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Deep in the depths of time, there was the Ocean of Milk. The gods and demons both desired amrita, the nectar of immortal life, which could only be obtained from the great ocean. The supreme god Vishnu told them to use Mount Mandara as a churning stick, and to rotate the mountain with the giant serpent, Vasuki, as a rope. For a thousand years, they churned until amrita emerged. The gods and demons fought and quarreled over amrita until the gods prevailed. The churning produced other wonders: the physician of the gods Dhanvantari, the goddess of riches Lakshmi, the goddess of misfortune Jyestha, the white elephant, the seven-headed horse Uchchaisrava, and a wish-granting tree. And finally came the moon, Chandra.

More recently, modern scientists are churning the universe for another treasure. They are searching for the ripples in spacetime, known as gravitational waves, leftover from the primordial big bang. Scientists believe that when our universe was less than a second old, it underwent a radical phase transition, dramatically inflating in size. That event shaped the future evolution of the cosmos, planting the seeds that would one day grow to become galaxies and clusters. That cataclysmic event, perhaps the most powerful episode the universe has ever experienced, left nothing else behind but the most subtle churning of gravitational waves. Scientists hope to find these gravitational waves because the earliest moments of the Big Bang are shrouded in mystery, and perhaps the only relics of that era are those faint whispers of gravity.

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The first story comes to us from the Hindu mythological tradition, and the second from modern cosmology. Both are creation stories, the story that defines how everything—literally, everything—came into being. Creation stories are perhaps the most important stories of all. As the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger pointedly asked, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The creation story explains why there is this rather than not-this. It separates us from the unknown, from the dark. Without creation, without cosmology, we are lost.

You might think the two stories don’t merit comparison. One is a legend handed down through time, and one is based on the observational study of our cosmos. But the stories have more in common than we may want to let on. In particular, both propose some entity or act or form that already exists, and through some process the world as we know it emerges. In other words, all creation stories make some assumption about the (primordial) cosmos, and the story goes from there. This is as true for the Hindu tradition as it is for Big Bang cosmology, and all the stories struggle to move to a point before the beginning.

Viewed through the lens of this commonality—this struggle to explain the most primordial of primordials—the ideas in physical cosmology, which are technical and mathematical, take on a new character: They can be viewed as rehashes of the old mythological stories. Scientists are human, and they are all drawing from the same well of inspiration as everybody else. Mythological creation stories and the scientific Big Bang theory aren’t in competition; in their shared attempts to explain the before-the-beginning, they are intertwined at a fundamental, human level, and it’s here where science can gain its greatest inspiration.

CREATION: In a Hindu creation story, gods and demons churn the Ocean of Milk to bring forth amrita, the nectar of immortal life. The churning also gives life to the gods and goddesses of healing, riches, and misfortune. Photo by V&A Museum / Wikimedia.

Historians and anthropologists have attempted to categorize the world’s many creation stories, with some success. One category describes the universe as having come into its present form from some sort of primordial void or chaos, often by the will or actions of a divine being. The classic example is the story of Genesis in the Bible. In the beginning, there were two entities: the all-powerful God that initiated the act of creation, and the formless void-like “nothing” from which He could work from. In these stories, there was a point in time in which our universe (as we know it) did not exist, and another point in time in which it did. From then, the usual machinations of nature led to the present day.

Another category sees the creation of our universe as merely the latest act in an infinitely long chain stretching back to eternity. As espoused in many Hindu mythologies, the destruction of the universe follows from its creation, and the cycle starts again. There may be variations—the present iteration of the universe isn’t always like the last—and various divine agents may be involved in the act, but the cycle itself simply exists, a fact of reality, that enables the creation/destruction process to unfold.

Still other myths, such as many Native American stories, feature a diving creature swimming into a vast and featureless primordial ocean that draws up bits of land and flesh, or a divine being that divides itself into the components of the universe, or a primitive seed that bears the universe as its fruit.

Ideas in cosmology can be viewed as sequels to mythology.

The same themes played out when a new creation story emerged in the early 1900s, one born from modern science. Scientists were not the first ones to attempt to put cosmology—the study of the universe—on empirical grounds (science does not hold a monopoly on empiricism), but they were the first to utilize the machinery of modern astronomy to the study of the whole cosmos.

Most scientists in early modern Europe followed the prevailing religious views on creation: Genesis, Adam and Eve, a cunning serpent. But in the late 1800s evidence began to paint a different picture. The evolution of species, the formation of sedimentary layers, the existence of fossils, and even the first attempts to estimate the age of the sun all pointed to a universe far, far older than anyone had imagined.

At the turn of the 20th century, most scientists believed that the universe was simply old, possibly eternally so, and had not significantly changed in all that time. Sure, stars could move around and maybe even explode, species could appear or disappear, and the forces of wind and water could reshape the surface of our planet. But on the big—cosmological—scales, everything that is, has always been.

This view was so dominant that when Albert Einstein took his newly minted equations of general relativity and applied them to the whole entire universe (because why not), he found himself in a bit of a pickle. His equations naturally predicted a dynamic, evolving universe—one that changed with time—but this ran counter to his intuitions that the universe was static. He added a little fixer, an additional term to the equations known as the cosmological constant, to balance everything out and keep a static cosmos.

WHAT CAME BEFORE? The Big Bang theory, for all its observational successes over the past century, can’t escape the question of what came before. That question has inspired theories that represent science at its boldest. Photo by NASA.

A few years later, in the late 1920s, the Belgian scientist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître looked at that same set of equations and proposed the earliest version of what we now call the Big Bang theory: That our universe started as a small “primaeval atom” which expanded and cooled into its present form. Most scientists at the time rejected Lemaître’s idea—it smelled a little too biblical for their tastes.

The debate simmered for a few more years until Edwin Hubble clearly demonstrated the expansion of the universe. Through careful observations he found that at the very largest scales, all galaxies, on average, are moving away from all other galaxies.

Lemaître’s math came in handy to explain these observations. This was no trick of light. No alternative theory could account for all the data. Even Einstein dropped the cosmological constant from his equations (calling it his “greatest blunder”). The verdict was in: Our universe is getting bigger with time. And if it’s getting bigger with time, that means that in the past it was smaller.

The Big Bang was off to a momentous start. Here we have the most modern creation story of all, the one told by physical cosmology, and it contains some wonderful and powerful statements. Statements like:

• We live in a dynamic, evolving cosmos, ruled by a set of physical laws that we can understand. The universe changes with time at the very largest scales. Nothing is fixed. The only constant is change.

• Approximately 13.8 billion years ago, our entire observable universe— every galaxy, every star, the entire contents of the cosmos—was crammed into a volume no bigger than a peach with a temperature of over a quadrillion degrees.

• When our universe was only 380,000 years old, the first atoms formed. The process released an invisible form of radiation that permeates the cosmos to this day.

• In its earliest moments, microscopic fluctuations—random wiggles in the quantum fields that suffuse all reality—imprinted themselves in spacetime, forming the seeds that would eventually grow to become the largest structures in the universe.

As creation stories go, it’s a good one. And like all other creation stories, the Big Bang struggles with the beginning. As Lemaître put it, the primeval atom of his theory started with the existence of “a day without yesterday,” which was the aspect of his theory that most troubled his fellow scientists, because it implied an act of creation from nothing, which was decidedly not a very scientific-sounding idea.

And yet the Big Bang theory, for all its observational successes over the past century, cannot escape that conclusion. This is a feature of the mathematics of general relativity used to describe the very early universe. We now have a well-motivated and well-tested physical understanding of the universe when it was merely a few minutes old. At that age, the universe was hot enough and dense enough to fuse the first elements (mostly hydrogen and helium) with abundances that match observations.

Pushing earlier into the Big Bang, however, brings us deeper into the mists of unknown physics. Whether through the observations of the cosmos, the collisions of our most powerful particle colliders, or the most arcane mathematics of the chalkboard, we have little useful tools to understand the earliest moments of the history of our universe.

Perhaps the big bang never ended … and never started.

At the heart of it all lies the singularity. In general relativity, at one specific moment in our past, everything was crammed into an infinitely tiny point. We know that the singularity did not actually exist; it’s an artifact of the math of general relativity, informing us that the theory is breaking down. To tell us what actually happened requires a theory of quantum gravity (a workable theory of strong gravity at very small scales), which we currently lack.

Put another way, we have no physical theory of the initial moments of the Big Bang. Indeed, since our understanding of the passage of time and the breadth of space is rooted in those very same theories, we have no way yet of knowing if our conceptions of spacetime even make sense at such extreme scales. It could be that our naive ideas like “before” or “beginning” simply don’t apply.

It’s here where speculation gets really wild. Perhaps there is some fundamental unit of spacetime—a chunk that represents the smallest possible four-dimensional volume—and that at one time our universe contracted and “bounced” at the scale of that chunk, repeating a never-ending cycle of Big Bangs.

Perhaps our cosmos is embedded in a higher-dimensional structure, with esoteric objects, known as branes, occasionally colliding. When they collide, their intersection point triggers a new Big Bang in that region of spacetime.

Perhaps the Big Bang never ended … and never started. Maybe the universe is far larger than we thought—perhaps infinitely large. And maybe the universe at those grand scales has never stopped expanding, but pieces of that “multiverse” can pinch off, isolating themselves as island bubbles adrift in an eternal ocean of the cosmos.

Modern cosmologists are dreamers and storytellers.

Lemaître, though he espoused a view that religion and science shouldn’t mix, was certainly inspired by the creation story he was most familiar with. Repeated cycles of Big Bangs, stretching forward and backward to eternity, look a lot like many Hindu versions of cosmology. Extra-dimensional entities that interact, and through their interactions build a universe, would find welcome reception to cultures around the world.

This isn’t a bad thing. Scientists are the latest in a long line of thinkers, mystics, philosophers, poets, and more who have interrogated the very nature of existence. The parallels and connections are manifest because they all spring from the same font of human creativity and ingenuity. And while scientists have learned a lot, they run into the same headaches as everyone else; namely, trying to explain what came before what-started-it-all.

In the millennia of recorded human history, we’ve asked a lot of questions and managed to come up with many answers. But some questions—like the ultimate origins of the universe—always seem to be just out of grasp. Perhaps this is the best we’ll ever get: concrete, testable ideas going back to some finite point in our past, speculation beyond that, and unanswerable questions behind everything.

Or perhaps not. Modern cosmologists are currently trying to tackle some of the most perplexing aspects of the Big Bang theory, attempting to push past the point of the “primaeval atom” and into the deepest origins of the universe. They are trying to determine if time itself has an origin or is simply a manifestation of some other process. They are trying to find experimental clues to pre-Big Bang processes whose artifacts might remain in our contemporary cosmos, such as those effervescent gravitational waves that cosmologists eagerly hunt for. They are trying to discover a more fundamental set of universal laws that naturally give rise to the physics that we know and love.

Modern cosmologists are dreamers and storytellers. They are grounding their story of the Big Bang in evidence and reason, but they are seeking the same answers as all the dreamers and storytellers who came before them. They are trying to explain why there is something rather than nothing, and whether they know it or not, they are drawing from the stories and myths that surround them in the world.

Here is where science can be its most beautiful, when it pulls hungrily from any source for a spark of inspiration to inform our knowledge of the universe, giving us a new tale to delight in. And here too is where science can be its most bold, when it finds the utmost boundaries of the known, a line once marked as impossible, and pushes unafraid into the dark.

Paul M. Sutter is a research professor in astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Computational Science at Stony Brook University and a guest researcher at the Flatiron Institute in New York City. He is the author of Your Place in the Universe: Understanding our Big, Messy Existence.

Lead photo: Andrea Danti / Shutterstock