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Did the cosmos arise from nothing?

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Did creation require a Creator? Might there be multiple universes rising into reality? There’s plenty of room for physicists and philosophers to debate those questions — but several seem to agree that one of the universe’s biggest mysteries is the mere fact of our existence.

There also was agreement at this week’s “Cosmic Questions” symposium that the current age could see a rounding out of the scientific picture of the cosmos.

“We really are at a very profound point in our understanding of the universe,” said Robert John Russell, founder and executive director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. The current picture of the universe’s earliest moments and its evolution “won’t be replaced,” he said, although it may be encompassed by a broader model.

That picture goes back to the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, when our universe underwent a ripplingly rapid inflation. But what happened just before that? Anindita Balslev, a philosopher from the Center for Cultural Research at Aarhus University in Denmark, asked whether scientists really contend that the cosmos appeared from nothing.

“I would say what it is, is a prescription for a certain region of space-time,” said Cambridge cosmologist Neil Turok, an associate of Stephen Hawking. “It’s certainly not creation from nothing.”

One-shot deal
In Turok’s view, the universe makes the most sense as a one-shot deal — a view that runs counter to MIT cosmologist Alan Guth’s theories about “multiverses” or eternal inflation. Guth and others contend that Big Bangs crackle repeatedly, launching into regions of space we know nothing about. To Turok, however, such theories are not as economical or predictive, since there’s no way for one “multiverse” to affect another. His hope is that further observations will eventually show that the “one-shot universe turns out to be the most probable alternative.”

Future space missions could clear the air. NASA’s Microwave Anisotropy Probe, to be launched next year, and the European Space Agency’s Planck mission will conduct more detailed studies of the Big Bang’s afterglow, known as the cosmic background radiation. The results of those studies could show whether Guth or Turok is closer to the right track.

In the beginning?
During Wednesday’s session, Turok came in for some grief over Hawking’s widely reported comment that the scientific picture of creation reserved no role for a Creator. But during a discussion of God’s role in the universe, he seemed to stick up for the Deity.

Balslev began the exchange by noting that, in Hindu tradition, the universe was “beginningless” — and that even such an eternal universe was dependent upon the sustaining power of the divine.

Russell agreed, then added an observation for the scientists.

“In terms of mathematical physics, (you are) asking a very similar question — that is, why does this exist at all. Because there is no point that you could refer to as ‘the beginning,’ but you can still ask the question ‘Why is there anything at all?’”

Joel Primack, a cosmologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, phrased the question a different way for Turok: “What is it that makes the electrons continue to follow the laws?”

“Absolutely,” Turok answered with a smile. “Somebody has to do that. I’ve never understood the argument that starting the universe required a Creator, but keeping it going did not.”