In 1981, many of the world’s leading cosmologists gathered at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a vestige of the coupled lineages of science and theology located in an elegant villa in the gardens of the Vatican. Stephen Hawking chose the august setting to present what he would later regard as his most important idea: a proposal about how the universe could have arisen from nothing.
Before Hawking’s talk, all cosmological origin stories, scientific or theological, had invited the rejoinder, “What happened before that?” The Big Bang theory, for instance — pioneered 50 years before Hawking’s lecture by the Belgian physicist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, who later served as president of the Vatican’s academy of sciences — rewinds the expansion of the universe back to a hot, dense bundle of energy. But where did the initial energy come from?
The Big Bang theory had other problems. Physicists understood that an expanding bundle of energy would grow into a crumpled mess rather than the huge, smooth cosmos that modern astronomers observe. In 1980, the year before Hawking’s talk, the cosmologist Alan Guth realized that the Big Bang’s problems could be fixed with an add-on: an initial, exponential growth spurt known as cosmic inflation, which would have rendered the universe huge, smooth and flat before gravity had a chance to wreck it. Inflation quickly became the leading theory of our cosmic origins. Yet the issue of initial conditions remained: What was the source of the minuscule patch that allegedly ballooned into our cosmos, and of the potential energy that inflated it?
Hawking, in his brilliance, saw a way to end the interminable groping backward in time: He proposed that there’s no end, or beginning, at all. According to the record of the Vatican conference, the Cambridge physicist, then 39 and still able to speak with his own voice, told the crowd, “There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the universe, and what can be more special than the condition that there is no boundary?”
The “no-boundary proposal,” which Hawking and his frequent collaborator, James Hartle, fully formulated in a 1983 paper, envisions the cosmos having the shape of a shuttlecock. Just as a shuttlecock has a diameter of zero at its bottommost point and gradually widens on the way up, the universe, according to the no-boundary proposal, smoothly expanded from a point of zero size. Hartle and Hawking derived a formula describing the whole shuttlecock — the so-called “wave function of the universe” that encompasses the entire past, present and future at once — making moot all contemplation of seeds of creation, a creator, or any transition from a time before.
“Asking what came before the Big Bang is meaningless, according to the no-boundary proposal, because there is no notion of time available to refer to,” Hawking said in another lecture at the Pontifical Academy in 2016, a year and a half before his death. “It would be like asking what lies south of the South Pole.” [Continue reading…]