Why is there a Universe? Scientists simply don't know how to address why questions. They are out of the present formulation of modern science....Nor do we know, or have any prospect of ever knowing, why there is a Universe.
Eric Chaisson, Cosmic Dawn: The Origins of Matter and Life, 1981
The Limits of Science
In the 1970s the Big Bang theory was coming to dominate how cosmologists saw our universe. This scientific model that our universe had been very, very tiny and extremely dense and existed at a single point of time and space and then began expanding was becoming the accepted scientific truth, even though there were still some serious problems with it.
But what caused the creation of our universe? What came before the Big Bang? Here science was quiet, assuming this was beyond its powers of hypothesis and theory and observation and experimentation. It was a mystery and one definitely outside the purview of science, almost a question only religion dare ask or answer. One could ponder and speculate, but it was deemed impossible to have a scientific theory about what was reality pre-Big Bang and still call yourself a scientist.
And so in the early 1970s it was also still accepted and assumed that science could not answer the question why is there something rather than nothing.
Yet, one man thought he knew why there was something rather than nothing, and he believed this idea that he had about how our universe came into being could be argued as a scientific theory.
A Scientific Theory of What Caused the Big Bang
In December of 1973, the prestigious British scientific journal Nature published a two-page article titled, "Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?" by the 33-year-old American physicist Edward P. Tryon of Hunter College of the City University of New York.1
It was a bold theory, maybe even too daring. For what he was saying no one had ever said.2 And what he was saying was quite easy for any physicist to understand, and yet still nearly impossible for any physicist to believe or accept.
For Tryon was advocating the surreal idea that our very large and very old universe had been a tiny particle that had spontaneously emerged from nothing because of the laws of physics; and because his theory accepted the Big Bang model, this would mean that he was also arguing that this tiny particle somehow came to grow to be our present-day universe.3
And he was also making the argument that this "simplest and most appealing imaginable" of the Big Bang models could be understood within "the framework of conventional science."
Tryon believed he had two major obstacles to get over before his "admittedly speculative" model of our universe could be even seen as being plausible. How can something come from nothing, and even if this was possible how would this work? By what method could our universe "appear from nowhere"? He deals with the problem of how it is possible that something can come from nothing first, and then with the how this actually could happen second.
A Universe from Nothing
How can the universe appear from nothing? This went against commonsense to the average person. The Roman philosopher Lucretius had said nothing can be created from nothing, and few argued otherwise. However, the most difficult part of the idea of a universe coming from nothing would be for this to work the first law of thermodynamics would somehow have to be broken. This law states that energy and matter can be neither created nor destroyed.
Yet, Tryon doesn't take credit for solving the riddle of how a universe could be created from nothing. He acknowledges that he had learned how a universe could come from nothing and not break the law of conservation of energy from the general relativist Peter Bergmann.
This strange idea surfaces several times at several places before it got to Bergmann, but the documented mention of how a universe can come from nothing (or zero energy) and not contradict the first law of thermodynamics was first printed in the 1934 book Relativity, Thermodynamics, and Cosmology by Richard C. Tolman of the California Institute of Technology.
Tolman had discovered that in a closed universe the total energy is equal to exactly zero. (The universe type he actually was referring to was a universe that expanded and contracted, but this idea would also work in our universe, even if it only was going to have but one expansion.) He described how if you take all the mass energy which is positive and then take all the energy of gravity which is negative and add them together they will come to equal zero. According to this fantastic truth, we might exist in a universe with a total energy of zero, a zero-energy universe. And this can lead to the fact that our universe could start from zero (nothing) and grow in size without the law of conservation of energy being broken. Or, as Tryon said in his paper: "If this be the case, then our Universe could have appeared from nowhere without violating any conservation laws."
After Tryon reminds us of the scientific fact that something could have come from nothing and not break the law of the conservation of energy, he then uses the laws of physics to explain how this actually could have taken place.
Creating Stars from Nothing
And it should be examined before we continue on our journey how the German physicist Pascual Jordan came the closest to articulating the theory how our universe might be a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum. Jordan was one of the founders of quantum mechanics; he had worked with Werner Heisenberg and Max Born in the 1920s.
In the late 1930s many physicists didn't like or agree with the idea that our universe was expanding and how this led to our universe having come into existence as a creation event, including Pascual Jordan; he like many other cosmologists sought to explain how our universe could be eternal and always present. But this view has certain problems of its own, one of them being where did matter come from and how it is always being created?
The solution to this problem Jordan thought might be how a star can be made out of nothing because of its negative gravitational energy precisely canceling out its positive mass energy. He seems to have developed this idea independently from Tolman, and this is completely conceivable when one studies how little scientific literature there was at this time about Tolman's theory how all the energy of our universe might be equivalent to zero (nothing). But it is possible he did learn this idea through Tolman. But I have not found any scientific papers that mention this subject as it relates to Jordan understanding how our universe could have been created from nothing by way of Tolman's book.
And very insightfully, Jordan speculated about what would prevent a quantum transition from the vacuum from creating a new star.4 Yet Jordan was not asking or making the argument how our universe might have come about by this means, but how matter might be created in an eternal universe.5
A Universe from a Quantum Fluctuation of the Vacuum
Tryon's theory is very easy for physicists to understand, and that is because he simply applies the laws of physics to the era before our universe existed. He is not the first scientist to do this, but he is the first to argue how our universe could have come about by applying the laws of physics of our universe to the vacuum that existed before our universe ever existed.
What existed before our universe existed? Tryon, like almost all physicists, assumes a vacuum existed. In regular words, an empty space, with nothing in it. Empty space is nothing to most people, but to a physicist empty space is never truly empty and actually has something in it.6
And if the laws of physics are applied to this vacuum, then quantum field theory and quantum mechanics also come into play. And so Tryon will be transferring our knowledge of our quantum world to this quantum world that existed before our universe existed.
Quantum mechanics and quantum field theory deal with things at the atomic and subatomic level. And the rules that exist at or below the atomic level are very strange and almost even nonsensical. At this level everything is unstable, energy changes constantly. And because of the laws of quantum mechanics, virtual particles pop in and out of existence from the emptiness of space. These virtual particles exist and then disappear very quickly. And so in our present quantum world, wherever there is space, even empty space, "nothing," these particles exist. And so even in "nothing," something does exist.
Tryon believes that in the empty vacuum before our universe existed, virtual particles also existed. But a big difference is that in the vacuum before our universe came to be, virtual particles don't just pop in and out of existence. Sometimes, one of these particles will pop into the vacuum and instead of instantly popping out of existence, grow into a universe like ours. But Tryon does admit "vacuum fluctuations on the scale of our universe are probably quite rare."
Tryon doesn't give a reason for "how a vacuum fluctuation could occur on such a grand scale." But he does say "that the laws of physics place no limit on the scale of vacuum fluctuations."
Tryon also mentions that this vacuum is actually "the vacuum of some larger space which our universe was imbedded." He seems to be saying our universe is really part of a bigger universe, or maybe a multilayered universe. He does not go into any more details of what this thing is, leaving it vague to interpretation.
And this quantum fluctuation of the vacuum was without purpose, just an accident. It just happened because this is what occurs in the quantum world. He makes Aristotle's Prime Mover a simple (but scientific) accident. And paradoxically, the basis of this accident without causality (or I should say seems without causality?) he believes is all grounded in the scientific laws of physics that seem to be based on causality! And this is why he ends up saying: "In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time."7
A Total and Complete Rejection
And then in December, 1973, when Tryon's paper came out...nothing happened. It was the theory never heard around the world. He was not ferociously attacked by other physicists, laughed at or belittled by his scientific colleagues, or praised by the community of scientists. Science just unnoticeably ignored him in a silent quietness of indifference.8 Very few important scientific theories have ever been so ignored.
Yet there are explainable and understandable reasons for this invisible tragedy.
His math seems to be lacking; actually, he has none to explain how a microscopic particle could grow so large and last so long. His theory is too speculative. He had said that if this event had occurred we would exist in a universe equally of matter and antimatter, which we did not. (Later it would be discovered how if a universe begins with equal parts matter and antimatter that one side can quickly come to outnumber and dominate the other.) His promotion of how our universe might have come from nothing was not a widespread idea or even controversial one in the scientific community and quickly overlooked because it was connected to his idea of the universe coming from a quantum fluctuation. But these things were not the main reason why his theory was rejected.
His theory was rejected and ignored and considered preposterous because he was not able to explain how a tiny particle could lead to our very huge and very old universe. Anyone who knows anything in physics knows that these virtual particles could never imaginably be the mother to a universe like our universe. Virtual particles come in and out of existence very quickly, and they definitely never grow as large or last as long as our universe. Does gravity exist? Yes. Can a virtual particle lead to a universe like ours in size or age? No. It was that simple. And it was assumed that if a virtual particle somehow contained all the energy and matter of our universe it would be too heavy and this would force it to disappear again or end up as a singularity.
It was a scientific theory that could be explained without using any math, but it would be rejected because it had no math to argue how our universe could grow so large and be so old from a very small particle. Tryon was not prepared for how the idea of our universe coming from a tiny particle would be so universally and completely rejected. And so the world of physics noiselessly and unemotionally and softly never took notice of his theory.9
In January of 1980, a young American physicist named Alan Guth unveiled a scientific theory that many would find bizarre. What if at the very early stage of the universe gravity for just a blink of an eye was a repulsive force and inflated our universe? It would be called inflationary theory, and Guth and other physcicists would go on to promote this theory that seemed to solve the flatness problem, the horizon problem, and the monopole problem that had plagued the Big Bang model.
And even though Guth was not promoting Tryon's theory, he had in essence saved it, even though no one paid any attention to this fact at the time. How a universe could have come from a tiny particle and then grow into a large universe would soon be accepted as a legitimate argument in physics because of inflationary theory.
Then in 1982, the Tuft University physicist Alexander Vilenkin started promoting a variant of Tryon's theory, very similar but at the same time something completely new and original. He argued that our universe could have come from nothing and by the way of quantum tunneling. And by "nothing" Vilenkin meant nothing, no space, matter, time, radius. (Yet, maybe not absolute nothing.) Like Tryon, he took something that occurs in our universe (quantum tunneling) and applied it to the era before the Big Bang. And he was taken seriously because he used inflationary theory to grow his universe from a very tiny thing. His math was also quite good, much better than Tryon's. But without inflationary theory, I am not sure anyone would have taken Vilenkin's theory seriously.
Other theories about how our universe (or our universe from the multiverse) could have been a quantum process would come forward. And while Tryon was one of the great fathers of modern scientific cosmology, many of his children would never know of him.
Yet Still Little Recognition
Yet, even after inflationary theory showed how a quantum process could create a universe from nearly nothing, Tryon never really got noticed. Alas, if only Tryon's theory had been born a little more than about two-thirds of a decade later, then maybe his theory would have been noticed and greatly discussed.
When Carl Sagan wrote Cosmos in 1980 he never mentioned him, not one word. And when Stephen Hawking wrote in 1988 A Brief History of Time again he was not mentioned. And when Lawrence M. Krauss wrote in 2012 A Universe from Nothing: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing again Tryon was not mentioned. And A Universe from Nothing should have had at least several pages on his ideas and made him a very important part of this book. This is a book that was arguing and popularizing a theory he first promoted.
He is not known in popular culture because he never got widely known in physics.10 And he is almost invisible to much of the scientific community. I was unable to find any articles written about him as a physicist. Many times he was mentioned, but no one has done a large piece on him alone.
Some Respectable Recognition
But not everyone in the world of physics has ignored him. He is mentioned very quickly in a lot of books, often being only the size of an enlarged footnote. But some authors and physicists have given him his rightful credit.11 In his 1997 book The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins Alan Guth treats him very fairly. "To my knowledge, the first serious suggestion that the creation of the universe from nothing could be described in scientific terms was the 1973 paper by Edward Tryon." And then he said about Tryon: "In his controversial two-page paper, Tryon advanced the startling proposal that on rare occasions, whole universes might materialize from the vacuum, and our universe may have begun this way."
And Alexander Vilenkin in his 2006 book Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes acknowledges very respectfully how he was one of his predecessors: "Now, what Tryon was suggesting was that our entire universe, with its vast amount of matter, was a huge quantum fluctuation, which somehow failed to disappear for more than 10 billion years." Vilenkin also mentions how Tryon "suggested that our universe could have originated in this way and emphasized such a creation event would not require a cause." And there are some books about our universe that discuss his theory and take him seriously, but the majority of authors simply do not know about him.12
And while he is seventy-five years old (he was born September 4, 1940) and hopefully in good health, maybe there will be a movement to have him recognized and given his rightful credit. His curse was that his theory was ahead of its time, but let's not punish him for this crime of scientific prophecy. And let us not forget, he did do something very extraordinary. And so for one moment, he was our Newton with a question and our Einstein with an answer.
I believe he lives in New York City. So if you happen to come across him, maybe you can say, "The physicist who came up with the theory that our universe might have come from a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum?" And if he answers but you're still in doubt, ask him if he grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana. And if he says yes, well, then you're probably talking to Edward P. Tryon, the physicist who came up with a strange little theory that was too weird for his time, and this was during the days of disco where supposedly people were open to anything.13
1Years after his paper came out, Tryon would mention how he was reminded and then came to remember an incident that occurred in 1969 (some stories say 1970) while he had been attending a seminar by British cosmologist Dennis Sciama at Columbia University. Tryon said he suddenly had a flash of insight and then blurted out from the audience: "Maybe the universe is a quantum fluctuation?" He then said everyone laughed and no one took him seriously, making him not want to say anything more of this idea at this event. I have chosen to mention this incident but to not focus on it as the date when someone came out with the scientific idea that our universe might be the result of a quantum fluctuation. I am focusing only on using dates that can be proven by actual and legitimate publications. And so far I have not found any publication that mentioned this Columbia University event as ever taking place written before Tryon's paper came out. And I am not doubting Tryon's description how or if this happened, but as I said, I am trying to focus only on provable facts by publication.
2In the early 1970s a Ukrainian physicist from Soviet Russia (now the independent country of Ukraine) named P. I. Fomin (Petro Ivanovych Fomin) also seems to have independently come up with the idea that our universe may have come from a quantum fluctuation. But he did not publish anything on this subject until 1975, and this seems to be the reason and very legitimate reason why the scientific community never seriously considered believing P. I. Fomin as being the first scientist to come up with the idea or theory of how our universe could have originated from a quantum process.
3And Tryon is partially and sometimes wholly to blame for people thinking he said and believed our universe could come from nothing because of his choice of words in the framing of his argument. Several examples of what I am talking about occur in the Nature article but also continued to take place as he kept trying to explain his theory. A good example can be seen in the March 8, 1984, article, "What Made the World?" from the New Scientist. Here he wrote: "In 1973, I proposed that our Universe had been created spontaneously from nothing (ex nihilo), as a result of the established principles of physics." And Tryon dealing with how it is scientifically possible for a universe to come from nothing also prejudices the mind to feeling and thinking he is arguing our universe actually did come from nothing. But it should be mentioned in all fairness that a lot of physicists when describing what existed before the Big Bang are guilty of this particular semantic sin. An example of this would be Alexander Vilenkin's seminal paper from 1982 called, "Creation of Our Universes from Nothing," Physics Letters B 117B.
4In his 1970 autobiography My World Line: An Informal Autobiography, the physicist George Gamow casually mentions a conversation he had with Einstein in the mid-1940s.
"I remember that once, walking him to the institute, I mentioned Pascual Jordan's idea of how a star can be created from nothing, since at the point zero its negative gravitational mass defect is numerically equal to its positive mass. Einstein stopped in his tracks, and, since we were crossing the street, several cars had to stop to avoid running us down."
Queerly, Einstein seems to have never mentioned to anyone how this idea affected his view about how our universe may have originated.
5Several years earlier, the British astronomer James Jean believed that nebulae (galaxies) was where matter was being created. In his 1928 book Astronomy and Cosmology he said: "The type of conjecture which presents itself, somewhat insistently, is that the centers of the nebulae are of the nature 'singular points' at which matter is poured into our universe from some other, and entirely extraneous spatial dimension, so that, to a denizen of our universe, they appear as points at which matter is being continually created."
6 One of the strangest facts about physics is how it refuses to allow an empty space to be empty. The next Nobel Prize in Physics should not go to the physicist who can prove how our universe came from nothing, but the physicist who can prove how from our universe one can get to nothing.
7 Even though it seems like Tryon has answered how our universe was created and solved the mystery of how everything came to be, he hasn't. What is this "larger space in which our Universe is imbedded" that he talks about? He is silent. And where do the laws of physics come from that he says cause all this to happen? He does not say. And so the mystery that caused and created everything still remains a mystery.
8I could find no articles written about his theory or paper when it came out. There were not any scientific papers coming out for or against his idea that our universe was the result of a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum. One would have thought some physicist would have critiqued his theory. But I could not find any. But there might be a chance that there is one that I missed, but if there is a scientific paper written for or against his theory when it came out, it never echoed loudly through the physics world.
9 It would be five years before another scholarly paper would again talk about the idea of a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum being how our universe might have come into existence. (P. I. Fomin paper in 1975 was not published in an important scientific journal and so his ideas just never made it out of Soviet Russia till years later.) In 1978 three Belgians (R. Brout, F. Engert, and E. Gunzig) had a paper published in the Annals of Physics, Vol. 115, 1978, titled, "The Creation of the Universe as a Quantum Phenomenon." The paper got some attention, but it was not convincing enough for the world to take this idea too seriously.
10Somewhat surprisingly, Tryon is famous (or should I say infamous?) among the traditional conservatives in America who reject the idea that our universe could have come from nothing. They are against this idea because it would leave no room for God. If you ever find yourself reading some article or blog over the Internet attacking the idea how the creation of the universe from nothing is wrong (morally and rationally and mathematically) from a Christian conservative viewpoint, you will probably notice that Edward Tryon is consistently given the credit for first saying our universe could have come from nothing.
11The most anyone ever wrote about him comes from Barry Parker who wrote Creation: The Story of the Origin and Evolution of the Universe in 1988. He wrote 9 pages about him, including a photo of him. (I looked all over the Internet, but I could not find a single photo of him.)
12And here are some examples of some of the books that completely don't mention him, even though they focus on discussing the Big Bang: The Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (2004) by Simon Singh; The Little Book of the Big Bang: A Cosmic Primer (1998) by Craig J. Hogan; The Bigger Bang (2000) by James E. Lidsey; and The Big Bang, Third Edition, Joseph Silk (2001). I do not believe any of this was intentional. It is just that he is not that well-known, even in physics.
13Edward Polk Tryon was born on September 4, 1940, in Terre Haute, Indiana. He attended the local high school, Wiley High School, and graduated from it in 1958. He attended Cornell University from 1958 through 1962, graduating with a bachelors in physics. He then began attending the University of California at Berkeley, eventually earning his Ph.D. in physics in 1967. He would work as a research associate at Columbia University from 1967 through 1968, then as an associate professor at Columbia University from 1968 through 1971. And then he would work the rest of his career as a professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.