Science Seen Time One author Colin Gillespie helps you understand the physics of your world.

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The Big Picture

Last week I described stumbling on the answer to the universal question: How did the universe begin?

Knowing this leaves me conflicted. I’m in awe at its simplicity and beauty and how much it may explain. But to conceive that I have figured this out is, to say the least, presumptuous. I mean, it’s one thing to think I have got a good idea. But the exact way that the universe began? Get real!

And yet . . . the reason that the answer came to mind at all was that it seemed to solve a bunch of well-known problems. Not just problems in cosmology but deep divides in physics and some ancient philosophical dilemmas. All not so much solved as disappeared, now making sense in light of a simple idea.

Could this be a mistaken notion? Well, those problems and divides aren’t my invention. They are real and serious. For example, I recall that physicist Lee Smolin says:

A growing number of theoretical physicists … see the present situation as a crisis that requires us to re-examine the assumptions behind our so-far unsuccessful theories.

Once more I am driving; not the time for serious distraction.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Pablo Picasso, 1907

Arrived at destination. Time to think. Place to sit, a maybe 4-billion-year-old rock; it is almost one-third the universe’s age. A proper perch from which to ponder: Do I buy this idea? The basic concept isn’t all that novel. It’s old string theory from a new point of view.

A thought-experiment: I open up a box and find some jigsaw pieces. Each shows some fragment of an unfamiliar scene. But when I fit them neatly and I see, let’s say, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, I don’t think, “Did I get the jigsaw right?” I just appreciate the picture.

My jigsaw’s got the picture and its pieces fit. So: What do I do with it?

Ten minutes sitting on old rock transforms this into a new question: Whose discovery is it anyway?


Lee Smolin, (2006), “A Crisis in Fundamental Physics”, Proceedings of the New York Academy of Sciences,

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Other reading:

On problems in cosmology and physics, Brian Greene (2004), The Fabric of the Cosmos, New York: Alfred A. Knopf;


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