SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Our universe could have popped into existence 13.7 billion years ago without any divine help whatsoever, researchers say.
That may run counter to our instincts, which recoil at the thought of something coming from nothing. But we shouldn't necessarily trust our instincts, for they were honed to help us survive on the African savannah 150,000 years ago, not understand the inner workings of the universe.
Instead, scientists say, we should trust the laws of physics.
"The Big Bang could've occurred as a result of just the laws of physics being there," said astrophysicist Alex Filippenko of the University of California, Berkeley. "With the laws of physics, you can get universes."
Filippenko spoke here Saturday (June 23) at the SETICon 2 conference, during a panel discussion called "Did the Big Bang Require a Divine Spark?" [Images: Peering Back to the Big Bang]
In the very weird world of quantum mechanics, which describes action on a subatomic scale, random fluctuations can produce matter and energy out of nothingness. And this can lead to very big things indeed, researchers say.
"Quantum mechanical fluctuations can produce the cosmos," said panelist Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the non-profit Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. "If you would just, in this room, just twist time and space the right way, you might create an entirely new universe. It's not clear you could get into that universe, but you would create it."
"So it could be that this universe is merely the science fair project of a kid in another universe," Shostak added. "I don't know how that affects your theological leanings, but it is something to consider."
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Filippenko stressed that such statements are not attacks on the existence of God. Saying the Big Bang — a massive expansion 13.7 billion years ago that blew space up like a gigantic balloon — could have occurred without God is a far cry from saying that God doesn't exist, he said.
"I don't think you can use science to either prove or disprove the existence of God," Filippenko said.
The origin of the laws of physics
If we're after the ultimate origin of everything, however, invoking the laws of physics doesn't quite do the trick. It may get us one step closer, but it doesn't take us all the way, Filippenko said.
"The question, then, is, 'Why are there laws of physics?'" he said. "And you could say, 'Well, that required a divine creator, who created these laws of physics and the spark that led from the laws of physics to these universes, maybe more than one.'"
But that answer just continues to kick the can down the road, because you still need to explain where the divine creator came from. The process leads to a never-ending chain that always leaves you short of the ultimate answer, Filippenko said.
The origin of the laws of physics remains a mystery for now, he added, one that we may never be able to solve.
"The 'divine spark' was whatever produced the laws of physics," Filippenko said. "And I don't know what produced that divine spark. So let's just leave it at the laws of physics."
The History & Structure of the Universe (Infographic)The Universe: Big Bang to Now in 10 Easy StepsThe Top 10 Intelligent Designs (or Creation Myths)Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The interior of Mars holds vast reservoirs of water, with some spots apparently as wet as Earth's innards, scientists say.
The finding upends previous studies, which had estimated that the Red Planet's internal water stores were scanty at best — something of a surprise, given that liquid water apparently flowed on the Martian surface long ago.
"It's been puzzling why previous estimates for the planet's interior have been so dry," co-author Erik Hauri of the Carnegie Institution of Washington said in a statement. "This new research makes sense and suggests that volcanoes may have been the primary vehicle for getting water to the surface."
The scientists examined two Martian meteorites that formed in the planet's mantle, the layer under the crust. These rocks landed on Earth about 2.5 million years ago, after being blasted off the Red Planet by a violent impact.
Using a technique called secondary ion mass spectrometry, the team determined that the mantle from which the meteorites derived contained between 70 and 300 parts per million (ppm) of water. Earth's mantle, for comparison, holds roughly 50 to 300 ppm water, researchers said.
"The results suggest that water was incorporated during the formation of Mars and that the planet was able to store water in its interior during the planet's differentiation," Hauri said.
Some of this water apparently made its made to the surface in the ancient past. NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed on the Red Planet in 2004, have found plenty of evidence that Mars was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago than it is today.
The two golf-cart-size robots have even spotted signs of ancient hydrothermal systems, suggesting that some places on the Red Planet once had both water and an energy source — two key ingredients for the existence of life as we know it.
While the new results should help scientists better understand Mars and its history, they could also shed light on the evolution of large, rocky bodies in a more general sense, researchers said.
"Not only does this study explain how Mars got its water, it provides a mechanism for hydrogen storage in all the terrestrial planets at the time of their formation," lead author Francis McCubbin of the University of New Mexico said in a statement.
The study was published in the journal Geology on June 15.
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