Toward a More Unified Theory of the Universe


Paul VanRaden


I hope that this paper will lead toward a clearer and more consistent picture of reality, if not toward a more unified theory of the universe.

All of us have difficulty explaining the world, perhaps because it contains both order and chaos. When we look closely around us, we see many local systems of order, yet each of these local systems seem to be affected by random causes operating within and outside themselves. This situation seems to hold true for the small system as well as the big. The atom, the molecule, the life form, the community, the solar system, the galaxies, the superclusters, and the many larger systems not yet discovered all seem to behave by this principle. It would be hard to think of something that didn't.

Now, we think of the Big Bang. Is it possible that the Big Bang was exceedingly bigger than, but yet similar to, the fission of an atom? Could both of these events be governed by other random occurrences happening both within and outside these same systems? Could both of these events be thought of as just another random happening in the world? These questions lead us to speculate, for the moment, that there exists an infinite hierarchy of local systems of order, and that disorder continues through the interaction of these systems.

The conflict between order and randomness in the world must come from somewhere. The order seems to come from principles we assume are constant across the universe. These principles include things like inertia, gravity, the conservation of matter and energy, the evolution of life once it is established, these things plus many, or even all, of the concepts of logical thought. The randomness of the world seems to come from its infiniteness. That the world is finite would seem difficult to prove. Someone sitting on his own planet far removed from our local Big Bang universe would be quite amused at reading the proof. In cases like these where we can't prove that something is finite, we usually assume the more general universe, in this case the infinite one.

Using this assumption, the universe contains an infinite amount of matter and energy, this matter and energy itself being distributed across the infinite linear extensions of space-time.

The question is how you go about distributing something which is infinite across infinity. The answer is, of course, randomly. This seems to give us a more general view of the universe. We might do well, for the moment, to assume that we live in a four-dimensional, infinite, randomly operating universe. My own senses cannot pick up any evidence of a fifth or higher dimension, so I should refuse to invoke a fifth or higher dimension to help me explain the reality in which I must live.

The randomness of the world sneaks up on us slowly, like the devil. We listen to the noise of a Geiger counter as it tells us about the randomness of our world in one dimension, time. We envision ourselves participating in a harmless game of one-dimensional random walk, stepping forward or backward, at random, as finite intervals of a second dimension, time, go by. We examine pollen grains floating on the two-dimensional surface of water, each one moving at random to a new position as a certain amount of the third dimension, time, goes by. And we imagine the many and varied molecules of gas in the air, colliding at random with each other inside some arbitrary volume or cube, continuing to do so far as long as the fourth dimension, time, keeps coming by.

In this last case we have a picture of a four-dimension random system, operating for a length of time, with no real cause or effect, simply mixing and re-assorting itself into new forms. Now we have only to slowly expand the volume of this system. We push the sides of this arbitrary four-dimensional volume out slowly to the upper reaches of the atmosphere and observe no real discontinuities to this point. Then we let it go slowly to the edge of the solar system, and then slowly out to contain the entire galaxy. Then we take it slowly to the edge of the Big Bang matter, and finally, using our last ounce (28.3g) of mental effort, throw the boundaries out far enough away to contain an infinity of Big Bang or similar-sized systems, each separated by great distances, yet each interacting with the others, the whole system existing for an infinity of time. Isn't that a radical thought!

But it's not that radical. It seems more to be a natural extension like relativity. The portions of space-time we have examined seem to contain matter, energy, life, and random interactions of each with the other. The portions of space-time we have not examined probably contain these things as well.

There are now many available theories of the universe. We have astronomers working on theories of the universe which use concepts like curved space, expanding space, generalizations of general relativity, and so forth. The ancient astronomers would have had no use for these concepts. They knew only that if they seated themselves firmly upon the earth, arbitrarily picked out four imaginary orthogonal axes, say North-South, East-West, Up-Down, and their local clock (probably just their mental clock), and stared up into the sky, then they could observe the local bodies of mass - the sun, the moon, and the stars - move in nicely defined curves through this nicely defined but arbitrarily chosen version of space-time. And they slept peacefully.

But they kept wondering why there was such perfect order and rhythm in the heavens while they and their sheep engaged in such seemingly random activity on the earth just below. Then, one of them discovered a random activity in the heavens - a planet, a "wanderer" - and they were afraid of what this might mean. But time went on and they learned to live with the randomness of their world. Fears were stirred up again when comets would appear, seemingly at random, into the night sky, there for all to see. But the people learned that this randomness would not hurt them, and they lived with it.

These ancient astronomers had some naive concepts of space as well. They defined space to be that portion of the universe which did not seem to contain any matter. They figured, as long as space doesn't seem to contain anything, surely it can't expand or contract, and it would seem absurd to use curved lines to describe it if you could possibly get by with straight ones. But they went on thinking that their own finite little world was the only one possible, and this made them happy.

Should we assume that randomness had its origin at a single point in space-time? The reality of the world seems to be its randomness. Don't we all engage in just random activity, living our lives by chance encounters with chance events, using only our instincts derived from millions of years of chance evolutionary selections to get us through, or is that just me? Yet there is this phrase about poetry in motion. I think that describes the situation better.

These ideas give us a rather strange universe, but one that at least is easier to explain than the current versions. It has no starting point or ending point to the four dimensions, no discontinuities in the middle, no Absolute cause and effect, just random activity for an infinity of time, guided only by the principles we assume are constant.

Could so strange a universe turn out to be friendly? What would this theory say about life and living?

It would say that the future can only ever cautiously be predicted, and that events of the past can never fully be explained. It would tell us that not only we, but all the other struggling, living creatures around us are faced with this same lack of knowledge. Like the theory of evolution, this theory can only partially explain our past, and offers no solid answers for the future. Its only prediction is that the positive energies of evolving living systems will be forever locked into combat against the negative forces of entropy, dissipation, and chaos, wherever and whenever these life forms arise.

On a more personal note, this theory would tell us that the things we see around us are neither good nor bad, neither wrong nor right, that they are simply a reality that we inherited from the past and are forced to live with in the present. Our strategy for the future would then be simply to accept this reality in which we must live, to learn to enjoy it rather than curse it, and to do what we can to make the reality we pass to those living creatures around us in space-time an even better one than they would otherwise enjoy.

That's my kind of a universe!

"Toward a More Unified Theory of the Universe" was written by Paul VanRaden in 1984 in Ames, Iowa while I was a graduate student.

Edward R. Harrison, University of Massachusetts - Amherst, author of the book Cosmology, provided this review: "I like your cosmological essay, and thank you for sending it. It is not easy to find journals that publish papers of a reflective nature." November 27, 1984.

Further reading:

Thomas Digges

Bruno Giordano

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