Physics and Cosmology

Mankind's Relationship with the Universe: The Relevance of Physics and Cosmology to Modern Mankind

Prehistory witnessed the rise of countless explanations for the creation of the universe that served as mankind's framework for interpreting the universe until the rise of an Earth-centered replaced these. This perspective was then solidly in place for several hundred years during which time an individual in the West risked life and freedom by speculating that there might be a heliocentric alternative to the Earth-centered dogma of the church. Today, though, there are some more sophisticated explanations for how the universe began and where it is headed that are based on a growing body of scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, in view of what has transpired in the past concerning mankind's meager attempts to explain the universe, it would appear to be foolhardy to accept the current theories without examining them carefully, and by interpreting what these theories mean for the average individual. To this end, this paper examines the implications, relevance and significance the current best theories in physics and cosmology have for the understanding of our lives and our place in the world. In particular, this paper seeks to determine what our best theories in physics and cosmology (relativity theory, quantum theory, and big bang cosmology) imply about the nature of the physical world and about the nature of our selves. An overview of these best theories is followed by an analysis of their implications, relevance and significance today, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

According to S.G.F. Brandon (1970), "The creation of the world and the origin of mankind are the themes of many myths. They are found among the primitive peoples of most lands and they can be traced back into remote antiquity" (533). These early creation myths assumed two forms:

1) Aetiological Myths. These types of creation theories concerned the beginnings of things, and stemmed from primitive speculation about the origins of mankind; and, 2) Ritual Myths. These sorts of creation theories were "essentially connected with various periodic ceremonies, particularly at the New Year, designed to ensure the continuation and well-being of the state or even of the world" (Brandon 533).

Clearly, then, from early on, theories about how and why the universe was created have served as a means for mere humans to explain and interpret the natural phenomena that was taking place around them. A common theme among science fiction writers is that any technology that is sufficiently advanced will appear as magic to those who are uninitiated in its workings; in fact, this was the case with Mark Twain's "Boss" and the people of the Middle Ages in a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, just as 21st century technology would likely seem to be magic in many ways to Twain himself.

Similarly, these ancient peoples were faced with a profound dilemma in interpreting the natural events that took place in their prehistoric world because it was a very dangerous and unsterile place to live indeed. In this mysterious environment, these early humans were compelled to develop some type of explanation for what was taking place around them, and early shamans emerged who believed they had the answers. Brandon notes that "cosmos" means the universe as an ordered whole: "The great variety of creation myths were speculative accounts of how things came to be; ritual creation myths were an essential element of ceremonies meant to ensure that human society, prosperity, order and the universe itself would continue" (523). As mankind developed bits and pieces of understanding through painful and expensive empirical observations, though, these animistic, religious and other primitive explanations eventually gave way to more sophisticated explanations that attempted to integrate what little was known about the physical world into a still-God-centered universe. In the West, Galileo learned the hard way that it was best not to buck the system with a heliocentric alternative, but facts are facts and technological innovations forced the church and just about everyone else to recognize that there was more at play in the universe than these early theories were able to explain. In reality, the three predominate secular creation theories today follow the patterns of the ancient myths that served the two above-described purposes: 1) contemporary theories continue to attempt to explain the beginnings of the universe in esoteric terms; and 2) creation theories continue to be connected with important ritualistic observations that have their roots in these ancient creation myths, although most people today may not readily make these connections. The modern creation theories are discussed further below, followed by an analysis of their implications for humankind in the 21st century.

Relativity Theory. According to Bergmann (2004), the general theory of relativity was developed in response to the need to extend the new space and time concepts of the special theory of relativity from the domain of electric and magnetic phenomena to all of physics and, particularly, to the theory of gravitation. Because space and time relations are the foundation of all physical phenomena, researchers recognized the inherent constraints in applying mutually contradictory concepts of space and time to explain different types of interactions, particularly in view of the fact that the same particles may interact with each other in several different ways -- electromagnetically, gravitationally, and through the so-called nuclear forces (Bergmann 2004). Based on the knowledge gained from Maxwell's theory of the electric field, Albert Einstein first postulated the existence of a gravitational field that propagates at the speed of light, c, and that will mediate an attraction as closely as possible equal to the attraction obtained from Isaac Newton's theory of gravitational interactions (Bergmann 2004).

Quantum Theory. The quantum electrodynamics theory was developed between 1945 and 1955 and attempted to resolve some of the minute discrepancies in the calculations of certain atomic properties; for instance, Bergmann cites the example of the accuracy with which it is now possible to calculate one of the numbers describing the magnetic moment of the electron is comparable to measuring the distance between New York City and Los Angeles to within the thickness of a human hair. Consequently, quantum electrodynamics is the most complete and precise theory of any physical phenomenon. "The remarkable correspondence between theory and observation makes it unique among human endeavors" (Bergmann 17).

Big Bang Cosmology.

According to Dauber and Muller (1996), "The story of the Big Bang has evolved in ways that few people could have foreseen more than forty-five years ago, when the idea was first set forth. We now understand the Big Bang as the event in which hydrogen and helium were created from more primitive particles -- and something much more fundamental and mysterious as well" (1996:4). These authors suggest that the Big Bang concept is even more jarring to mortal minds than the creation of all matter: "The mind-wrenching idea that makes the Big Bang so fascinating is that it represented not only the creation of matter within space but the creation of space itself. And since the Big Bang was the creation of space, then by our current understanding of relativity theory it may also have been the creation of time" (Dauber & Muller 1996:4).

Implications for Modern Humankind. Although there may be little difference in a myth and a theory if the latter is eventually disproved, there is an important distinction between the two that makes a theory more relevant for modern mankind. Theories today are based on the scientific method that was developed to help investigators approach their research in verifiable and replicable ways; myths are simply shots in the dark by those who are supposed to be in a position to know, but whose credentials may be questionable or even nonexistent, being based on spiritual visions or other divine inspiration. These myths can…