What the Big Bang Can Teach Us About Human Exponential Expansion
We’re at the end of an exponential expansion in resource use that began around 1800, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Joel R. Primack is a professor of physics and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is a member of the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics.
Primack specializes in the formation and evolution of galaxies and the nature of the dark matter that makes up most of the matter in the universe. After helping to create what is now called the "Standard Model" of particle physics, Primack began working in cosmology in the late 1970s, and he became a leader in the new field of particle astrophysics. His 1982 paper with Heinz Pagels was the first to propose that a natural candidate for the dark matter is the lightest supersymmetric particle. He is one of the principal originators and developers of the theory of Cold Dark Matter, which has become the basis for the standard modern picture of structure formation in the universe. With support from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Department of Energy, he is currently using supercomputers to simulate and visualize the evolution of the universe and the formation of galaxies under various assumptions, and comparing the predictions of these theories to the latest observational data.
With Nancy Abrams, he is the author of The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos (Riverhead/Penguin, 2006) and The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World (Yale University Press, 2011).
We know that at the beginning of the Big Bang, or depending on how you like to think of it, in the moment just before the Big Bang, the universe underwent a very, very rapid expansion, an exponential expansion. That means that in any given unit of time the universe expanded by a factor of two, and then in the same amount of time, another factor of two and then another factor of two, and so forth. This is explosive growth. And during that period, the skeleton on which the universe would later form, the skeleton of the distribution of galaxies and clusters of galaxies and so forth, was laid down by quantum fluctuations.
And then, the process ended abruptly. And the Big Bang started and the universe expanded, but much, much more slowly than this explosive expansion of the exponential inflationary start to the Big Bang.
Now, how is this relevant for humanity? Well, we are undergoing an exponential expansion in our numbers and even more rapidly in our use of resources on planet Earth. And of course, our environmental impacts are a result of the expanding use of our resources. And this process has to end extremely rapidly over the next generation or so or else the effects on Earth are going to be catastrophic. We’re just beginning to see the effects of global climate change due to an increase in global temperatures of about one-and-a-half degrees Fahrenheit.
But the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we’ve already emitted have committed us to a much larger increase in global temperatures with corresponding global climate change. And depending on how rapidly we can bring this tremendous increase in greenhouse gases to a halt and start to reverse it, we may have truly enormous changes in climate.
So, we’re at the end of an exponential expansion in resource use that began around 1800, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And just as the universe ended its exponential expansion rather abruptly, we’re going to have to do the same thing. Now, the universe, after it ended its exponential expansion at the very beginning of the Big Bang, the universe then developed galaxies and within the early galaxies, stars, which began to produce the heavy elements that our planet Earth and we are made out of. And then after planets of that sort started to form, life evolved. In other words, all the great things that make the universe so interesting and Earth such a wonderful place for us to live developed during this rather slow period of growth after this exponential expansion of the Big Bang.
But it’s important to understand that the exponential expansion laid down the whole pattern on which the later development would occur. That pattern is now being frozen in by the choices that we humans make or don’t make in the last decades of the exponential expansion of humanity.
And so I think that the lessons that we can learn from the Big Bang are two-fold. One, that we can anticipate a wonderful period, a very, very long period of development, evolution, the growth of human consciousness and interactions and wisdom, but at the same time, we have to be aware that the decisions that are being made now are going to have affect over an enormous period of time, probably longer than most humans can even anticipate, certainly many thousands of years. And so we should begin to think with a very long-term perspective as we go through this tremendously important, essentially unique, human transition of the end of human exponential expansion.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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