Nature is no stranger to periodicity. The Sun rises and falls, the seasons change, the tide ebbs and flows; if you look hard enough, you’ll see that many natural phenomena follow a cycle of sorts.
Our own lives are cycles in a sense. We are, after all, organisms that are made of the same atoms as anything else in the universe. As the old adage goes, from the dust we came and to the dust we shall return.
But what if that cycle continued on? What if we were destined to rise and fall from the dust, over and over, for all of eternity?
The Stoics, a group of philosophers from Ancient Greece and Rome, believed that the cosmos goes through a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and by proxy, people as well. As the the philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias wrote (200 C.E) :
“[Chrysippus and the Stoics] hold that after the conflagration all the same things come to be again in the world numerically, so that even the same peculiarly qualified individual as before exists and comes to be again in the world…”
Over 1800 years later, the philosophy of the Stoics found it’s way into the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, the infamous 19th-century Atheistic German philosopher, when he wrote a book known as “The Gay Science”. Near the end of “The Gay Science”, Neitzsche spoke of something known as eternal recurrence, an adaptation of Stoic philosophy he presented as a thought experiment. In it he said:
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’
Now, unlike the Stoics, Nietzsche’s intention was to present this concept metaphorically; to lay bare both the good and bad things that happen to you in life as the beauty of life itself. But what if both Nietzsche and the Stoics were touching upon a possible scientific truth? What if this concept of eternal recurrence, unbeknownst to these philosophers, was more than just philosophical speculation?
Conformal Cyclic Cosmology
Conformal Cyclic Cosmology, as coined by Nobel Laureate and renowned physicist Sir Roger Penrose, is the theory that the universe has gone through, and will go through, multiple reiterations of itself an infinite amount of times. As is described by Penrose in his 2010 book, “Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe”, reality consists of countable sequences of what are known as open Friedmann–Lemaître–Robertson–Walker metric (FLRW) spacetimes, each an iteration of a big bang followed by an infinite expansion of the universe. Penrose believes that each spacetime conformal boundary (the end of one universe) is effectively “attached” to the conformal boundary of another spacetime (the beginning of another universe), allowing for the continued creation of an infinite amount of universes.
Much like the Stoics said thousands of years prior, Penrose’s theory touches on this very same idea: that reality has no beginning or end, rather, it comes into existence over and over, for all of eternity.
The Oscillating Universe and The Steinhardt-Turok Model
Albert Einstein first proposed a similar cyclic model in the 1920’s known as the oscillating universe theory, whereby each oscillation of the universe begins with a big bang and ends with what is known as a “big crunch”, or the collapse of the universe due to the gravitational attraction of all particles. Like CCC theory, the oscillation of the universe would also occur an infinite amount of times.
As tantalizing as the oscillating model may have been to the scientific community, it was only a decade before research by physicist Richard C. Tolman squashed the theory. According to Tolma, the second law of thermodynamics forbids Einstein’s speculative model because entropy can only increase.
However, by the 21st century, the theory reemerged, along with dark energy. In 2001, Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University and Neil Turok of Cambridge University formulated their Brane cosmology model, a breakthrough that was achieved through the incorporation of dark energy as a necessary force to the cyclical process.
Steinhardt and Turok explain that in their vision of reality, there are two flat, parallel, four-dimensional spacetimes (branes) lying next to one another within a higher dimensional frame. Through the force of dark energy, the two branes move together and apart in cycles that last trillions of years. Each time they collide, a big bang occurs, spitting matter out into either universe and causing inflation as they move apart from one another.
In defiance of the late Tolman’s critique of Einstein’s cyclical theory, an infinitely cyclical universe posited under the Steinhardt-Turok model would theoretically be capable of evading the inevitable thermodynamic heat-death of the universe. The physicists argue that as each cycle occurs, there is a net expansion of the universe, thus preventing entropy from increasing.
Coincidence? I Think Not!
Sound like science fiction? Then you’d be surprised to hear that there may already be some indirect evidence of cyclical universes–in the form of coincidences!
Your average coincidences, for the most part, are pretty inconsequential, but a cosmological coincidence is something to take heed of.
Take water for example. Water is the only non-metallic substance in the entire universe that expands when it freezes. This means that its solid form is actually less dense than its liquid form, causing ice to float, rather than sink. This particular coincidence is not only perfect, it is essential for the formation of life, as life could never survive in water that accumulates sunken chunks of ice. The ice would eventually build up until there was nothing but a frozen lake.
Why is this coincidence important? Well, there is another theory called the Anthropic Principle, which posits the idea that as living observers, we can only exist in a universe that is made for us to live in. Because this unique characteristic of water is a requirement for life to exist, we exist in the universe where this property occurs.
In an article by Live Science, McCullen Sandora, an affiliate research scientist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, explained this peculiar concept in detail, through the lens of the multiverse (a similar view on reality, but involving many universes inflating all at once, rather than sequentially).
“The multiverse offers one explanation for why all these features are favorable in our universe, which is that other universes exist as well, but we observe this one because it’s capable of supporting complex life,”
Similar coincidences can be seen all over nature. The neutron, a subatomic particle that is found in all atoms, weighs about 0.1 percent more than the proton. If the proton were heavier, it would decay. Since hydrogen is made of one proton and one electron, this essential element would have never formed had the proton been just slightly heavier than it is.
The low entropy of the universe–a necessity for life–is another intriguing example, one that Penrose himself has pondered upon. In fact, Penrose calculated the likelihood of our universe’s low entropic state to be equal to a number with more zeros than there are physical particles in the universe!
So what are the chances that the universe we exist in would have not one, but all of these very same properties?
Probably, very, very low. If, however, there were an infinite amount of reiterations–a cyclical universe–the chances would be much higher. As many physicists agree, each universal cycle could have vastly different physical properties–laws of physics include. There were probably billions that did not contain these essential properties to conscious life, and billions more that did.
Answering the Demon
So, if there truly were multiple, infinite reiterations of the universe that eventually created the basic format for life repeatedly, could we return as well?
We are, after all, the culmination of a series of events, each with their own respective statistical probability. Given enough time (try an infinite amount of time), these events may be bound to happen, (and so you are bound to happen) again and again.
As the Roman stoic, Seneca, said in his Letters (65 CE):
“Things that vanish from our sight are merely stored away in the natural world: they cease to be, but they do not perish… the day will come again that will return us to the light.”
The only catch is that your memories, in their essence, are biological formations, which are themselves a part of this universe. You are also inextricably a part of this universe, and so your body, and the you that remembers your life, would not persist either. Rather, your essence–the molecules that made you a living, breathing, conscious human being– will return to the universe, only to be reconfigured into a new universe billions of years thereafter.
As Seneca so eloquently continued, “It is a day that many would refuse, except that we forget everything before returning.”
Perhaps the next universe will contain you, but it may not; Perhaps it will contain life, but this is no certainty; Perhaps the next universe will last trillions of years, or maybe it will exist for a moment; All of these possibilities are equally likely when the universe is cyclical and time is infinite.
Regardless, in an infinite, cyclical universe, life will find a way, and eventually, maybe you will too.