“In these matters take no notice of the words of any man [meaning Aristotle], for it is the foundation of our[Jewish] faith that God created the world from nothing, that time did not exist before, because it depends upon the motion of the sphere, and that too was caused.”

Moses ben Maimon (twelfth century, Egypt)

That matter, time, and space sprang from nothing at the moment of creation fits quite well with what I’ve come to accept as a physicist. While I cannot claim to be much of a theorist, I have spent about twenty years in observational astrophysics, much of it touching upon evidence supporting the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.

I can’t work up much enthusiasm for the quantum cosmologists and their mathematical models. The best observational evidence we have suggests that the universe simply did not exist before the moment of creation. Had all that matter been sitting around for even a fraction of a second before the explosion, it would have collapsed into a black hole, and I wouldn’t be writing this.

The simple (at least to astrophysicists), open Big Bang theory gives us a picture of a universe appearing in an instant out of nothing. “Open” means that it will expand forever, was infinite in extent at the beginning of time, and has been getting bigger ever since. Other universes have no meaning in this picture, because time itself is an artifact of the universe we live in. When we say something exists, we take it as understood that this something exists now, but that requires this “something” to be connected with our time and therefore to exist in our universe. Unless you buy into so-called wormholes (I don’t, largely because the math is far too arcane for me to understand), there’s no way for something to exist outside of our universe, because time exists only here.

Along with time, the other neat thing about the Big Bang is its lack of a center, or absolute point of orientation. From our vantage point in the Milky Way we observe all the other galaxies moving away from us, each galaxy moving away from us with a velocity proportional to its distance from us. Had we made this observation from any other galaxy in the universe, we would assign different velocities  and distances to the other galaxies, but the proportionality between the two quantities would remain exactly the same. No galaxy, in other words, is situated at a preferred point.

All this is a long-winded warm-up for my answer to questions regarding the significance of the millennium: Does it mean anything?

Time, as I perceive it (influenced by what I learned about the theories of relativity), is a kind of unrolling tape measure, along which the world’s events order themselves. As far as I can tell, we can only go back toward (but not all the way to) the mark that corresponds to the unique event we call the Big Bang. From our present location, the distance over which the tape stretches backward is over ten billion times larger than the interval taken up by one of our earth’s regular journeys around the sun.

People have been counting those journeys for some time, and we will begin the two thousandth and first as numbered in the arbitrary sequence most of us use in our everyday lives. About one hundred years ago, “everyone” regarded January 1, 1901 as the beginning of the twentieth century, on the grounds that the first century began on January 1 in the year “one.”

Because of their use in navigation, the navies of most modern countries have long employed timekeeping specialists. Back in 1949, someone at the U.S. Naval Observatory was much criticized in irate letters to the editor for declaring that the second half of the twentieth century wouldn’t begin until January 1, 1951. As a teenager, I found myself agreeing with them and feeling sorry for the hapless official. I remember thinking that I would be old enough to be listened to the next time around, but that I probably wouldn’t care all that much by then. Both parts of that surmise seem to have come true.

I don’t pay a lot of attention to New Year’s, as a rule, but I do glance down at the odometer of my car pretty regularly. Seeing a string of zeros gets me thinking, most often about the car and the parts of my life to which it relates, but not exclusively. The numbers themselves have no absolute meaning, but they become important because they attach to an important object in my life. Maybe Einstein’s connection between time and space appeals to me because we share the same religious tradition, one that tells us to “number our days, and use each precious day wisely. “

In this view, counting becomes a means toward an end, not an end in itself. As I’m typing these words, my mind is grappling with trying to understand what time and space “really” mean. The millennium, although in itself an arbitrary invention, gets me thinking along these lines.

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