I was skimming through the newspaper when I inadvertently glimpsed the fundamental nature of the universe—a glimpse of which physicists (and artists and poets) have been searching, and mostly missing, for millennia. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.
“To my mind,” wrote the noted physicist John Archibald Wheeler, “there must be, at the bottom of it all, not an equation, but an utterly simple idea…that idea, when we finally discover it, will be so compelling, so inevitable, that we will say to one another, ‘Oh, how beautiful. How could it have been otherwise?’”
I have no idea why I, an ordinary man of humble origins, humble intellect and, I assure you, even humbler attainments, accidentally glimpsed the fundamental nature of the universe— that simple, primordial idea for which the great minds of the centuries have been searching. Just plain dumb luck I suppose.
Here’s how it happened: In the newspaper, I read that physicists had created what appears to be a new form of matter, what they call quark-gluon. Scientists from 26 different countries collaborated to make this quark-gluon stuff at the European Center for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland. They used a microwave oven (of sorts) 100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun. The mere thought of something—anything—100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun should give any attentive brain cause for pause.It did mine. That’s hot stuff.
The stuff they made in this hot oven is supposed to be just like the gunk from which the whole universe was made, shortly after the Big Bang. (As the bumper sticker says: “God spoke the Word, then Bang!”) By “shortly after” the Big Bang the scientists mean ten millionths of a second after. (There’s another cause for pause. What kind of watch are we using to measure ten millionths of a second, eleven billion years ago?)
The scientists speculate that when the universe was born, after that first ten millionths of a second, that original stuff then coalesced into your standard old quarks, leptons, muons and neutrinos, from which, of course, we get our everyday atoms, and from atoms come our bathtubs, hairdryers, staplers and other familiar things. Basically, the Geneva scientists speculated that they had succeeded in creating a tiny bit of original stuff identical to that from which the whole universe is made. “That’s neat,” I’m sure their bosses told them.
Thinking about this, I remembered reading some years ago about another group of scientists who had likewise succeeded in making original stuff out of atom guts, but instead of using a very hot oven they had used a very cold refrigerator (of sorts.) According to a report in Science Magazine, researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology at the University of Colorado at Boulder had cooled atoms down to within a few billionths of a degree of absolute zero. (Again, billionths of a degree? Which drugstore sells such nifty thermometers?). These Boulder atoms got so cold they lost their atom identities, or personalities, and mooshed into a singular glob. These scientists proved what Albert Einstein and Sayendra Nath Bose speculated might happen if you chilled atoms that much. That’s why this cold stuff is known as Bose-Einstein condensation. Or maybe that’s the name of the process.
At any rate, thinking about how atoms are made, I started to wonder, when the universe was born, was the original silly putty really, really hot or was it really, really cold? Or maybe, with everything so smooshed together that not even night and day could squeeze out, might the original stuff possibly have been both really, really hot and really, really cold? Could it have been, paradoxically, hot and cold at the same time?
From the modest bit I know as a curious layman, such a paradox is the nature of quantum physics, where it appears you can indeed have it both ways: have a particle and/or a wave, have it hot and/or cold, day and/or night, here and/or there, all depending on the position (and intention) of the observer. In other words, how you look, where you’re standing, and apparently how you’re holding your jaw when you’re conducting the experiment.
So, back to the glimpse. As I said, after reading the scientific reports, I wondered whether the universe was unthinkably hot or unthinkably cold, not only right after it was born, but, more importantly, just before, in that timeless (eternal?) instant just before the Big Bang. Since in the before there couldn’t have been any stuff yet (right?), it occurred to me: Whatever was here before the Big Bang, no matter the temp, was not stuff at all but rather more like a mood. It just made sense to me that what existed before the Big Bang was a timeless, space-less (dimensionless) mood.
Obviously, it must have been a pretty good mood. In fact, it appears that the pre-universe mood was, in a word (Word?) pretty darn happy, even joyous, just before it broke into a hot/cold, quark-gluon song like it did—just before it burst into ever-expanding swirling galaxies and horsehead nebulas, not to mention staplers.
Thinking about this moment—or pre-moment, as it were, since even time hadn’t been invented yet—I suddenly glimpsed the fundamental nature of the universe: Eureka! It was obvious that the mood of happiness itself, joy itself, must be the original stuff of the universe.
It seemed clear this was the “utterly simple idea” physicist John Archibald Wheeler predicted we’d find some day. That the universe is made of happiness is indisputably a simple idea. But of course, the scientists, being scientists, would want proof that such a Snoopy-like presence could be the idea at the bottom of it all.
Using standard scientific expectations of duplicated empirical evidence, we might prove that happiness is the original stuff of the universe if we could offer evidence that:
1.) Happiness manifests, depending on how you look for it, as either hot or cold, or maybe both hot and cold; and
2.) That, given all the actual and potential forms of the universe, happiness must be able to assume any particular shape or form it wants or needs. (We have to prove that happiness is infinitely pliable and malleable, even more so than silly putty.)
Okay, so let’s take it step-by-step: The temperature dichotomy.
From direct personal experience we can all attest that, yes, happiness can appear as either or both hot and cold. For example, when I owned a furniture refurbishing business, a cranky fellow working for me would—almost every day, for almost any reason—get angry, unhappy, even hot-under-the-collar, so to speak. He was a young guy, big and bulky, and would bum everybody out by getting red in the face, boiling mad at the slightest slight.
“Good morning, Joe,” I might say, coming into the shop.
“What’s so good about it? Nobody fixed the coffee.”
That kind of guy.
The best way to cool him down, we all learned, was to stay in our joy, maybe tell a little joke, or say something lighthearted.
“That’s another reason I don’t pack a gun,” I might respond. “Somebody doesn’t fix the darned coffee, they’d get a slug right in the shin.”
If we could maintain our own good mood, get him to laugh or even just grin, he’d cool off; the red would literally drain from his face. He’d chill.
Using humor to cool things down is not unique. War buddies, for example, know a quick quip helps everyone survive tough spots. As Winston Churchill once observed, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Or as poet and essayist Samuel Johnson put it: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Someone who keeps their cool, often via humor, in hot circumstances is known to be grounded. Grounded in what?What else? Grounded in the basic stuff of the universe: unflappable joy!
So okay, happiness can cool. Might it also warm things up, when needed?
For example, Gladys, a middle-aged woman who worked in our front office when I was a stock broker, had the nickname of The Ice Queen. Everybody’s known somebody like Gladys. Say good morning, goodnight, I’m going to lunch, I fell off my bike—no matter what you said—Gladys was an ‘ice-cycle.’ The only way to warm her up was to laugh, preferably at yourself, or the world around, or maybe the bosses upstairs.Then you might glimpse a tight, tiny, ever-so-slight smile appear then quickly disappear across her face. Ice cool, if not cold, is a stance many humans assume. This is why speakers talk about “warming up the audience” with a joke or two. If a stranger on the bus makes us laugh, we warm to him.We all know, from both personal and communal affairs: Happiness can clearly have a warming effect, when necessary.
So, again, it’s clear that happiness might be the basic stuff of the universe because it can be either hot or cold, warm things up or cool things down. Happiness keeps life moving, flowing, evolving—ever upward, or outward, downward or to the side, depending on what’s needed. The scientists in both Switzerland and Boulder should be happy with such simple evidence of the joyful nature of the primordial stuff.
So much for proof number one.
On to proof number two, whether happiness can take any shape or form necessary.
This one’s easy. Just look around.
It’s quite obvious that the universe is quite happy to express itself in a gazillion different shapes and forms. If the universe wasn’t happy to have so many shapes and forms, we wouldn’t have all this stuff—planets, and asteroids, and moons, and neutron stars and pulsars; hair dryers and computer mouse pads; mouse tails and mouse ears—to name just a few. The universe is the most powerful thing in—well, in the universe—so it can do whatever the heck it wants, yes? Making a lot of forms, a gazillion different forms, is obviously one of the things the universe is happy to do.
And from our human point of view, it’s also clear that no matter the form, somebody somewhere is going to be spontaneously happy with it. So, humans tend to resonate with the cosmic background, which is, I posit, happiness itself. For example, some people are quite happy with quasars, others with football statistics, still others are thrilled with maggots or fire ants (for pity’s sake) or, more commonly, the radiant colors shimmering off the sunsetting clouds. Not everybody will accept every shape the universe throws out, of course, but somebody somewhere finds joy in every form imaginable.
Sure, we could find exceptions to that rule; find some item or activity somewhere in the vast universe that absolutely nobody is happy about—say a mosquito bite or stubbed toe. Still, such a find would only make some grouchy contrarian happy that a primordially sad situation was found! So to answer to the question, “Can the basic happiness stuff take on any form it wants?” Again, obviously, yes.
So the evidence stands:
Happiness is obviously quantum, it can either warm us up or cool us down, depending on what we need.
And happiness is infinitely pliable, wantonly making and unmaking shapes and forms throughout the universe. Happiness meets all the (simple) scientific qualifications for being the fundamental stuff of the universe.
But the scientists aren’t the only ones weighing in on this topic. For thousands of years prior to the “scientific revolution,” prophets, poets, saints and sages were giving their own take on the essence—the basic stuff– of the universe.
Genesis puts it this way: Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good.(If “good” doesn’t include happiness, or doesn’t actually mean happiness, then who needs good?) Happiness as reality’s core is further confirmed in Ecclesiastes: I commend mirth. And later in the 42nd Psalm: God has a smile on His face.An early Jewish proverb has it: “As soap is to the body, so laughter is to the soul.”
The Taoist Lao Tzu concurred in 531 BC: “As soon as you have made a thought, laugh at it.” And the Buddha: “When the mind is pure [i.e., real], joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
Jesus was on board: “I have come that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be full.” How much clearer could it be? And the Muslims are not to be left out. The Koran explicitly affirms, “He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh.”And last, but not least, the contemporary seer, Dr. Seuss: “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”
Fortunately, by coming across a few scientific reports in the newspaper, I happened to be given the insight that happiness is the quantum, fundamental stuff, animating both the art and science of the universe. I am quite humbled, even awestruck, (not to mention tickled) being offered this glimpse into the basic reality of absolutely everything.In a nutshell, within and without, above and below, in the micro and the macro, in the stillness and the flow, All—All, All, All—is Joy.
As Archibald Wheeler might say, how could it be otherwise? Isn’t it an utterly simple idea, and beautiful?
Now, after writing this happy little essay, I’m off, under the wife’s command, to shovel all the joyous, oh-so-tactile (and heavy) growing piles of snow stuff off my irritatingly long concrete sidewalk. I first frown, then, remembering to tune myself to the frequency of Basic Stuff, I grin.