The Beginning…

By Leon M. Lederman


star birth

The following is an excerpt from The God ParticleReprinted by permission of the author.

"Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion."  -  Democritus of Abdera

IN THE VERY BEGINNING there was a void—a curious form of vacuum—a nothingness containing no space, no time, no matter, no light, no sound. Yet the laws of nature were in place, and this curious vacuum held potential. Like a giant boulder perched at the edge of a towering cliff…

Wait a minute.

Before the boulder falls, I should explain that I really don't know what I'm talking about. A story logically begins at the beginning. But this story is about the universe, and unfortunately there are no data for the Very Beginning. None, zero. We don't know anything about the universe until it reaches the mature age of a billionth of a trillionth of a second—that is, some very short time after creation in the Big Bang. When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up. We are in the realm of philosophy. Only God knows what happened at the Very Beginning (and so far She hasn't let on).

Now, where were we? Oh yes…

Like a giant boulder perched at the edge of a towering cliff, the void's balance was so exquisite that only whim was needed to produce a change, a change that created the universe. And it happened. The nothingness exploded. In this initial incandescence, space and time were created. Out of this energy, matter emerged—a dense plasma of particles that dissolved into radiation and back to matter. (Now we're working with at least a few facts and some speculative theory in hand.) Particles collided and gave birth to new particles. Space and time boiled and foamed as black holes formed and dissolved. What a scene!

As the universe expanded and cooled and grew less dense, particles coalesced, and forces differentiated. Protons and neutrons formed, then nuclei and atoms and huge clouds of dust, which, still expanding, condensed locally here and there to form stars, galaxies, and planets. On one planet - a most ordinary planet, orbiting a mediocre star, one speck on the spiral arm of a standard galaxy -surging continents and roiling oceans organized themselves, and out of the oceans an ooze of organic molecules reacted and built proteins, and life began. Plants and animals evolved out of simple organisms, and eventually human beings arrived.

The human beings were different primarily because they were the only species intensely curious about their surroundings. In time, mutations occurred, and an odd subset of humans began roaming the land. They were arrogant. They were not content to enjoy the magnificence of the universe. They asked "How?" How was the universe created? How can the "stuff" of the universe be responsible for the incredible variety in our world: stars, planets, sea otters, oceans, coral, sunlight, the human brain? The mutants had posed a question that could be answered—but only with the labor of millennia and with a dedication handed down from master to student for a hundred generations. The question also inspired a great number of wrong and embarrassing answers. Fortunately, these mutants were born without a sense of embarrassment. They were called physicists.

Now, after examining this question for more than two thousand years—a mere flicker on the scale of cosmological time—we are beginning to glimpse the entire story of creation. In our telescopes and microscopes, in our observatories and laboratories—and on our notepads—we begin to perceive the outlines of the pristine beauty and symmetry that governed in the first moments of the universe. We can almost see it. But the picture is not yet clear, and we sense that something is obscuring our vision - a dark force that blurs, hides, obfuscates the intrinsic simplicity of our world.


This book is devoted to one problem, a problem that has confounded science since antiquity. What are the ultimate building blocks of matter? The Greek philosopher Democritus called the smallest unit the atomos (literally "not able to be cut"). This a-tom is not the atom you learned about in high school science courses, like hydrogen, helium, lithium, and proceeding all the way to uranium and beyond. Those are big, klunky, complicated entities by today's standards (or by Democritus's standards, for that matter). To a physicist, or even a chemist, such atoms are veritable garbage cans of smaller particles electrons, protons, and neutrons - and the protons and neutrons in turn are buckets full of still smaller guys. We need to know the most primitive objects there are, and we need to understand the forces that control the social behavior of these objects. It is Democritus's a-tom, not your chemistry teacher's atom, that is the key to matter.

The matter we see around us today is complex. There are about a hundred chemical atoms. The number of useful combinations of atoms can be calculated, and it is huge: billions and billions. Nature uses these combinations, called molecules, to build planets, suns, viruses, mountains, paychecks, Valium, literary agents, and other useful items. It was not always so. During the earliest moments after the creation of the universe in the Big Bang, there was no complex matter as we know it today. No nuclei, no atoms, nothing that was made of simpler pieces. This is because the searing heat of the early universe did not allow the formation of composite objects; such objects, if formed by transient collisions, would be instantly decomposed into their most primitive constituents. There was perhaps one kind of particle and one force - or even a unified particle/force - and the laws of physics. Within this primordial entity were contained the seeds of the complex world in which humans evolved, perhaps primarily to think about these things. You might find the primordial universe boring, but to a particle physicist, those were the days! Such simplicity, such beauty, however mistily visualized in our speculations.


Even before my hero Democritus, there were Greek philosophers who dared to try to explain the world using rational arguments and rigorously excluding superstition, myth, and the intervention of gods. These had served as valuable assets in accommodating to a world full of fearsome and seemingly arbitrary phenomena. But the Greeks were impressed too by regularities, by the alternation of day and night, the seasons, the action of fire and wind and water. By the year 650 B.C. a formidable technology had arisen in the Mediterranean basin. The people there knew how to survey land and navigate by the stars; they had a sophisticated metallurgy and a detailed knowledge of the positions of stars and planets for making calendars and assorted predictions. They made elegant tools, fine textiles, and elaborately formed and decorated pottery. And in one of the colonies of the Greek empire, the bustling town of Miletus on the west coast of what is now modern Turkey, the belief was articulated that the seemingly complex world was intrinsically simple - and that this simplicity could be discovered through logical reasoning. About two hundred years later, Democritus of Abdera proposed a-toms as the key to a simple universe, and the search was on.

The genesis of physics was astronomy because the earliest philosophers looked up in awe at the night sky and sought logical models for the patterns of stars, the motions of planets, the rising and setting of the sun. Over time, scientists turned their eyes earthward: phenomena taking place at the surface of the earth - apples falling from trees, the flight of an arrow, the regular motion of a pendulum, winds, and tides - gave rise to a set of "laws of physics." Physics blossomed during the Renaissance, becoming a separate, distinct discipline by about 1500. As the centuries rolled by, and as our powers of observation sharpened with the invention of microscopes, telescopes, vacuum pumps, clocks, and so on, more and more phenomena were uncovered that could be described meticulously by recording numbers in notebooks, by constructing tables and drawing graphs, and then by triumphantly noting conformity to mathematical behavior.

By the early part of the twentieth century atoms had become the frontier of physics; in the 1940s, nuclei became the focus of research. Progressively, more and more domains became subject to observation. With the development of instruments of ever-increasing power, we looked more and more closely at things smaller and smaller. The observations and measurements were followed inevitably by syntheses, compact summaries of our understanding. With each major advance, the field divided; some scientists followed the "reductionist" road toward the nuclear and subnuclear domain, while others followed the path to a greater understanding of atoms (atomic physics), molecules (molecular physics and chemistry), nuclear physics, and so on.


Leon Lederman, internationally known specialist in high energy physics, is the director emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, and was the Eugene Higgins Professor at Columbia University. He is the co-recipient of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physics "for the neutrino beam method and the demonstration of the doublet structure of the leptons through the discovery of the muon neutrino."