A world without beginning or end

For 25 centuries or longer, man has wondered and speculated about the origin and destiny of the universe in which he is such an infinitesimal, yet articulate, speck. This is the riddle of the universe. Today, 15 billion years after the inception of the universe of which we are a part, scientists and philosophers are still searching for a convincing answer to this momentous puzzle.

Closely related to the life cycle of our universe is the mystery of life and the drama of evolution. Thus, it is a striking fact that all life on Earth is derived from the ashes of ancient burned-out stars that completed their life spans over 5 billion years ago in a supernova explosion, after giving birth to the heavier elements, such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, and iron—the very elements of which we are composed. Our planet was formed through the gravitational accretion of these scattered ashes. An Integrating Affinity inherent in quarks and atoms and the process of evolution have thus far culminated in homo sapiens... and here we are today speculating about the Grand Design and the purpose behind it.


The mathematics of an oscillating universe were first developed by Richard Tolman in 1934 in his treatise, Relativity, Thermodynamics, and Cosmology. However, Tolman did not propose a mechanism for reversing the expansion and contraction phases of his closed, cyclical universe. At present, the most widely accepted cosmological model postulates that our universe had its beginning in an explosive Big Bang some 15 billion years ago, which resulted in a very rapid inflationary expansion followed by a steadily decelerating expansion, and that this expansion will continue forever toward infinite attenuation at absolute zero, known as the Clausian “heat death.”

This aesthetically uncongenial hypothesis begins with a singularity in which matter and energy are created out of nothing, only to vanish into an infinitude of space. The distinguished physicist Steven Weinberg described the early history of the expanding universe in his book, The First Three Minutes, but he did not address himself to the question of what happened just prior to those three minutes. I submit that they were the last three minutes of a preceding contraction phase of an eternally cycling universe.

Albert Einstein argued the importance of aesthetics, elegance, and simplicity in formulating the Grand Design of our universe. There is much more aesthetic appeal in the hypothesis of a cyclical, regenerative universe. According to this hypothesis, which I have espoused for 50 years, the present expansion phase will continue to slow down in response to gravitational forces, come to a momentary halt, and then begin to contract again like a deflating balloon. This gravitational contraction will gradually accelerate until it culminates in a cosmic implosion called the Big Crunch, in which the inrushing galaxies collide, to be vaporized into a dense plasma of subatomic particles at a temperature of trillions of degrees. The Big Crunch becomes the Big Bang of a newly initiated expansion phase that will result in cooling, condensation, and coalescence of matter, and the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets, some of which may generate and sustain new forms of life. This is an eternal universe, as Aristotle conceived it, without beginning or end, but in unceasing dynamic change in which “God fulfills himself in many ways.”

More recently, Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University has suggested that the universe is finite, but without boundaries or singularities, and that the thermodynamic arrow (as regards entropy, for example) may be reversed in a contracting universe. At Tolman’s time, the mass in the universe, as determined by the astronomers, was woefully inadequate to cause a gravitational reversal of the expansion phase. But this situation is rapidly changing.


The astronomers, astrophysicists, and cosmologists have made dramatic progress in identifying more and more “dark matter” (e.g., white dwarfs, black holes, neutron stars, and galactic halos), so that today it is thought that omega has a value of 0.5, where omega is the ratio of the observed mass of matter in the universe to the critical mass required to close it. Lacking half of the minimum mass needed to reverse the expansion phase may seem like a forbidding task. However, Martin Rees, also of Cambridge University, has pointed out that in the course of only 15 years, the value of omega has been brought up from 0.02 to 0.2, a tenfold increase in a very short span of time. If the astronomers could repeat this performance over the next two or three decades, omega might well have a value greater than 1.0 and the universe would no longer be condemned to the dismal prospect of the heat death.

In the last decade, astronomers found evidence in intergalactic space of the existence of primordial helium, which was formed during the first two minutes of the Big Bang. This primordial helium (with its associated primordial hydrogen) in the intergalactic medium is calculated to equal or exceed all the known ordinary matter present in galaxies, stars, and planets.

At a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 1996, it was reported that new observations made possible by the Hubble Space Telescope have raised the number of detected galaxies from 10 billion to 50 billion. It was further reported that fully half of the missing mass may be accounted for by gravitational evidence of white dwarfs—unseen, burned-out stars in the galactic halos.

There is other evidence that suggests that omega must have a value close to unity. If omega were slightly above unity, ours would be a closed eternal oscillating universe that would renew itself every 100 billion years or so in a succession of Big Bangs. It would eliminate a singularity that violates the law of conservation of mass and energy in their relativistic equivalence (i.e., E=mc2 ). Indeed, it is intellectually daunting to conceive of an act of creation that produces a massive universe out of a total vacuum, a universe that can change and develop in purposeful fashion for billions of years.

How realistic is it to find that remainder of the missing mass? One possibility is to prove experimentally that the ubiquitous neutrino possesses a very small but finite mass sufficient to raise the value of omega above unity. Such experimentation would be at least as rewarding as the search for evidence of proton decay. Another possibility, postulated by some cosmological theoreticians, is the existence of WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles) and MACHOs (massive compact halo objects), but these heavy particles have not as yet been detected.

Having once resolved the cosmological riddle of the origin and destiny of the universe, we can then focus on the biological riddle of generating life on planet Earth.


If we reject as improbable the notion that the plethora of life on Earth—from the blue-green algae to the red rose and the giant sequoia, and from the amoeba to the whale, the eagle, the lion, and man—was produced by the creative act of an omnipotent Being operating at a distance from some celestial control tower, then we must assume this Grand Design was already preordained and inherent in the components of the plasma cloud of the Big Bang, i.e., the quarks and atoms that formed in the fiery furnace resulting from the Big Crunch.

Thus, we know that there would be no life on Earth as we know it, without the ashes from exploded, burned-out stars to form the crust of our planet. These vanished stars forged the more complex atoms from hydrogen and helium, atoms such as oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, and iron that are the building blocks of animal life. The presence of these atoms in the crust of our planet does not explain how they managed to aggregate to form so highly functional a molecule as hemoglobin, with its propensity to exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide in the circulating blood of man and beast; or how they arranged to form such functional organs as the eye and the brain; or how they controlled the composition, the shape, and the positioning of fingernails on human hands, claws on birds of prey, or hoofs on horses.

The best scientific evidence tells us that Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago and that life first appeared 1 billion years later in the form of primitive unicellular bacteria, termed prokaryotes. It took another 1.5 billion years or so to develop the eukaryotes, a more advanced unicellular species equipped with nuclei that package genetic material. It is generally assumed that the evolution of more complex forms of life was accomplished through the patient operation of the process of evolution over a period of billions of years in response to random mutations that were accepted or rejected through the harsh arbitrament of the survival of the fittest. At this rate, it would be highly improbable to have arrived at the multitudinous forms of life that comprise our ecosystems today.

However, the evidence available to paleontologists in the Burgess shale argues that most of the myriad classes, families, genera, and species known to us today appeared (at least in the form of progenitors) in the short span of 10 million years, some 560 million years ago. This is generally referred to as the Cambrian explosion, and suggests that a more efficient process must have been at work than random mutations screened by how they enhanced the survivability of struggling species. No wonder that over the millennia, man has attributed to a divine intelligence, termed GOD, the process of long-range planning, exquisite articulation, purposeful interdependence, and functional innovation.

In addition to the prodigious variety of life in a hierarchy of classes, families, and genera, Nature is lavish in providing further differentiation in the form of species. Thus, for example, there are roughly 200 species of spiders that differ from one another in some significant respect. Some species can spin in their little bodies several different kinds of fibers to serve different functions, such as entrapping insects, transmitting signals, or providing structural support.

All of this still leaves unexplained the miracle of the origin of life on so hostile a vehicle as the congealed crust of a fireball that has a core of molten matter. Even if we grant the role of such evolutionary influences as adaptation to a given environment and the procreative advantage of mutations that favor survival, we must wonder how all this could motivate a human being to compose the Ninth Symphony, to carve a Pietà out of a block of marble, or to muster the audacity to decipher the mind of God.

As Sir James Jeans once said, “the probability that all this could be the result of a mindless, accidental development is measured by a fraction that has 1 in the numerator, and in the denominator, a cardinal number with enough zeros to reach from here to the fixed stars!” Scientists have made prodigious progress in tracing the development of the universe, but we are still left with the mystery of how multitudinous forms of life began and evolved on our planet.

[photo of Helmut W. Schulz]
Helmut W. Schulz (CC ‘63), a chemical engineer and environmental scientist, directed research and development efforts at Union Carbide for 35 years. He later joined the research faculty at Columbia University, where he focused on environmental solutions, including the conversion of urban waste and toxic chemicals to electric power. He is the holder of 64 US and foreign patents.

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