Physicist Brian Swimme talks about finding our home in the body of the universe — how the cells in our bodies and the dust on our bookshelves originated with the Big Bang, and the organic relationship between creativity and destruction.
For more than thirty years, Brian has been teaching evolutionary cosmology to graduate students. But he’s more than a scientist. He’s a storyteller – intent on bringing awe and wonder back into our lives, with a new understanding of this galaxy, this solar system, this earth.
His first book, The Universe is a Green Dragon, explores the 14 billion year trajectory of the birth of the cosmos. He’s also the author of The Universe Story with Thomas Berry, and producer of the DVD series: Canticle to the Cosmos, The Earth’s Imagination, and The Powers of the Universe.
Recently he hosted the Emmy award-winning film, Journey of the Universe, drawing on discoveries in astronomy, geology, biology and the humanities to tell the greatest story ever told: how we came to call this planet home. Here are some highlights.
Our Home in the Galaxy: “We now have direct empirical evidence that around 14 billion years ago the universe was very small, small as a walnut, and very simple. It just consisted of elementary particles. Over those 14 billion years, the universe brought forth stars, galaxies and planets and butterflies and skyscrapers. Today we find ourselves inside an amazing creative story.”
The Role of Awe and Wonder: “We need bold new intuitions about the nature of the universe and not just coming from science by any means, but coming from human intuition. This is one of the great statements made by Thomas Berry: We need to reinvent the human at the species level. It’s not just a new economic system, or new religions, new education, we’re talking about. We need to reinvent ourselves as cosmological beings, to come alive with the sense of awe and the glory and the grandeur of our existence.”
The Relationship of Creation and Destruction: “One of the things that has struck me is the way in which the universe relies upon destruction, upon chaos. When we examine particles coming forth from the quantum field, we see that they come in pairs. A proton will come forth with an anti-proton and they both annihilate each other. But there’s also asymmetry — at one point, there was this plus-one proton that broke through.
“This is the universe we have to deal with. There’s no way we are going to eliminate chaos or disruption or annihilation. It’s absolutely essential to the ongoing creativity of the universe.”
Welcome to Reinventing Home, an exploration of culture, creativity and character. I’m your host Valerie Andrews and today we’re going to talk about home on the largest scale imaginable — our place in the universe.
Valerie: Brian, I’d like to begin by asking you this. As a scientist and a storyteller, what image comes to mind when you think of the word “home”?
Brian: Here we are on Earth, on our little cozy planet. But if we realize that the Milky Way galaxy as a whole gave birth to our stellar system, then the Milky Way, created the sun, and the earth comes out of the sun, we begin to realize that the roots of our existence, go right back into this process. The Milky Way is our home. This is what gave birth to us. I like thinking of the Milky Way galaxy as my home!
Valerie: Is part of the reason that we don’t think of this larger home because we are so deprived of looking at a natural sky? I’m thinking of all the ambient light that interferes with our direct perception of the universe. What do we really see of what’s out there, and how much has that changed in the last generation or two?
Brian: Well, that of course is the great sadness. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and it has blotted out the universe for its habitants. On a good night, in the past, an indigenous person would have seen 3,000 to 4,000 stars. Now, that experience is almost, almost impossible if you’re living in a city. In San Francisco, when you look up at night, you can see 30 stars. So there are 3,000 to 4,000 wanting to peak through, but they can’t get through the pollution.
Valerie: Right now we’re awfully stuck on where we are on Google maps and where we are on our GPS, but we don’t have a creation myth.
Brian: And yet, we do. We have the makings of a new creation myth and this is what I’ve devoted my life to. We now have direct empirical evidence that around 14 billion years ago the universe was very small, small as a walnut, and very simple, just consisted of elementary particles. Over those 14 billion years the universe has been developing, it brought forth stars, galaxies, planets and butterflies and skyscrapers, and we find ourselves inside an amazing creative story.
Valerie: As small as a walnut in the beginning? Can you tell me how something could expand from something so tiny to something so vast?
Brian: Right now the universe consists of around two trillion galaxies. Each galaxy having around 100 billion stars. No human up until our time knew this, they had no idea that we had two trillion galaxies. That was a big question: Is there one galaxy— the Milky Way — or are there many?
Now we have this sense of this vast universe, and we know that it came from a very, very small space. So how can something the size of a walnut give birth to two trillion galaxies? I can give you the scientific theory. But we have to remain in the state of awe that we have actually located the birth of the universe, it was something the size of a walnut and it gave birth to all of us. That’s the great thing about the creation myth, it just shatters our preconceptions about the nature of existence.
Valerie: What I’m getting from your description is this creation from nothing, this creation ex-nihilo. How something can come where there was nothing at all before.
Brian: The most startling discovery, I think, in all of modern science is this expansion of the universe. But the second most startling discovery is the realization that elementary particles are emerging into existence out of emptiness. The word in science is the quantum field, and this is the primary reality. The quantum field doesn’t have things, it simply is a realm that gives birth to things. That we discovered this generative realm that pervades the universe, yeah that blows my mind all the time. All the particles that seem so solid, and that for so long we thought were eternal — they’re not! They’re momentary excitations of the quantum field. It means that everything we look at is like a flame.
Valerie: Well, this has a lot of implications I think for social theory. I recall how Darwinism applied “survival of the fittest” to commercial enterprise. We have to look at science’s next big idea and ask how that is likely to effect social theory as well.
Brian: Let me give you a discovery in contemporary cosmology that has kind of amazing implications for social theory. I just talked about two trillion galaxies, that they’re all expanding away from each other. And this expansion is strange.
The simplest way of saying is that is when we look out from the Milky Way galaxy, we’re looking at the other galaxies out there and they are all moving away from us. And on the basis of that, we conclude that we are at the center of the expansion.
But here’s the kicker, if we found ourselves at another galaxy far, far out in the universe, we would see all the galaxies expanding away from that point. So we’re in a very weird situation compared to what we’d thought. Every point is the center of the universe. This goes against the thinking of the modern era. We have this idea that we could arrive at a single perspective and see the truth, right?
That perspective might be America, it might be Communism, it might be Darwinism. It might be Christianity. But we’re now discovering that all of those perspectives, could be at the center and could have something valuable to offer. We’re questioning something as simple as the notion that the human is the ultimate species, that our point of view is what really matters, what really counts. From this new orientation every species is central to the whole web of life.
And I think that, as this understanding seeps into our social theory, we will begin to realize that every culture, every race, every civilization has something central to offer and we will be living in a very different world than we are right now.
Valerie: Oh that is beautifully put.
You know the other thing that’s fascinated me has been our discussion of dust and that the particles that were present at the Big Bang are still present. We have a direct line back in time to the creation to the dust that’s under our beds and on our book shelves. We’re talking about a kind of primal material that’s always existed since the beginning of the universe, aren’t we?
Brian: Yeah. We are. All of the hydrogen atoms of our body come from a time almost 14 billion years ago. Each of us has been assembled by the universe. Each of us. The hydrogen atoms come from the very, very beginning. And then later on, the stars explode, and they give birth to calcium atoms and phosphorous atoms. So those parts of us come from them. And our cells still have the same dynamics of the first early cells, so each of us is a 14 billion year construction.
Each of us is just an individual by the name of Brian or Valerie or whatever. And yet each of us is the entire universe in a very particular mode.
The Misminay Indians in South America say, “That in order to be human, one must dwell upon the immensities of the universe.” I just love that. You don’t just have to be an adult with a job, with credit cards, no. You have to dwell in the immensities of the universe because that is your larger self. And so we’re discovering this kind of, this insight that has been cherished by indigenous groups for millennia. We’re discovering this anew in the scientific context.
Valerie: This way of looking at the universe makes me wonder if we need a new ecology of things. For most of human history, one of the dominant beliefs has been pan-psychism, the sense that everything is alive and has a presence. That my writing table, for example, contains the same molecules as a cloud or a tree and therefore, it deserves to be honored. This way of looking at the universe brings us back to the miracle of creation and it asks us to regard things, to have an I-Thou relationship with the material world. Is that the way you see it?
Brian: I don’t know what more I could add to that. That’s a great statement. An I-Thou relationship, yes.
Valerie: The novelist Carson McCullers says, “If you want to love a human being first you have to love a rock, then you have to love a tree, then you have to love a cloud.” And she has this… well it’s not exactly a hierarchy but an embrace of things. The more you’re capable of loving the natural world around you, the more you’re capable of loving another human being, because you can love creation in all of its aspects.
Brian: Let me give you a response from mathematical cosmology. One of the true mysteries that we’ve touched upon in science has to do with the way in which the universe is expanding. The simplest way of saying it is this: If the universe were altered, even slightly, in its rate of expansion, there would never have been the structure as we find about us now. It’s almost impossible to believe, but this is coming from the work of Stephen Hawking. He was the first to calculate that if you altered the expansion even by one part in a trillion, then there wouldn’t be this amazing universe we live in today. That means then that a planet like earth was aimed at by the dynamics of the early universe. When I think about that I quiver because, in science, we never talk about the universe having directions. But that’s starting to break down.
Valerie: You mean we’re beginning to think about intention?
Brian: That is exactly what I’m saying. I’m saying that there’s a form of intention we can even call cosmic intention. I’m saying that the universe intended stars, intended life, intended what we see about us and that includes boulders. I got this huge charge when I first learned this from Stephen Hawking, and realized that a rock is intended by the universe— that it’s a cosmological construction.
This universe was going to make sure that rocks and boulders and life came fluttering forth and that is a step toward regarding each peg in the universe, as sacred or holy or something of that order.
Valerie: When I was in college, I remember being fascinated by the pre-Socratic philosophers with their emphasis on the sacredness of earth, air, water and fire. When you read them, it’s like reading a hymn to creation. And yet they were looked down upon as being naive and unscientific and lacking in any empirical notion of the universe. There is this magic that you got from pre-Socratics. The sense that all things have intention and are sacred.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. I remember when I first came across Pythagoras when I was studying mathematics and physics and loving all of it. Pythagoras talked about the music of the spheres, and that phrase did something to me at a deep level. I never got over it. Some way or another I knew that Pythagoras, and the others, were in touch with something that can easily escape the reach of mathematical science.
Valerie: Is that why you set your film, The Journey of The Universe, on the island where Pythagoras was born? You went back to the source?
Brian: Absolutely. I think we live in an era that’s something like that of the pre-Socratics. We need bold new intuitions about the nature of the universe and not just coming from science by any means, coming from human intuition. This is one of the great statements by Thomas Berry — that we need to reinvent the humans at the species level, so it’s not just about creating a new economic system, or new religion, or new type of education. We need to reinvent ourselves as cosmological beings, to come alive with the sense of awe and the glory and the grandeur of our existence.
Valerie: I think that’s the deepest meaning of what we’re trying to do at Reinventing Home. People have an impoverished sense of home today, because we don’t look at our place in the body of creation. And therefore, we don’t even regard the simple things that we share our homes with, like a piece of wood or a beautiful table as emissaries of that natural world that’s outside the door or outside the gate.
Brian: Ah, I love that.
Valerie: So the question is, Who are we? How do we become ourselves within this new concept of home, and how big does our concept of home get to be?
Brian: Valerie, you asked me the question earlier, but I would love to know what image comes to mind for you when you hear the word home.
Valerie: I think of the home as something that’s always revealing itself. There’s always a slight curve and there’s always something new to be discovered right around the corner.
And I agree with you: In order to really understand who we are and where we belong, we need to understand that we do come from 14 trillion years of evolution, of something mysterious and wonderful.
Brian: Yeah. Beautiful.
Valerie: So I’ve got to ask you this. And it’s a hard question. What do you think is the role of chaos in cosmic evolution?
Brian: That’s a difficult topic for us to consider because we fear destruction and we fear our own annihilation.
One of the things that has struck me is the way in which the universe relies upon destruction, it relies upon chaos. Just to give you an example: When we examine particles coming forth from the quantum field now in the laboratory, we see that they come apart in pairs. And so, a proton will come forth with an anti-proton. And if they meet they both annihilate each other. Our current understanding is that there was this huge upsurge of particles, but a slight asymmetry sets in. For every billion anti-protons, there were a billion-plus-one protons. So, right from the beginning there’s this massive annihilation with only one proton squeaking through.
Let me just give one more example to tie it in. It was a big shock for biologists to discover that over the course of three-and-a-half billion years of life, at least 99% of the species that came forth have gone extinct. So that you see, you’re like, “Whoa, the species that we have around they are less than 1% of the number of species that came forth.” So this is the universe we have to deal with. It creates all these forms of life, and then it destroys them. And so, annihilation and creativity go together in this universe.
There’s no way we are going to eliminate chaos or disruption or annihilation. The universe thrives on death. It’s absolutely essential to the ongoing creativity of the universe.
So, the question I ask is, what aspects of my life should be annihilated? Or another way of saying is this, what parts of my psychology are actually blocking my own creative development? And this is the way then to enter consciously into the annihilation process of the universe, because what happens with these vast annihilations is that new life comes forth and it’s life that has novel features.
Just to sum it up. The universe hates to be bored. The universe is deeply committed to bringing forth something new and interesting. And so, that’s how at least I look at this terrible dynamic of chaos and destruction. It’s part of what is needed for the universe to show a form of beauty that has not yet manifested.
Valerie: I find great relief in that explanation, because our lives are so precarious in so many ways. We need a framework of consciousness to understand the remarkable time that we’re living through.
What really fascinates me about this explanation is that plus-one proton. All these protons and anti-protons cancelling each other out, and then the plus-one just skips through. It reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s song about the crack where the light comes through.
Valerie: I find this very helpful. If you can hang on to that plus-one that makes it through the fence, you can still continue to be an activist. You can still believe that what you do counts.
Brian: To be part of that plus-one proton that makes it through the fence. Yes. I like it.
Valerie: I want to follow up with one final question. How can we help our children feel more at home in the universe and in these concepts that we’ve been discussing? Do we need to become better storytellers?
Brian: My wife teaches grade school and when she was teaching kindergarten, she asked me to come in and talk to the students. When I’m teaching adults I point out the ways in which Newtonian science and classical physics have been replaced by quantum theory and relativity, and all the rest of it. Obviously, these kids are not going to know anything about that, and so I started to tell them how the universe grew up from a seed. Then I focused on how the stars created the atoms of our body. And then the stars dispersed throughout the Milky Galaxy and then here we are. And I said, “Each of these atoms actually came from a star.”
A little kid in the first row was looking up at me as I was talking and didn’t move his eyes away from mine. Then he lifted his hands up and touched his cheek. It was so fantastic. He was entering into his participation in the universe and recognizing that he was a cosmological being.
So, I do think that we need to become better storytellers. These young minds, they’re prepared. They are all ready to hear the truth. They already know this in an intuitive way, because the very atoms of the body did come from the star. I’m not telling the atoms anything they don’t know!
Valerie: That’s great. Our bodies are recognizing themselves as part of the body of the universe.
Brian: Why not?
Valerie: Oh, that’s a beautiful story, Brian. It really takes all this theory down to something very simple. To this notion that home must embrace all of nature, all of the elements. It must embrace our bodies, and the stars.
Valerie: Thank you so much for this conversation. I hope everybody will go out and watch your marvelous film, The Journey of The Universe, and read The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos where you bring together so beautifully the role of the scientist to ask questions and the role of the storyteller to give images that help us see deeper into the questions.
Brian: Thanks Valerie. It’s always fun talking to you.
Valerie: What I love about what you do, Brian, is that you’re always taking us home.