modern alternative to big bang cosmology. And so does a recent theory, proposed by Lee Smolin, that suggests the existence of universes that breed other universes whenever tehy create black holes, in a repetitive or algorithmic" process analogous to Darwinian evolution, which ensures that they "evolve" in ways that increase the possibility of creating complex entities such as ouselves (see chapter 2).12 Similar arguments are common in modern cosmology, and what they imply is that the universe we see may be merely one tiny atom in a much larger "multiverse." But such approaches are also unsatisfying because they still leave the nagging question, How did such eternal processes themselves begin? How was the universe created?
  Or we can return to the idea of a creator. Within Christianity, it was generally agreed that the Creator made the universe a few thousand years ago. In one famous calculation, a Dr. Lightfoot from Cambridge "proved" that God had created humans at exactly 9:00AM on 23 October 4004 BCE.13 Many other creation myths also introduce deities who created the world, working like potters, or builders, or clockmakers. This approach solves much of the problem, but leaves open the basic question of how the gods themselves were created. Once again, we seem forced back to an infinite regress.
  A final position is skepticism. This entails a frank admission that at a certain point, we must run out of knowledge. Human knowledge, by its nature, has limits, so some questions must remain mysteries. Some religions treat such mysteries as secrets that the gods choose to hide from humans; others, such as Buddhism, treat them as ultimate riddles that are not worth pursuing. We will see that modern cosmology also opts for skepticism at the beginning of its story, though it offers a very confident account of how our universe evolved once it was created.


Modern science tries to answer questions about origins using carefully tested data and rigorous logic. Though many pioneering scientists, like Newton, were Christians who believed deeply in the existence of a deity, they also felt the Deity was rational, so their task was to tease out the underlying laws by which the Deity was rational, so their task was to tease out the underlying laws by which the Deity had created the world. this meant trying to explain the world as if there were no deity. Modern science, unlike most other traditions of knowledge, tries to explain the universe as if it were inanimate, as if things happened without intention or purpose.
  The Christian view of the universe owed much to the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Though some Greeks had argued that the earth orbited the Sun, Aristotle placed the earth at the center of the universe and surrounded it with a series of transparent spheres, each revolving at different speed. The spheres held the planets, the Sun, and the stars. This model sounds quaint today, but it was given a rigorous mathematical basis by Ptolemy in the second century CE, and in this form it proved good at predicting planetary motions. Christianity added the further idea that this universe had been created perhaps 6,000 years ago by God, in the course of five days. In sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Euyrope, the Ptolemaic story began to break down. Copernicus gave some powerful reasons for thinking that the earth revolved around the sun, and the heretical monk Giordano Bruno argued that stars were suns and that the universe was probably infinite in extent. In the seventeenth century, scientists such as Newton and Galileo explored many of the implications of these ideas, whle retaining as much as they could of the biblical creation story.
  During the eighteenth century, the Ptolemaic view of the universe finally collapsed. In its place, there emerged a new picture of a universe operating according to strict, rational, and impersonal laws that could, in principle, be discoverd by science. God may have created it, perhaps in time; perhaps, in some sense, out of time. But then left it to run almost entirely according to its own logic and rules. Newton assumed that both time and space were absolutes, providing the ultimate frames of reference for the universe. It was wedely accepted that both might be infinite, and thus the universe had neither a definable edge nor a time of origin. In this way, God was moved further and further away from the story of origins.
  But there were problems. One arose from the theory of thermodynamics, which suggested that the amount of usable energy in the universe was constantly diminishing (or that entropy was constantly increassing; se appendix 2). In an infinitely old universe the consequesnce woudl be that no usable energy was left to create anything--yet clearly that was not true. Perhps, this might have suggested, the universe was not infinitely old. the night sky posed another problem. As early as 1610, the astronomer Johannes Kepler pointed out that if there were an infinite number of stars, the night sky should be filled infinitely bright. The problem is now known as Olber's paradox, after a nineteenth-century German astronomer who publicized the problem more widely. One possible solution was to suppose that the universe was not infinitely large. That would solve Olber's paradox--but would create another; for as Newton had pointed out, if the universe were not infinitely large, then gravity ought to draw all the matter into the center of the universe, like oil in a sump. And that, fortunately, was not what astronomers observed when they studied teh night sky.
  Of course, all scientific theories contain problems. But as long as the theories can answer most of the questions put to them, such difficulties can be ignored. And teh problems faced by the Newtonian theory were largely ignored in the nineteenth century.


In the first half of the twentieth century, evidence began to accumulate for the alternative theory that we now know as big bang cosmology. It solved the problem of entropy by suggesting that the universe was not infinitely old;it solved Olber's paradox by describing a universe that was not finite in both time and space; and it solved the paradox of gravity by showing that the universe was expanding too fast for gravity to gather everything into a single lump (yet!). Big bang cosmology described a universe with a beginning and a history, so it turned cosmology into a historical science, an account of change and evolution.
  According to this view, the universe began as an infinitesimally small entity, which expanded rapidly and continues to expand today. In form, at least, this account is similar to the traditional creation myths known as emergence myths. In such accounts, the universe develops, like an egg or an embryo, through distinct stages from a remote and perhaps undefinable point of oigin, and under the control of internal laws of development. In 1927, one of the pioneers of big bang cosmology, Georges Lemaitre, referred to the early universe as the "primordial atom." Like all emergence myths, the modern account implies that the universe was created at a particular time, that it has a life story of tis own, and that it may die in the distant future. The new theory could explain many of the difficulties encountered by previous theories. For example, it could explain Olber's paradox by showing that the univese had not existed forever; and because light has a finite speed (as Einstein had shown), light from the most distant galaxies might not reach us during the entire life of the universe. The theory was also consistent with the torrent of new information and data about stars, matter, and energy that was generated in the early twentieth century. But at its very beginning, it too has to fall back on a sense of inexplicable mystery.
  The modern story of origins goes something like this.14 The universe was created about 13 billion (13,000,000,000) years ago.15 (How long ago is that? If each human being were to live exactly the biblical span of 70 years, it would take about 200 million human life spans laid end to end to reach back this far in time. For more on these huge timescales, see appendix 1.) About the beginning, we can say nothing with any certainty except that something appeared. We do not know why or how it appeared. We cannot say whether anything existed before. We cannot even say that there was a "before" or a "space" for anything to exist in, for (in an argument anticipated by St. Augustine in the fifth century CE) time and space may have been created at that same time as matter and energy. So, we can say nothing definite about the moment of the big bang, or about any earlier period.
  However, beginning in a tiny fraction of a second after the big bang, modern science can offer a rigourous and coherent story, based on abundant evidence. Many of the most interesting "events" occurred within a fraction of a second. Indeed, it may be helpful to think of time itself as stretched out during these early moments, so that a billionth of a second then was as significant, in its way, as many billions of years in the later history of the universe.16